Powell Offers Steady Hand to Hill

Secretary of State Colin Powell trekked to Capitol Hill Wednesday to offer the Bush administration's vision of a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

According to Powell, the exiled king could play an important role.

"Not that I would expect him to become the chief executive of the next regime, but he brings a certain authority to the process and he will be able to rally all of the elements together," Powell told the House International Relations Committee. 

He said that in his personal opinion, the United Nations will need to assist any fledgling Afghan government that may emerge, but he did not think that Pakistan should play a dominant role.

"The next government of Afghanistan cannot be dictated into being by Pakistan. It won't work if any one country dictates what the future of the government will look like," he said, adding that all of Afghanistan's neighbors, including China and Russia, will have some part to play.

Pakistan, next door to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, has played an important role in the U.S. conflict with the Taliban and the Al Qaeda terrorism network led by Saudi millionaire Usama bin Laden. In the past, it has asserted its influence over its neighbor.

It was Powell's first visit to Capitol Hill since the Sept. 11 terror attacks launched the United States into a war.

He said the world after Sept. 11 has turned into a very different place. 

"Sometimes out of great tragedy, great opportunities arrive," he said.

For example, Powell believes there have been encouraging noises from the governments of Iran, Syria and Sudan, although the United States still has unflinching concerns about those countries' continued links to terrorist groups. Powell seems to be the most astonished about opportunities that may now exist between the United States and Russia.

"Russia came forward rather quickly. Mr. Putin was the first one to call the president. Imagine that, the first one to call the president," he said. "I used to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We used to watch their submarines 12 minutes off the coast."

Some on the Hill and elsewhere have worried that the administration's attempt to build and maintain a fragile coalition is limiting — in that keeping all coalition members happy and on-board might cause the United States to pull its foreign policy punches. But Powell disagreed.

"In being considerate of the interests of all the members of the coalition, the president in no way gave away any of his authority to act as he saw fit and may see fit in the future to protect American interests," he said. 

That included keeping up airstrikes and flash raids through the Muslim holy month if necessary.

Powell said the Bush administration is sensitive to the onset of Ramadan in mid-November and the beginning of winter.

"The important point to remember," he said at a State Department news conference, "is we have military objectives to accomplish and I would like to see all of those objectives accomplished in the next few days as we approach this period of Ramadan and winter."

And yet, Powell said, "We will just have to make an assessment at that time on where we are. If it is necessary to continue military action I am sure that's a judgment the president will support."

Despite the administration's sensitivity to Ramadan, Powell said, "We can't let that be the sole determinant whether or not to continue our military effort."

Before heading to Capitol Hill, Powell discussed a postwar government in Afghanistan with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

The two agreed that a broad-based government would better help the people of Afghanistan return to a normal life following the Taliban regime.

Straw also said it was instinctive for Britain to fight alongside the United States, saying it was payback for assistance in World Wars I and II.

If the United States had not responded in a time of need, "we would not enjoy the freedoms which we do in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe and throughout the rest of the world," Straw said.

Persistent Mideast Problem Continues

In a separate but related issue, Powell told committee members that Israel should withdraw from Palestinian areas it has occupied in the past week in response to the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.

He said he understood Israel's "justification," but its actions will not improve the Israeli's situation.

"It's a vicious cycle," Powell said of strikes and counter-strikes committed by Israel and the Palestinians.

The latest volley between Israeli and Palestinian militants started with Zeevi's assassination Oct. 17. Israel asked Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to bring the suspects to justice. Arafat has not responded, though Israel says they and Arafat both know who the militants are.

In response, Israeli forces battled their way into a West Bank village Wednesday to hunt down the suspected assassins, who remain at large. At least six Palestinians were killed. Israeli forces arrested 10 Palestinians, two of them suspected of Zeevi's murder.

Powell argued that under the current situation, the two sides will never be able to achieve the latest peace plan devised by former Sen. George Mitchell, which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state contingent upon an end to violence and Palestinian recognition of Israel's right to exist. 

Powell said he is also working on his own suggestions for a settlement, which would not be as comprehensive as the Mitchell process. He is expected to lay out the Bush administration's views on a peace agreement at a special session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York next month.

Powell was taken to task by Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., a Holocaust survivor, who asked him to explain how the State Department can condemn Israel's tactics while the United States participates in its own terror war.

While Israel is told to hold its fire, Lantos said, if an American soldier were able to kill bin Laden, he would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and a ticker-tape parade.

Powell did not explain what kind of retaliation by Israel would meet with the Bush administration's approval.

Earlier, Powell called on Arafat to arrest more terrorists and criticized what Israelis call a "revolving door" system of justice.

"The perpetrators should be placed in solid custody, not light house arrest," he said. 

Fox News' Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.