With U.S. air-strikes continuing in Afghanistan, the Bush administration is making no secret of its desire to topple the country's Taleban leadership because of Taleban support for the al-Qaida terrorist network of Osama bin Laden. But, defense officials say the United States is also making clear it has no desire to occupy the country militarily once the Taleban is out of power.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is blunt in rejecting suggestions that the United States' current military attacks are in any way linked to long-term American occupation plans for Afghanistan. "The United States of America and certainly the United States military," he said, "has no aspiration to occupy or maintain any real estate in that region. We are simply doing exactly what the President [Bush] indicated, 'trying to root out terrorists.'"
Mr. Rumsfeld tells reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday it is not easy to predict what will happen in Afghanistan once Taleban leaders are ousted and terrorist networks in the country dismantled.
But he makes clear the future of Afghanistan is a matter for the Afghan people to decide - not the United States. "In my view that's going to be sorted out by Afghan people, not by the United States of America," he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld says the United States is reaching out to all opposition groups inside Afghanistan who oppose what he describes as the Taleban's policy of turning their country into a haven for foreign terrorists.
He says this includes opposition groups in the north and the south as well as exile Afghans and even disaffected elements within the Taleban itself.
The even-handed approach appears intended to avoid any impression that the Bush administration is allying itself to any single group but especially with the Northern Alliance - perhaps the best known opposition group because it hosts the only western reporters now in Afghanistan.
A Pentagon official indicates there is U.S. concern about what might happen in Afghanistan if the Northern Alliance were to seize power. This official suggests the group's members - largely from minority ethnic groups - might engage in mass reprisal killings rather than focus on restoring stability to the country.
The official offers no additional insight into Pentagon concerns. However his comments coincide with release of a new report by Human Rights Watch.
The monitoring group says all major factions in Afghanistan have repeatedly committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law.
But it specifically notes reports of abuses in areas held by the Northern Alliance, including summary executions, attacks on civilians, burnings of houses, and looting.