WASHINGTON -- The United States will not tolerate any arrangement that allowed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to remain free and "live in dignity" in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday amid reports Omar was ready to surrender his stronghold.
Rumsfeld was reluctant to rule out the possibility Omar might not be handed over to American authorities. Whatever the arrangement, Rumsfeld said it must be consistent with the U.S. goals of eliminating al-Qaida and preventing Afghanistan from again become a haven for terrorists.
The United States has made clear to opposition leaders its "very strong view" that Taliban leaders and al-Qaida terrorists must be stopped, the secretary said when asked about an emerging deal between Omar and opposition forces besieging Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban.
"If you're asking, would an arrangement with Omar, where he could, quote, 'live in dignity' in the Kandahar area or some place in Afghanistan be consistent with what I have said, the answer is no," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference on the 61st day of the U.S.-led military campaign.
Rumsfeld was asked whether there was any acceptable outcome other than bringing Omar and Osama bin Laden to U.S. justice. He said he could not think of one, then added, "But I would not rule it out."
After briefing members of the Senate later, Rumsfeld was asked by a reporter whether the United States would insist on U.S. justice or would agree to let an international tribunal deal with Omar.
"We would prefer to have Omar," Rumsfeld replied.
At the Pentagon news conference he said repeatedly that he does not believe the Afghan opposition groups will strike a deal that conflicts with U.S. interests, although he had no information to confirm that any deal had been concluded. The opposition groups know precisely what President Bush is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan, he said.
Loss of support
Haron Amin, Washington representative of the northern alliance of Afghan opposition groups, said the Bush administration has made clear to the northern alliance what must be done with Omar.
"It has been communicated to us that if we arrange a peace plan that allows for the release of Omar, Karzai would lose support from America, and the northern alliance would lose the support of the coalition," he said. Hamid Karzai is the Pashtun leader who is the new interim prime minister of Afghanistan.
Even if Kandahar should fall, the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan will continue, focusing on the mountainous east where bin Laden and several thousand al-Qaida fighters may be holed up, Rumsfeld said.
He also noted that there remain pockets of resistance to be dealt with elsewhere.
"It would be premature to suggest that once Kandahar surrenders that, therefore, we kind of relax and say, 'Well, that takes care of that,' because it doesn't," Rumsfeld said.
At the White House, press secretary Ari Fleischer refused to say what form of justice for Omar was acceptable.
"Whatever form justice takes is a form that will meet with the satisfaction of the president," he said, adding it remains unclear what the Taliban leaders intend to do in Kandahar.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Taliban commanders ap-peared to be preparing to surrender Kandahar today. The commanders, representing the bulk of the forces defending the city, do not appear to be taking orders from Omar, the official said.
Rumsfeld said the final disposition of al-Qaida and Taliban members would depend on circumstances, but that in any case the United States has too few troops on the ground in Afghanistan to control the outcome directly. There are about 1,500 Marines at a base southwest of Kandahar and several hundred Army and Air Force special operations troops spread around the country.
Rank-and-file Afghan Taliban fighters "very likely are going to drift back into the community," he said, suggesting this was inevitable. Senior Taliban figures, "you're going to have to keep your eyes on, and how that would be done I don't know," he said.