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.

A Red Cross warehouse in the Afghan capital was set ablaze in the daylight raids, which could be a blow to U.S. efforts to show both supporters and opponents of its campaign that it is able to avoid hitting civilian buildings.

This evening, the U.S. Defense Department acknowledged striking the warehouse, saying in a statement that "Military vehicles had been seen in the vicinity" and adding it did not know the Red Cross was using the facility. Reports indicated one worker was injured, while food and equipment was destroyed.

Taliban forces have reportedly been taking refuge in mosques while U.S. warplanes fire away at military targets. According to The Associated Press, residents of the Afghan capital of Kabul also say the Taliban has been removing fuel supplies and vehicles from the sites the United States are targeting.

In attacking Afghanistan, the United States is attempting to topple the Taliban and root out terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization. The United States holds al Qaeda responsible for the Sept. 11 hijacking attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in addition to other terrorist attacks such as bombings of the USS Cole last year and two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

India Next for Powell

Powell's visit to Pakistan came at a tense moment, with Muslim fundamentalists calling for a national strike and Pakistani and Indian troops exchanging gunfire in the disputed Kashmir province.

But the secretary of state insisted today that U.S.-Pakistani relations are on solid footing.

"I made the point to the president that this isn't a temporary spike in the relationship," Powell said after the meeting. "We believe as a result of the actions taken by Pakistan over the last five weeks we truly are at the beginning of a strengthened relationship, a relationship that will grow and thrive."

Still, U.S.-Pakistani relations could be a major focus of Powell's talks in India. He met today with India's Foreign Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, and will speak Wednesday with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

A spokeswoman for the Indian Foreign Ministry has said that the United States has no role to play in the dispute between the two nuclear rivals, saying India sees "absolutely any need for mediation in the context of India-Pakistan relations."

India and the United States have enjoyed a generally good relationship in recent years, but the current military campaign could test it. The conflict between Pakistan and India could also throw a wrench into U.S. plans to use bases in Pakistan as a staging area for potential ground action in Afghanistan.

Iran Willing to Rescue U.S. Soldiers

In other developments:

A U.S. government official says Iran has indicated to the United States it would be willing to assist American military personnel in need of rescue in its territory.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has received $38.5 million to purchase wheat, lentils, vegetable oil, corn-soy blend and yellow peas from American farmers for Afghan relief and Afghan refugees, said USAID administrator Andrew Natsios. The first shipment of wheat is expected to reach Afghanistan by the end of October, with additional shipments arriving in late November and late December.

A Pakistani opposition leader under house arrest on charges of fomenting hatred against the government and inciting revolt managed to get a statement to a Peshawar newspaper saying President Pervez Musharraf was unfit to lead the country's army. Maulana Fazlur Rahman said Musharraf's decision to align the country with the United States endangered the country's integrity and was against Islam.

New York City officials estimate the number of missing and presumed dead at the World Trade Center is 4,688. The number of confirmed dead is 450, and 395 remains have been identified. At the Pentagon, 189 were believed killed and another 44 were killed when the fourth hijacked jet, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed in Pennsylvania.