WASHINGTON -- 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 quiet drive was authorized by President Bush and 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, and that would give 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 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 spokesperson Ari Fleischer said.
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 Washing-ton 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.
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.''
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.
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 Afghan-istan 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, spokesperson 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.''
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