Bush administration refocuses policy to encourage groups opposed to Taliban rulers in Afghanistan
WASHINGTON (AP) – Stymied in its drive to collar Osama bin Laden, the Bush administration is undertaking a concerted new effort to strengthen forces opposed to Taliban rulers harboring him in Afghanistan.
The administration is hoping to use dissension within the ranks of the Islamic fundamentalist militia and encouraging the rebel northern alliance as well as tribal groups in the south who are at odds with the Taliban.
The White House also is in touch in Rome with exiled Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah, dethroned in Kabul in 1973 and now 86 years old, saying the U.S. goal is ”a government that represents all Afghans.”
”We work with a variety of people, all of whom have an interest in establishing an Afghanistan that is peaceful and does not practice terrorism,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
An official Afghan policy statement, put together last week by the State Department and National Security Council, said that while the Bush administration supports a variety of anti-Taliban groups who oppose terrorism: ”We do not want to choose who rules Afghanistan.”
The northern alliance’s Washington representative, Haron Amin, said Monday that his group had asked the administration for tanks, helicopters, armored personnel carriers and artillery ”to roll back the Taliban.”
”We can effectively combat the Taliban,” Amin told The Associated Press in an interview. ”You need to roll back the Taliban in order to shut down Osama bin Laden.”
Amin said the alliance’s repeated message to the administration was that ”he is our common enemy, and we have to do things together.”
”We can do a lot of these things on the ground,” he said.
Months ago, Amin said, the northern alliance asked the administration for $50 million a month to counter terrorism in Afghanistan.
The anti-Taliban alliance and the former king agreed on Monday to convene an emergency council of tribal and military leaders as a first step toward forming a new system of government in their country.
A congressional group, headed by Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., met with the king on Sunday. ”We think that perhaps he is the person that can rally those against the Taliban most effectively,” Weldon said after the 11-member congressional delegation talked to the king at his home.
Over the weekend, President Bush dipped into an emergency fund and authorized an additional $25 million in relief aid to Afghan refugees. This brought U.S. assistance to more than $205 million, including $32.8 million in assistance over the last few weeks.
”The United States has been the No. 1 donor of aid to the people of Afghanistan. The United States will continue in those endeavors,” said Bush spokesman Fleischer.
Pressed on how the United States would help Afghan groups that fight terror and the Taliban, Fleischer said, ”Through a variety of ways, which can involve political, diplomatic, military, financial, all of the above.”
At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday, ”We believe and have always believed that Afghanistan needs a broad-based government that’s representative of the Afghan people.”
”It’s not for us to come up with specific ideas or to try to design a future government of Afghanistan. … We have not said toppling the Taliban government is one of our goals,” he said.
On Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, ”There are any number of people in Afghanistan, tribes in the south, the northern alliance in the north, that oppose Taliban. And clearly we need to recognize the value they bring to this anti-terrorist, anti-Taliban effort – and where appropriate, find ways to assist them.”
In neighboring Tajikistan, a spokesman for the northern alliance said Sunday that hundreds of Taliban soldiers had defected during three days of fierce fighting in the country’s northern mountains and that the northern alliance now controls 20 percent of the territory of Afghanistan.
Nearly three weeks after terrorist strikes on Washington and New York, the Bush administration still had not retaliated with military force. It continued harsh rhetoric, the White House policy statement saying: ”The Taliban has repressed the citizens of Afghanistan. The Taliban will hand over the terrorists or they will share their fate.”
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