Former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of a hardline Islamic group, was targeted Monday near the capital, Kabul, but the missile missed him, defense officials said on condition of anonymity. The strike is believed to have killed some of Hekmatyar's followers.
CIA officials declined comment.
An official of the Afghan Defense Ministry, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said Thursday that Hekmatyar was not in the Kabul area.
Hekmatyar had been making plans to strike the interim Afghan government of Hamid Karzai — and perhaps Karzai himself — one Pentagon official said. He also wanted to target U.S. troops, in Afghanistan for seven months to rout out Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda fighters and Taliban figures that supported the terrorist network.
Although he has been a strident critic of the U.S. role in Afghanistan, he was a major recipient of U.S. weapons and support during the war against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s.
The Central Intelligence Agency has played a major role in the Afghan campaign, gathering intelligence and sending in its paramilitary to work with local tribal leaders who mounted their armies against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
In also has operated Predators fitted with Hellfire missiles - making it the first war in which the U.S. government has used the unmanned spy plane with weapons on it.
Hekmatyar has claimed he still has U.S.-made Stinger missiles and controls a loyal militia in his homeland that would be ready to follow him.
His hardline Hezb-e-Islami party announced in early March that it was ready to cooperate with Afghanistan's U.S.-supported interim leader and sent a delegation to meet with Karzai in Kabul to iron out differences.
But in April, hundreds of people linked to the group were arrested in Kabul in connection with the alleged overthrow plot. It included plans to set off bombs throughout the capital, officials said at the time.
Documents and other evidence linked Hekmatyar to the plot, but made no mention of al Qaeda, officials said.
Hekmatyar was a guerrilla commander in the fight against the 1980s' Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan and served as a prime minister in the fractious government that took power after routing of a pro-Soviet Afghan administration in 1992.
Ruthless power struggles between his forces and those of rivals laid waste to whole neighborhoods of the Afghan capital and killed tens of thousands. Hekmatyar fled to Iran after the Taliban took Kabul in 1996.
Iranian authorities closed Hekmatyar's offices in the country in February, and ordered him out. The move appeared a gesture toward the United States and Karzai.
Hekmatyar called for jihad against the United States in November, left exile in Iran in February, and joined some of his armed followers in Afghanistan, said another U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
It's unclear if he has any strong links to al Qaeda or surviving Taliban forces. The official suggested he may be forging an alliance of convenience with them to oust the American-backed Karzai regime.
In a country known for its shifting allegiances and factional rivalries, Hekmatyar has been an opponent of both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban northern alliance.
Hekmatyar, 52, is a Ghilzai Pashtun from Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan. He speaks several languages, including English, has two wives and several children.
Also in April, Pashtun figures said they suspected Hekmatyar's group might be responsible for threatening leaflets found in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the stronghold of former Taliban rulers. The leaflets said parents who send their children to school will be killed and their homes burned down.
By Pauline Jelinek