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RESPONSE TO TERROR | DIPLOMACY

U.S. Warning Alliance to Ease Drive for Power

Afghanistan: Opposition leader's return sparks fears of a government dominated by a single ethnic group. Signs of differences among factions are emerging.

November 18, 2001|JAMES GERSTENZANG and PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CRAWFORD, Texas — Concerned that Afghanistan's Northern Alliance is aggressively consolidating power, the Bush administration urged the opposition force Saturday to yield to the United Nations and install a broad-based government representing the country's multiple ethnic groups, an administration official said.

But even as the administration issued its warning, the Northern Alliance's political leader returned to the Afghan capital, Kabul, despite earlier assurances that he would stay out of the city for several weeks. His return Saturday suggested that he and his allies were positioning themselves to become at least the core of a new Afghan government.

President Bush, at his ranch here, met in a video conference with the National Security Council on a day in which the first phase of the U.S.-led campaign to disrupt and dismantle the Al Qaeda terror network appeared to be speeding toward a peak, with American forces engaged in combat on the ground and the Northern Alliance in control of a wide swath of Afghanistan.

Bush spent the morning focusing on the next steps in the campaign, administration officials said, and particularly on the need to make sure that political elements in Afghanistan are brought into play.

Burhanuddin Rabbani, who claimed to be the country's legitimate president during the more than five years that the Taliban controlled Kabul, returned Saturday to a capital seized by the Northern Alliance last week.

The government of Rabbani, a 61-year-old former theology professor, still controls Afghanistan's seat at the United Nations because the world body never recognized the Taliban as legitimate.

Rabbani's Jamiat-i-Islami party is the leading faction in the Northern Alliance. But it is dominated by ethnic Tajiks--Rabbani is Tajik--and there are already signs of differences with alliance partners, among them a faction representing ethnic Hazaras.

The Northern Alliance continued to insist that it wants to share power in a broad-based government, to avoid a renewed civil war in a country that has endured more than two decades of fighting.

"We have not come to Kabul to extend our government," Rabbani assured reporters. "We came to Kabul for peace. We are preparing the ground to invite peace groups and all Afghan intellectuals abroad who are working for peace."

But efforts to bring lasting peace to Afghanistan were becoming more complicated by the day. The degree of Taliban losses--and Northern Alliance gains--in southern Afghanistan was not clear, and among the political factions and militias, leaders and would-be leaders were scrambling for control.

Reports a day earlier that the Taliban was willing to hand over power to tribal leaders in the southern city of Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban, appeared Saturday to be premature.

In southern Afghanistan, a Taliban official confirmed that Mohammed Atef, a chief Al Qaeda military strategist, died three days ago, along with seven other Al Qaeda members, during a U.S. airstrike near Kabul. Atef was a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, and authorities believe that he helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

Conflicting Reports on Bin Laden Whereabouts

From Afghanistan to Washington, meanwhile, conflicting reports emerged on the whereabouts of Bin Laden.

In Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, a correspondent for the widely watched pan-Arab television network Al Jazeera quoted the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, as saying that Bin Laden had left Afghanistan "with his wives and children."

The Associated Press said Zaeef reported that Bin Laden had crossed into Pakistan. But later, the envoy told reporters he believed that the Saudi militant had only left a Taliban-controlled area.

In Washington, a well-placed U.S. official said that "we have no evidence to substantiate claims that Bin Laden has fled Afghanistan."

And a Pentagon spokesman, Glenn Flood, said Zaeef's statements might be an attempt to throw off the widening hunt for Bin Laden.

The efforts by the administration on the political front Saturday reflect the goal, pursued on several tracks, that the Northern Alliance does not become so entrenched that power cannot be wrested from it before a representative authority is established.

After Bush's National Security Council meeting, an administration official said, "We have made clear to the Northern Alliance, and will continue to make clear to them, that whatever government is put in place by the Afghan people has to be broad-based and multiethnic, and it is important that the needs of the Afghan people are met."

And, the official said, the new government must include a component addressing economic development and humanitarian needs--much in the way that the United States and its coalition partners are trying to make sure that food is being provided and other humanitarian needs met in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, one of the first cities to come under Northern Alliance control.

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