Army General Tommy R. Franks, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, is the Pentagon's beat cop in the world's toughest neighborhood, a slice of potential trouble that includes Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week, in his office at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.--decorated with colorful grooms' gowns from Central Asia--Franks sat down with TIME correspondent Mark Thompson. Excerpts:
TIME: Where is Osama?
FRANKS: Every time I talk to my 4 1/2-year-old granddaughter on the telephone she asks me, "Pooh"--'cuz that's what she calls me--"Pooh, where is Osama bin Laden?" You will be pleased to know that I am so transparent on this issue that I will tell you the same answer I give my granddaughter, and that is we don't know where he is. But we know this: the planet is not a large enough place to hide.
TIME: Do you think he's dead or alive?
FRANKS: I guess my personal inclination right now is that he is alive because I have not seen someone deliver me the DNA or deliver me whatever.
TIME: Have there been any narrow misses of Osama or Taliban chief Mullah Omar?
Franks: There have not...I do not believe we have missed a shot on these guys.
TIME: But the U.S. has killed only one top al-Qaeda official. Does this mean the intelligence isn't good enough?
FRANKS: These guys want to not be found--they want very badly to not be found. And they're in a country where we have a lot of snow or a lot of sand, and on some days we have both, depending on where you are...We are taking our time and will take as long as it takes.
TIME: After all the U.S. attacks, how can the Pentagon still describe al-Qaeda as a potent threat?
FRANKS: I believe these activities have been disrupted, [but] I believe al-Qaeda has not been incapacitated, and I believe it behooves us to pay attention to everything going on around us and stay after the objective until we have broken all these cells and crushed this network--and it's a much larger issue than just Afghanistan.
TIME: How many troops does the U.S. have in the region?
FRANKS: Prior to 9/11, our U.S. operating strength in the region was somewhere around 20,000 to 25,000 on a given day. Right now we have about 60,000. In Afghanistan the number is about 5,000.
TIME: Are U.S. troops in more danger now than when they were fighting an organized Taliban force?
FRANKS: It's just as dangerous if not more dangerous today. Yes, there is considerable danger inside Afghanistan to all coalition forces.
TIME: As warlords fight for prominence, does the U.S. risk being drawn into a civil war?
FRANKS: My desire, and my boss's guidance to me, is that we are not about picking sides between potential foes in this...On the day of [Hamid] Karzai's inauguration...one of the opposition group leaders, with whom we had worked earlier in the fight, walked up to me from across the room, hugged me and said, "Who do you want me to fight now?" That's instructive, because there's a lot of that inside Afghanistan.
TIME: What about the recent U.S. air strikes on militias?