Washington — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that the United States would not accept a negotiated surrender between Afghanistan's new interim government and besieged Taliban forces in Kandahar that granted amnesty to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar.
But Rumsfeld said that U.S. custody of Omar and Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden might not be necessary to "bring them to justice" if arrangements could be worked out with other governments willing to put them on trial and ensure punishment.
"'Custody" has a legal implication," Rumsfeld told reporters. "If I've said that, I probably shouldn't. I would like to see us take control or know that the control is in the hands of people who will handle the conclusion in a way similar to that we would do."
Rumsfeld's remarks signaled a shift in the Bush administration's position on how to deal with Taliban leaders or members of the al-Qaida terrorist network captured in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld said last week that the United States had told opposition commanders that it wants any captured leaders turned over for interrogation by U.S. personnel and possible trial by a U.S. military tribunal.
But with the prospect that the southern city of Kandahar, the last Taliban stronghold, could shortly fall to opposition hands an event that could result in thousands of Taliban prisoners, including Omar, being controlled by a U.S.-backed interim government the U.S. strategy appears to have changed.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld reiterated his desire to take custody of Omar and bin Laden. But for the first time, Rumsfeld raised the possibility that other governments could bring them to justice if they are caught rather than killed.
"To the extent that it made sense to have that individual end up going to another country his country of origin, say, for the sake of argument that might make sense," Rumsfeld said. "I think it's a mistake to think that there's only one way that these things might be handled."
Bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia.
A senior defense official, seeking to clarify Rumsfeld's remarks, said that the defense secretary only meant to underscore the point that the United States cannot "control or completely dictate what happens" in Afghanistan. The official said Rumsfeld did not backtrack on a previous position.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that President Bush has made it clear that Omar needs "to be brought to justice" for harboring and supporting bin Laden' al-Qaida terrorist network for the past six years.
But speaking at a briefing for reporters, Fleischer deferred to Rumsfeld when asked about options for bringing Omar or bin Laden to justice. "The president has said that people need to be brought to justice in the prosecution of this war in whatever form justice takes," Fleischer said.
Rumsfeld said U.S. forces will continue to rely on Afghan opposition commanders to ensure that senior Taliban and al-Qaida leaders do not slip away.
"Let's say that there's Afghan Taliban below the senior level," Rumsfeld said. "Those folks very likely are going to drift back into the community. As they're interrogated and looked at, people are going to try to sift and sort and say, 'Here's some bad ones and these folks are just going to go off into the mountains or off into their villages."'
Rumsfeld expressed confidence that Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun opposition leader negotiating the surrender of Kandahar, would not reach any deal with the Taliban that allowed Omar to remain in Afghanistan unpunished.
Paula Newberg, special adviser to the United Nations Foundation and a specialist in South and Central Asia, said that Rumsfeld's stance had to change from last week, given the Bush administration's support in Bonn for creation of the new Afghan government.
"Having backed the Bonn negotiations, the United States has to accept the products of those negotiations," Newberg said. "It is no longer the United States speaking in a big vacuum."
The administration's definition of brining Omar to justice, Newberg said, is likely to diverge from the new Afghan government's definition. And from an Afghan perspective, she said, justice for Omar, a Pashun Afghan, would be a vastly different matter than justice for bin Laden, a fugitive from Saudi Arabia whose closest aides are mostly Arabs.
"From the point of view of the Afghans, Mohammad Omar is the head of a fighting faction that has lost," Newberg said. "If I were Karzai, I would be worrying about how to establish a foundation for reconciliation for the country and choose whether to have Mohammed Omar prosecuted in Afghanistan, if at all."
Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official who is now a military and diplomatic analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Rumsfeld's shifting stance should be viewed as a sign of adaptability, not inconsistency.
"One thing you find in the war on terrorism is, any time anyone makes an absolute statement, they end up changing it any time a new scenario arises," Cordesman said. "If you're expecting people to have a foolish consistency, you're expecting them to lose."
A deal in which Saudi Arabia "simply kills or executes or makes bin Laden disappear," Cordesman said, would be the best possible result from the United States, since justice would have been meted out by an Islamic nation.