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Western Press Review: Afghan Atrocities And The Rule Of Law; Influence And Cooperation In Eurasia; Iraqi Prisoner Abuse

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 6 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and news analysis in the press today takes a look at war crimes and setbacks to establishing the rule of law in Afghanistan; economic cooperation and the struggle for regional influence in Eurasia; and the ongoing U.S.-led mission in Iraq. The London-based "Financial Times" today calls for the resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over allegations of abuse at the Abu Ghurayb prison outside Baghdad.


"The fledgling efforts toward establishing the rule of law in Afghanistan took a great leap backward last month," when Afghan Tranistional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai secretly ordered the execution of Abdullah Shah, a man who could have revealed atrocities committed during the civil war of the 1990s, including those allegedly by a close Karzai adviser.

"With his death," writes Patricia Grossman, director of an independent accountability project in Afghanistan, "the truth about some of the horrors of Afghanistan's past -- and who in the top leadership might have ordered those crimes -- has been buried."

Shah once served as a commander under militia leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, whom human rights groups accuse of having orchestrated mass rape and the disappearances of hundreds of people. Those that survived detention at Sayyaf's headquarters in Paghman say prisoners were often forced to dig their own graves before being shot.

Since the collapse of the Taliban, Sayyaf has had "extraordinary power over Karzai," says Grossman. Afghanistan's current leaders, "and their American supporters, prefer for now that the victims of Paghman and the rest of the past remain buried, lest it imperil 'stability.'" But Grossman calls this "a vicious circle." Burying the past merely aggravates today's security risks. In Afghanistan, Grossman says "those who benefit most from the international community's silence on accountability for war crimes include many powerful figures with links to criminal or extremist networks, or both."

She writes: "The former mujahedeen both within Karzai's administration and outside it have grown powerful as the world has shut its eyes to their crimes. [What] Afghans want from the international community is assistance in disclosing the truth. As long as the truth is buried in Afghanistan, any hope for the future will be jeopardized."


Nikolas Gvosdev of "In the National Interest," an online source for commentary and news analysis, discusses regional cooperation in Eurasia and the East-West balance of power. An agreement on the creation of a Single Economic Space between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan has worried some Western capitals, who suspect Moscow of harboring ambitions of reimposing its dominance in the region.

But Gvosdev says if the United States and the European Union are really concerned about Russia's ambitions in Eurasia, Washington and Brussels have enough influence to prevent Moscow from dominating the region. "Russian influence in its 'near abroad' could easily be counteracted by giving former Soviet states like Ukraine, Georgia or Uzbekistan greater access to the European and American markets," he says. "More favorable visa regimes -- including provisions for guest workers from the former Soviet Union to reside in the [West] -- could be instituted. And, of course, the West could dispatch larger amounts of aid and capital."

But Gvosdev says the West is unlikely to do any of this. Intermittent projects will be started but not followed up with the resources needed to fully integrate the former members of the Soviet bloc. And the Western attitude remains that it's "better Ukraine -- or Georgia, or Kazakhstan -- be poor than more closely linked to Russia."

He writes: "If the West believes that a Russian-dominated Eurasia is not in its interests, then it should make its case -- but be prepared to back it up with real resources. Otherwise, it should recognize that a Russian-led union that can serve as an engine for real economic growth is far preferable to continuing economic stagnation."


Officials in Washington have responded to the allegations of severe abuse committed by U.S. forces at Iraq's Abu Ghurayb prison by disciplining the soldiers involved and insisting the mistreatment was committed by only a few isolated elements within the U.S. armed forces.

But the London-based "Financial Times" notes that even the U.S. Army's own internal report describes the "systematic and illegal abuse of detainees." While the crimes were committed by a few individuals, the paper says the blame for the ill treatment must be shared "by those at the top."

The failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq undermined Washington's original rationale for war. "Now the fall-back argument that the invasion brought human rights and rule of law to the country lies in shreds." And oppressive governments everywhere will now "draw comfort from the failure of the U.S. to uphold its principles."

A report into the alleged abuses was available at the beginning of March but is only now coming to light through leaks to the media. And the "lack of urgency" with which the accusations are being treated by the U.S. administration is apparent, in that "neither General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, nor Donald Rumsfeld, defense secretary, has yet read it."

Rumsfeld successfully toppled the regime in Baghdad but "failed to plan for the postwar period." And now, the responsibility for the abuse and murder of prisoners "goes to the very top of the defense establishment." The paper says, "Only his [Rumsfeld's] departure will convince public opinion round the world that [U.S. President George W.] Bush is serious when he says [Abu Ghurayb] is not the true face of America."


Former chief of staff of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Pat Holt says the United States has come to its current "predicament" in the Middle East and Iraq by overcommitting itself. And the only way for Washington to disentangle is "by shedding some commitments and by being careful about taking on new ones."

Following the 11 September 2001 attacks, the United States responded by striking Afghanistan, where the Taliban regime was protecting and supporting the suspected architect of the attacks, Osama bin Laden.

Today, with bin Laden still on the loose, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has "turned its attention to Iraq before its job was finished in Afghanistan. What had been a specific search for Al-Qaeda and bin Laden became a general war on terror," Holt says. "This commitment was further extended when President Bush also proclaimed a mission to spread democracy and freedom throughout the world."

In the process, Washington made another mistake -- abandoning the United Nations. "The Security Council supported the U.S. in Afghanistan but refused to do so in Iraq. Mr. Bush thereupon announced his resolve to go it alone. What had been an international effort in Afghanistan became a unilateral American initiative in Iraq."

The U.S. administration's third mistake was misjudging Iraqi opinion, Holt says. As the U.S. expected, most Iraqis were glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein. But as the U.S. did not expect, most [Iraqis] wanted the American soldiers to pack up and go home once this was accomplished."

The United States "cannot very well abandon Afghanistan and Iraq after what it's done to their countries." And it needs to keep looking for bin Laden and cracking down on Al-Qaeda. But Holt says the U.S. ought not to consider "[invading] another country without allies and without better evidence than it had in Iraq."


Director of research Francois Gere of the Sorbonne-Nouvelle says all wars are unique, but there are certain common themes that characterize them all, including periodic abuses of power and authority, torture, blackmail, and corruption.

Gradually, the specter of Vietnam has returned to haunt U.S. forces in Iraq. One could compare the recovery of Al-Fallujah with retaking Hue in 1968 following the Tet offensive. U.S. troops at that time were also facing guerrillas that sought to root out the invader. However, the opposing forces in Vietnam were supported by major powers like the USSR and China, whereas forces in Iraq have no such support, either militarily or politically.

On the political level, the adversaries the U.S.-led coalition faced after the overthrow of the Ba'ath Party were disparate groups with differing political objectives that have only temporarily united to rid their country of the occupying forces. These groups have sought to increase the instability in the country in order to sap foreign public support for the campaign, break the unity of the fragile coalition and make it impossible to rebuild Iraq according to the terms of the occupiers.

The United States undoubtedly maintains crushing military superiority; it is its political plans that are its Achilles' heel. Just as in Vietnam, Washington must manage the conflict on three political fronts -- in Iraq, in the United States, and internationally. And the establishment of a favorable political power in Iraq has thus far proved elusive to the Americans because of a lack of local support.


A former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes, David Scheffer, says ever since the 11 September 2001 attacks, "the rhetoric and conduct of the George W.] Bush administration has transformed what should have been a vigorous campaign against international terrorism into a 'war on terror' that strangely professes to be both governed by and yet exempt from the law of war and international humanitarian law."

What was once a clear division "between the criminal law enforcement objectives of international antiterrorism conventions and the just cause of military actions under the law of war has been largely erased in the minds of policy-makers, military commanders, soldiers and the exploding number of private contractors."

Scheffer says, "No one really seems to understand which laws apply any more -- and many from the top down do not seem to care." So it is no surprise that, "when confronted with the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes -- which by definition avoids legal procedures -- recklessly macho presidential [rhetoric], [scant] deference to laws of war and open disdain for 'law enforcement,' illegal conduct begins to appear acceptable to commander and soldier alike."

But as the "official occupying powers" in Iraq, U.S.-U.K. forces should be particularly rigorous in sticking to the obligation "to comply with a strict regime of legal duties, including those that prohibit abusive detention practices."