WASHINGTON – In an effort to pressure the Taliban regime harboring suspected terror mastermind Usama bin Laden in Afghanistan, the Bush administration began the process of reaching out to anti-Taliban forces with pledges of support for opponents of the country's extremist religious leaders.
President Bush has authorized the behind-the-scenes initiative to strengthen and mobilize the opposition movement, which could engage Russia in providing weapons to anti-Taliban forces, a senior administration official told The Associated Press on Monday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the first world leaders to pledge support to the United States after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Soviet Union fought a bloody and unsuccessful 10-year war until 1989 against Islamic militants, which gives Russian commanders firsthand experience.
The administration is hoping to use dissension within the ranks of the Islamic fundamentalist militia and is encouraging the rebel Northern Alliance and especially tribal groups in the south who are at odds with the Taliban.
So far, no U.S. weapons have been provided to the various groups that share America's distaste for the Taliban rulers, said the administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But there is a consensus within the administration that the best way to get at the Taliban is to work through various Afghan factions, and Bush has approved assisting them, especially the Pushtan tribal groups, the official said.
The administration has also been in touch with exiled former Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah in Rome. Shah was dethroned in Kabul in 1973 and is now 86 years old. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said 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," Fleischer said.
Meanwhile, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said that despite the threat of American attacks, hopes that the Taliban would turn over bin Laden were "very dim."
Asked if he believed the Taliban's days were numbered, Musharraf told the BBC in an interview Monday: "It appears so. It appears that the United States will take action in Afghanistan. We have conveyed this to the Taliban."
Alliance, Former King to Convene Emergency Council
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. The Taliban is not recognized as the official government of Afghanistan by most of the world.
Taliban ruler Mullah Mohammed Omar immediately criticized the move and predicted the council would fail in its efforts to start afresh.
Opponents of the Taliban have called for convening such a council, considered by Afghans to be one of the few broadly accepted means of finding a representative government.
An 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 AP in an interview. "You need to roll back the Taliban in order to shut down Usama 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.
He said the alliance had not received any weapons from the administration. And in Rome, Mohammed Younus Qanooni, who heads an alliance group, said while the United States and the alliance were in agreement to go after terrorists "so far we have not received any material help."
A congressional group, headed by Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., met with the former 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.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who was in the delegation and also held separate talks with Northern Alliance commanders, said in Rome, "If the people of Afghanistan join us in overthrowing the Taliban and hunting down bin Laden, I have no doubt that we will have a major aid package, and a major effort aimed at rebuilding Afghanistan."
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.
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, "We believe and have always believed that Afghanistan needs a broad-based government that's representative of the Afghan people."
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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.