Bush unveils Afghan aid package, lauds coalition
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush presented the broad outline Thursday morning of a proposed $320 million humanitarian aid package for the people of Afghanistan, as the administration continued trying to broaden the schism between that nation's ruling Taliban and its general population.
Speaking at the State Department, Bush said the package was intended to demonstrate to the Afghan people, ravaged by more than two decades of bloody warfare, that the United States and the international coalition it has assembled have set their sights on the Taliban and the al Qaeda network of terrorist groups.
The United States, Bush said, would stand with the people of Afghanistan in the face of the Taliban.
"I am here to announce an initiative to help the Afghan people in a time of crisis and a time of need," he said. "America will stand strong and oppose the sponsors of terrorism, and America will stand strong and help those people who are hurt by those regimes."
Of that $320 million, the administration says $195 million will be earmarked to provide Afghans -- including the millions of refugees who have flowed toward the country's border areas in flight from expected allied military strikes -- with food and shelter as Afghanistan's long, brutal winter approaches.
"While we strongly oppose the Taliban regime, we are friends of the Afghan people," Bush said. "We will fight evil, but in order to overcome evil, the great good of America must come forth and shine forth."
'No compassion for terrorists'
The first $25 million in assistance, to be spent on shipments of food and medicine, will be drawn from the $40 billion emergency spending package signed into law by the president following the September 11 airborne attacks on New York City and Washington.
Congress will have to approve the rest of the package. Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced through an aide on Wednesday that he also would seek passage of an ambitious aid program for Afghanistan.
The Biden project could include funds for reconstruction -- a hefty task given that Afghanistan's urban areas were reduced to rubble following a 10-year guerrilla war against occupying Soviet forces, and a subsequent civil conflict that saw the Taliban rise to power.
Pentagon and State Department officials followed the president's announcement with descriptions of how the United States might attempt to deliver foodstuffs and other supplies to central Afghanistan and to refugee camps in neighboring countries. It is possible that some supplies could be airdropped, or delivered by truck convoy to refugee sites.
The Pentagon said Thursday that much of the food supplies to be delivered to Afghan refugees would consist of pre-packaged meals -- similar to the military's "meals ready to eat." They will consist primarily of grains and vegetables.
The United States has already supplied an estimated $174 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan this year, but administration officials believe much of the food and medicine that has been airlifted into the Central Asian nation has been purloined by the Taliban, as it seeks to bolster its defenses and supply stores in advance of threatened U.S.-led attacks.
"We have no compassion for terrorists in this country, nor will we have any compassion for any state that sponsors them," Bush said. "We have great compassion for the millions around the world who are victims of hate, victims of an oppressive government, including the people of Afghanistan."
Pentagon and State officials also said Thursday that the United States was considering a campaign of airdropped leaflets and radio transmissions from Pakistan to assure the Afghan population of U.S. intentions.
Coalition building, at home and abroad
The Taliban have controlled some 90 percent of Afghan territory since 1996. Osama bin Laden, the Saudi expatriate millionaire who is widely thought to be the public face of the shadowy al Qaeda group, has been a so-called guest of the Taliban for several years.
The United States is demanding that the Taliban hand over bin Laden and his key lieutenants, and shut down the dozens of al Qaeda training camps that dot Afghanistan's treacherous countryside.
"We are engaged in a noble cause, and that is to say loud and clear to the evildoers that we reject you, that we will stand tall against terror," Bush said.
Part of the U.S. effort to stand tall in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Bush continued, was the effort by State Department staff to build a wide international coalition that will assist in tearing down al Qaeda and other terror networks.
"I am proud of the coalitions we have built," Bush said. "We have said not only 'join the coalition,' but we have said 'here is what we expect you to do. Here is your assignment.'
"We expect there to be results," he continued. "If you are to be on our team, then we want performance. And it is making a difference."
How much of a difference it was making in the moderate Arab world, however, was difficult to determine in this third full week following the attacks. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in the middle of a hasty trip to the Middle East on Thursday to shore up support.
A senior administration official described Rumsfeld's trip Thursday as one of "gardening," or tending to the concerns of the states on his itinerary. In the past several weeks, some Middle Eastern and Central Asian leaders have pushed the Bush administration to provide them with assurances that the United States will stay involved in the region, rather than just launching military strikes and then withdrawing.
Rumsfeld's message, an administration official said, is that it is "safe to be associated with the United States because the Bush administration regards the anti-terror war as a long-term commitment.
Rumsfeld spent the first part of Thursday in the Arabian Sea state of Oman, following 15 hours of talks yesterday in Saudi Arabia. He then flew to Cairo for meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The defense secretary was also to fly to the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan before returning to Washington. Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan to the north, and the U.S. is likely to base its special operations forces there as they prepare for incursions into Taliban territory.
In a surprising admission, a senior administration source tells CNN the Uzbek government has been privately urging the U.S. to set up and maintain military bases on Uzbek soil even after any Afghan mission is over. The purpose is to protect the former Soviet republic from Russia as well as al Qaeda terrorists who may flee across the border.
Bush, meanwhile, met with the emir of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar on Thursday afternoon.
Senior State Department adviser Richard Hasse also was en route to Italy on Thursday to meet with Afghanistan's former King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was deposed in a 1973 coup.
The 86-year-old Zahir Shah has been courted by several entities, including some Afghan opposition groups, to act as a facilitator for the convening of a national assembly. It would draw together several tribes and ethnic groups which would form a new Afghan government in the event the Taliban is toppled.
Officials said Thursday that Hasse would tell Zahir Shah that any new government in Afghanistan would have to be friendly to neighboring Pakistan.
-- CNN's Ian Christopher McCaleb, Andrea Koppel, Chris Plante
and Kelly Wallace contributed to this report.
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