U.S. to Press Afghan Rebels Not to Form Government
By DAVID E. SANGER The New York Times
Sunday November 18 09:12 AM EST
The Bush administration said that it would apply intense pressure on the Northern Alliance to let the United Nations put together a broad coalition to rule Afghanistan.
CRAWFORD, Tex., Nov. 17 The Bush administration said today that it would apply intense pressure on the Northern Alliance, newly in control of Kabul and much of Afghanistan, not to create a government on its own but to fulfill its promise to let the United Nations put together a broad coalition to rule the country.
At the same time, after a meeting of the National Security Council conducted from President Bush's ranch here this morning, the administration also vowed to vigorously prosecute the war against remaining Taliban holdouts. It pledged, as well, to refocus its efforts on crushing Al Qaeda, the terrorist network, and its surviving leaders, who apparently include Osama bin Laden.
"Nobody is declaring any victory," President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said in a telephone conversation from Washington after this morning's teleconference. "This phase of the war will end only when the objective is met and Al Qaeda is no longer capable of wreaking havoc," Ms. Rice said.
She spoke as the president and his aides grew increasingly concerned about reports that the Northern Alliance was already putting together the rudiments of a government in Kabul, one that Washington fears could exclude the dominant Pashtun ethnic group and rekindle the kind of internal strife that plagued the country until the Taliban took over in 1996. Today, the former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, returned to Kabul, five years after he lost power. His critics quickly warned him not to seize power again, saying his rule was a violent failure that led to the Taliban's dominance.
The United Nations is urgently trying to figure out a way to install a broad-based government, and the United States, Russia, Britain and France are all telling the Northern Alliance that even in the flush of victory, it should not declare the formation of a new government.
"The fact is that Kabul fell much more quickly than any of us expected," a senior administration official said today, noting that at a news conference on Tuesday at the White House Mr. Bush had warned the alliance against occupying Kabul. Within hours, they did just that.
"But it should be very clear to the Northern Alliance that you cannot have a declared government" that is dominated by the minority ethnic groups that make up the alliance, the senior official said. "We need the United Nations in, and we cannot have a vacuum of power."
In Ottawa, the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, joined in the chorus of those asking the alliance to refrain from establishing its own regime.
Today's national security meeting and other sessions of top officials dealt largely with how to refocus the American military effort on hunting down Al Qaeda leaders. "There are conditions that have to be met here," Ms. Rice said. "Loosening the grip of the Taliban was a means to an end, not an end in itself. The Al Qaeda network and its leadership has to be destroyed."
Mr. Bush has said nothing in public about Afghanistan since the scale of the Taliban's retreat became evident in the last week. An official who has dealt with Mr. Bush often said he had shown no signs of celebrating the Taliban's defeat, and had focused instead on the changing strategy. It is a risky moment for the president, because the battle has moved from one of air power to one of ground operations, with hundreds of American commandos fanning out across the country. The chances of American casualties have risen dramatically, officials concede, but they believe that weeks of reminders to Americans about the stakes in the battle against terrorism have psychologically prepared Americans for losses.
Today the Taliban confirmed that Mr. bin Laden's top aide, Muhammad Atef, a former Egyptian police officer suspected of planning the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, had been killed by American bombs near Kabul.
The Taliban envoy to Pakistan said today that Mr. bin Laden had left Afghanistan "with his children and his wives," but a senior administration official said that "we have no evidence that is true." Twice last week Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said he thought Mr. bin Laden might try to escape the country, perhaps taking a helicopter through jagged mountain valleys where he could not be tracked by American radar.
Taliban troops were surrounded in Kandahar, their stronghold in the south, which seems increasingly likely to fall. But American officials said there were no indications that the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, was seeking a negotiated surrender of the city.
"We have thousands of troops in Kandahar and in the provinces around it and we have decided to fight to retain control of them to maintain Islamic rule," Muhammad Tayeb al-Agha, a spokesman for Mullah Omar, said on Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language television network based in Qatar. The Taliban foreign ministry spokesman, Maulvi Najibullah, also declared that its forces would not give up Kandahar, Reuters reported.
Pentagon officials reported that the military situation in and around Kandahar appeared to be violent and unpredictable. Continued fighting was also reported at Jalalabad, which lies between Kabul and the border with Pakistan in the east, and at Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.
One official said the Pentagon had received reports that Mullah Omar had been encouraging Taliban forces inside Kandahar to continue fighting. This official added that there appeared to be some Taliban commanders trapped inside Kandahar who wanted to defect. But, in a situation similar to that in Kunduz, some of them have been executed by non- Afghan forces who have no intention of yielding the city without a fight.
Another senior Pentagon official said that there was fighting on all sides of Kandahar today, and that American war planes were attacking Taliban positions in and around the city. He said the Pentagon had also received reports that some Taliban forces were retreating from Kandahar and that Pashtun tribes in the region were becoming more active in the rebellion. Officials also said that forces led by Ismail Khan, a warlord who controls the western city of Herat, were moving toward Kandahar.
It was unclear whether American commandos were with Mr. Khan.
In Herat, Mr. Khan said he believed that many of the Taliban who fled fighting, first in Herat and then further south, have fled toward Hilmand Province, more than a hundred miles outside Kandahar. "The Taliban think it's a safe place," he said. General Hazimi, Mr. Khan's second in command, said that about 10,000 forces have been put on alert for a possible drive toward Hilmand, but that they would rather see local Pashtun troops beat the Taliban since it is Pashtun territory.
One senior American official said that the military action in Kandahar was "overwhelmingly driven by local fighters who see their chance to oust the Taliban." Pentagon officials said American Army troops were working as liaison officers with Pashtun tribes in the south, as others had been with Northern Alliance units in the north.
Other Special Operations forces are working more independently, sometimes engaging in firefights with roving enemy forces of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, gathering intelligence during quick raids, closing down roads and seizing weapons.
As Muslims began the first day of fasting to observe the holy month of Ramadan, Pentagon officials said there would be no let-up in the bombing. American warplanes struck at Taliban bunkers, command buildings and mobile forces in locations around the country.
But officials said the number of planned attack areas had dropped off sharply in the last 48 hours, partly because there were fewer obvious targets to hit and partly because the fighting had shifted into cities.
Officials said the American air strategy had changed toward having jet fighters, most of them flying off two aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, search for ground targets. As jockeying for power in Kabul and in outlying provinces continued, Mr. Rabbani, the former Afghan leader, arrived in Kabul, the capital, for the first time since the Taliban seized power in 1996. He said at a news conference that he supported a multiethnic government.
Francesc Vendrell, an envoy from the United Nations, was expected to arrive later in the day to try to open negotiations for a broad-based interim government. His arrival had been postponed on Friday because of problems ensuring the safety of the his aircraft, the United Nations said.
But the Northern Alliance, which has been consolidating its hold in Kabul, has not officially embraced the international efforts to establish a new government.
A senior administration official said that the administration was trying to put together a meeting under United Nations auspices that would establish that coalition, and prevent a return to power of the same kind of government structure that was ousted by the Taliban in 1996.
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