ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - All but giving up on efforts to mediate the standoff over Osama bin Laden, Pakistan's president said yesterday a U.S. military strike against Afghanistan appears likely, and the Taliban's days are probably numbered.
That assessment by Gen. Pervez Musharraf came as the exiled king of Afghanistan and leaders of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance agreed in Rome to convene an emergency Supreme Council by the end of this month and organize an election to replace their country's militant rulers.
In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., Musharraf acknowledged that Pakistan had nothing to show for its diplomatic campaign to persuade the Taliban to turn over bin Laden.
"We were interacting with them [the Taliban] so that moderation could take place and maybe this kind of action is averted," he said. "But it appears because of the stand that the Taliban have taken, that confrontation will take place."
The president said it now "appears that the United States will take action in Afghanistan, and we have conveyed this to the Taliban." Asked if the Taliban's days were numbered, he replied: "It appears so."
Pakistan said it would keep trying, even though it saw almost no chance of getting the Taliban to relent.
"Whatever dim hopes are left, possibilities exist," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Mohammed Khan. "We will remain engaged with the Taliban."
Seeking new government
Western diplomats believe former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, who reigned for 40 years and brought relative peace and prosperity to Afghanistan, is the only figure with enough authority to assemble a broad and moderate front to replace the Taliban.
The Northern Alliance is the main force still fighting the Taliban. It is still recognized by the United Nations and most of the world as the legitimate Afghan government even though it controls less than 10 percent of Afghan territory.
Both the king and the opposition commanders made clear in their announcement, which came after three days of talks, that they believe that their plan is a way not only to rid their country of the Taliban government but also to avoid U.S. reprisals against Afghanistan.
The Northern Alliance and the 86-year-old king said in a joint statement that they will set up a Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan, which will meet in Rome.
That group would include about 120 Afghan leaders, they said, who would in turn call a loya jirga - a traditional gathering of representatives of all ethnic groups that would meet, potentially for weeks - to elect a new transitional government.
If what their agreement calls a "dire situation" prevents such an election, the council itself could become a transitional government, they said.
But the two sides seemed not only newly united but also newly hopeful, saying this is a vulnerable moment for the Taliban, who seem to be losing support out of fear of U.S. military strikes.
"Within one or two weeks of its inception, the council will be the only legitimate body to take decisions relative to Afghanistan," a spokesman for the king, Abdul Sattar Sirat, promised at a news conference.
Obstacles to a takeover
The logistical challenges involved in convening a traditional tribal council are certainly enormous, particularly since the Taliban still control most of the country.
Yesterday's announcement left the door open for the Taliban to take part in the council, but the Taliban's leader wasted no time in denouncing the move.
In a broadcast on Taliban-run Kabul radio, Mullah Mohammed Omar said the efforts to bring the ex-king into an alliance with opposition forces was destined to fail.
The Taliban also were trying to woo tribal leaders inside Afghanistan, in an apparent attempt to counter support for Zahir. The regime announced a power-sharing arrangement with tribes in three key southern provinces, according to the Islamabad-based Afghan Islamic Press.
The report quoted a Taliban spokesman, Rehmat A. Wahidyar, as saying tribal representatives would be given posts in provincial governments of Khost, Paktia and Paktika.
The Taliban were bolstering their garrison in the Afghan capital. More than 6,500 additional troops have arrived in recent days, according to Taliban officials in Kabul.
Since 1973, the king has lived in almost complete isolation in Italy.
Doctors check on him every few days, his son said.
"His health is good, but he was very depressed in these days about what happened in New York and Washington and about the assassination of the former Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud."
Jordan's King Abdullah, who Friday became the first Arab head of state to visit the White House since the attacks, said that President Bush had pledged Washington would not undertake a military strike on any Arab state in revenge for the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Bush has promised not to deliver a military strike against Iraq or any Arab country as part of a retaliatory response for the terrorist attacks in the United States or through blaming Arabs for the attacks," the monarch, was quoted by the state news agency Petra as telling a group of army officers.
The U.S. military has kept a tight veil of secrecy over its plans to punish those responsible for the attacks, but officials who asked not to be named said the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk could be used as a base to fly helicopter-borne special forces into Afghanistan.
The ship steamed out of port near Tokyo yesterday to join three other aircraft carriers that are already within striking distance of Afghanistan.