U.S., Pakistan Discuss Afghanistan's Future

Secretary of State Colin Powell and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf closed in on an agreement today over the kind of coalition they hope can replace Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, before Powell departed to shore up relations with India.

On the military front, the United States brought yet another part of its arsenal to the skies over Afghanistan today, in the form of at least one Air Force Special Forces AC-130 gunship that blasted Taliban positions in the southern city of Kandahar.

And with Powell standing at his side, Musharraf added today that Pakistan will unconditionally continue its support of the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign, from allowing use of its airspace to sharing intelligence with the United States.

"We certainly will carry on cooperating so long as the operation lasts," Musharraf said at a news conference at the presidential palace.

Taliban Moderates in the Fold?

When it comes to creating a new government, assuming the ruling Taliban forces are overthrown, Powell and Musharraf agreed that a broad coalition should represent Afghans — which could mean the United States would agree to let Taliban moderates have a future role in the country.

Powell suggested as much by saying today that the potential next government of Afghanistan should be "one that represents all the people of Afghanistan and would be a regime that would obviously be friendly to all of its neighbors, including Pakistan."

Musharraf said he could envision a country led by "Former [Afghan] King Zahir Shah, political leaders, moderate Taliban leaders, elements from the Northern Alliance, tribal elders, Afghans living outside their country … all can play a role in this government."

The presence of Taliban moderates might represent a concession by the United States, but would suit Pakistan, the only country to officially recognize the Taliban at the moment. On the other hand, including the Northern Alliance in a coalition would suit the United States, which is hoping the rebels can overthrow the Taliban, but would represent a concession by Pakistan, which has been at odds with the group.

Musharraf also stressed the importance of making some rapid decisions about the future of Afghanistan, to prevent a state of anarchy from developing.

"The political process needs to be placed on a fast track in order to forestall the possibility of a political vacuum," Musharraf said. "It should not lag behind the fast-moving events in the military field, nor should any attempt be made by any warring faction to impose itself on Afghanistan in the wake of the military strikes against the Taliban."

Taliban Defenses Down; Red Cross Hit

The presence of the AC-130 planes in the military campaign is a sign U.S. forces are less concerned about the Taliban's ability to defend itself. One Pentagon official said today that the Taliban's air defenses have been "eviscerated." The slow four-engine turboprop planes are heavily armed but also vulnerable to antiaircraft fire from the ground.

The gunships are one of the most devastating night weapons in the U.S. military arsenal. The crew of the aircraft uses night-vision equipment to attack ground targets as the aircraft circles above.

There was additional heavy bombing around Kabul today, with massive explosions that could be heard 30 miles away along the front line between Taliban and Northern Alliance forces.

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