The surrender of the Taliban's last stronghold, Kandahar, represents a mixed blessing for Washington. Under the terms of the surrender, there are concerns that the Taliban's supreme leader could go free. And as our correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, that's unacceptable to America, whose goal in Afghanistan was to root out terrorists and those who harbor them.
Washington, 7 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United States welcomed news yesterday that the Taliban would surrender its last Afghan stronghold but warned that the militia's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and his top associates must not go unpunished.
The Taliban announced yesterday that it would gradually surrender the southern city of Kandahar. It said an amnesty for Omar was part of a deal negotiated with Hamid Karzai, who was appointed after United Nations-sponsored talks in Germany to head an interim Afghan government.
Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, said the deal was reached "for the welfare of the people" and would allow Omar "to live with dignity."
Karzai initially confirmed that Omar could go free provided he renounced terrorism and acknowledged that terrorists had ruined the country and killed its people.
[Karzai today said the amnesty offered to Taliban fighters does not extend to Omar. He said Omar will be arrested if found. Taliban forces today gave up Kandahar, their last stronghold, but Karzai said the militia's soldiers reneged on a promise to surrender their arms, and instead fled the city with their weapons. Karzai also said the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is missing and may have fled Kandahar.]
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld scoffed at the idea that the U.S. would renounce its very objective in Afghanistan -- to root out the terrorists and those who harbor them. Rumsfeld said Omar and other Taliban leaders must be punished for harboring the Al-Qaeda terrorist network and its leader Osama bin Laden -- the alleged mastermind of the 11 September attacks that killed nearly 4,000 people in America.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer also said that President George W. Bush would accept no deal that failed to bring to justice Omar, who until yesterday had urged his "holy warriors" to fight to the last drop of blood against anti-Taliban Afghan forces backed by U.S. air strikes.
Rumsfeld, speaking at a Pentagon news conference, said Omar had committed heinous crimes and deserves no "medal of honor": "We are interested in seeing that they be punished and that they stop doing what they've been doing. And they have been doing some perfectly terrible things on this earth."
Rumsfeld suggested that justice could be meted out to the Taliban leaders in a variety of ways -- including not under U.S. authority. But he said Washington would be forced to rethink its support of the new Afghan leadership should senior Taliban officials go unpunished: "The opposition forces in and around Kandahar -- where it is believed Omar is -- are fully aware of our very strong view on this. Our cooperation and assistance with those people would clearly take a turn south [deteriorate] if something were to be done with respect to the senior people in that situation that was inconsistent with what I've said."
Rumsfeld, however, said he had no reason to believe that the anti-Taliban Afghan forces would fail to satisfy America's requests regarding Omar and other Taliban leaders. And he added there were a variety of ways in which justice could be meted out, depending on the person and circumstances.
Asked if the fact that Afghanistan now has a new legitimate government would begin to constrain U.S. action there, Rumsfeld said "time would tell." But he said Karzai and the Afghan groups that took part in the UN talks in Germany to agree with most American thinking.
Rumsfeld was speaking yesterday after Karzai had told reporters near Kandahar that he had offered Omar an amnesty. Here's what Karzai said: "Mullah Omar must distance himself completely from terrorism, from the presence of foreign terrorists in Afghanistan. He must condemn terrorism in Afghanistan. He must acknowledge that these terrorists have ruined Afghanistan and killed the Afghan people and have hurt the international community. If he doesn't do that he is not to be safe."
However, White House spokesman Fleischer said yesterday the situation in Afghanistan was still fluid and it was too early to discuss Omar's exact fate: "Mullah Omar is still fighting the United States. Mullah Omar has not been captured, nor brought to justice. And until that happens, it's all pure speculation. In the event that somebody is captured, careful and proper and deliberate decisions will be made as to what course will come next. But that is not the case now because he remains a combatant against the United States and other nations."
Under the terms of the surrender, Karzai said foreign Taliban fighters -- with the exception of Pakistanis -- would be considered criminals and would face justice. Afghan Taliban fighters would receive an amnesty, however.
Just two days after his appointment as interim prime minister, Karzai was already facing criticism of the deal reached in Germany that brought him to power.
An ethnic Uzbek warlord in the north, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, said he would boycott the agreement between four major Afghan groups. And Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, an ethnic Pashtun spiritual leader whose Pakistan-based faction took part in the Bonn talks, called the deal "unbalanced."
However, America's coordinator on Afghanistan, Richard Haass, told the Senate foreign relations committee yesterday that he was upbeat about the country's future.
Haass said he based his confidence on the U.S.-led military success there and both the international community's commitment to the country and the constructive behavior of its neighbors. Finally, Haass said that Aghans themselves -- both political leaders and soldiers -- appeared more disciplined and inclined to compromise.