WASHINGTON - President Bush urged the citizens of Afghanistan yesterday to turn against the Taliban and help the United States root out the terrorists being harbored by their government.
"The mission," the president said, "is to rout terrorists, to find them and bring them to justice.
"And one way to do that is to ask for the cooperation of citizens within Afghanistan, who may be tired of having the Taliban in place, or tired of having Osama bin Laden, people from foreign soils in their own land, willing to finance this repressive government."
Bush stopped short of calling explicitly for the ouster of the Taliban as a way to punish them for harboring bin Laden, the prime suspect in the attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, and other terrorists. But he made it clear that he regards the Taliban as an enemy in the war on terrorism he is seeking to wage.
"We're not into nation-building," Bush said at the White House after meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan. His goal, the president said, is to send a "clear signal" that "if you harbor a terrorist, if you aid a terrorist, if you hide terrorists, you're just as guilty as the terrorists."
Bush's comments underscored the delicacy with which the administration must navigate as it seeks to build an international coalition for a war on terrorism and plans what is expected to be an initial strike against Afghanistan.
The president has been making it clear for days that he will retaliate against the Taliban and other governments for harboring or supporting terrorists such as bin Laden.
Increasingly, however, he and his top advisers want to avoid inflaming any potential Muslim allies of the United States in the Persian Gulf region by seeming to push for the overthrow of a Muslim government.
As Bush sought to stoke anti-Taliban fervor in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell seemed to send a softer message. If the Afghan government hands over bin Laden and helps tear apart his Al Qaeda network - which it has refused to do - it might gain a better relationship with the West and the United States would consider continuing its humanitarian aid to the Afghan people, Powell said.
"If they did that, we wouldn't be worrying about whether they are the regime in power or not," Powell said in an interview with the Associated Press. "You can be sure we are thinking of all the ways to make them think properly."
Bush said the impoverished Afghans have suffered grievously under the Taliban, whom he called "incredibly repressive toward women."
"We have no issue and no anger toward the citizens of Afghanistan," the president said yesterday. "We have obviously serious problems with the Taliban government. They're an incredibly repressive government, a government that has a value system that's hard for many in America ... to relate to."
U.S. officials would be pleased to see the Taliban lose their grip on power. But they also appear to be aware of the risks involved in the demise of such a government.
Foreign analysts have said that a power struggle to fill the vacuum left by the Taliban could draw in fighters from neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran, or Russia and China.
Yesterday, the Pakistani government, which has been cooperating with the United States, warned U.S. officials against lending support to the Northern Alliance rebel force.
That opposition group, which controls less than 10 percent of Afghanistan, has been fighting to overthrow the Taliban.
"We will take action, including military action, against those who harbor terrorists," Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said yesterday. The U.S. campaign "is not designed to replace one regime with another regime. Part of the process also will be being mindful of stability in the region," he said.
The Pentagon is positioning forces within striking distance of Afghanistan in what has become the biggest U.S. military buildup since the 1991 Persian Gulf war that resulted from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that the military plan, which the Pentagon is calling Operation Enduring Freedom, would not begin with a traditional battle or invasion, such as the D-Day operation in France in 1944.
"This is not something that begins with a significant event or ends with a significant event," Rumsfeld said. "It is something that will involve a sustained effort over a good period of time.
"It will not be an antiseptic war, I regret to say. It will be difficult. It will be dangerous. The likelihood is that more people may be lost."
The Taliban have shown no sign of meeting the demands Bush made in his speech last week, which included handing over bin Laden and his network of terrorists, and opening terrorist training camps throughout the country to U.S. investigators.
Taliban officials say they do not know the whereabouts of bin Laden. U.S. officials have called that preposterous.