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Afghanistan: Amid Lively Public Debate, Most Muslim Governments Silent

  • Charles Recknagel

The United States and Britain's raid on Afghanistan is being supported by their Western allies, but reaction in the Islamic world has been highly varied. Iran and Iraq have spoken out against the action, while many other states have remained silent. RFE/RL Charles Recknagel looks at how the strikes on Afghanistan are being perceived in Muslim capitals.

Prague, 8 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, most Muslim states have been reluctant to endorse military strikes on Afghanistan.

And most have not altered their stance today, in the wake of last night's U.S. and British operations. In those operations, U.S. and British forces hit targets associated with both accused terrorist Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia in what Washington called the start of an extended campaign to destroy the Afghan-based Al-Qaeda terrorism network.

Iran and Iraq have criticized the allied raids, while other governments of Muslim states have said little or nothing.

Tehran said late yesterday that the strikes were "unacceptable" and would hurt innocent Afghan civilians. It also reiterated its position that any response to the 11 September attacks should be led by the United Nations rather than Washington. Iran has closed its airspace to any U.S.-led missions against Afghanistan and vowed to intercept any planes which violate it.

Iraqi state television called the strikes "treacherous aggression" against Afghanistan. The statement came after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein told a cabinet meeting yesterday that the U.S. must show the world its evidence regarding who committed the 11 September attacks.

Lebanon said that the strikes prove the U.S. is forcing its definition of terrorism on the world and any war on terrorism should start by addressing Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

Jordan gave its full backing to the strikes, but also said the war against terrorism must focus on resolving the Middle East conflict.

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, expressed "deep concern" about the airstrikes and called for restraint by Washington to ensure there would be minimal loss of life. Jakarta has previously said it will "not take sides if there is a conflict between Afghanistan and the U.S."

Most of the Gulf states and Egypt have yet to comment officially, but analysts say they expect those governments will speak publicly about the operations as little as possible. That would be in line with their policies over the past weeks of assuring Washington of their support for political, intelligence, and financial steps against terrorist organizations while sending mixed or negative signals regarding military cooperation.

Maher Othman, a journalist and regional expert at the London-based Arabic newspaper "Al-Hayat," says this cautious posture reflects a widespread worry among the Gulf monarchies and other Arab governments that domestic public opinion will not tolerate overt support of military action against a fellow Muslim country.

He says that Arab public opinion is particularly sensitive to that issue now, when Israel is seen to be cracking down hard against Palestinians. At least 624 Palestinians and 175 Israelis have been killed since a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted a year ago. Maher Othman:

"There is a great deal of resentment on the popular level against the strikes on Afghanistan, although people of course generally were shocked by what happened in New York and Washington. I believe that they consider the Western attacks [against Afghanistan] as something that will destabilize the area generally, especially in light of the American position in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The United States is perceived as having really sided with Israel and not forced it to implement UN resolutions."

Osama bin Laden has sought to create the perception that the U.S.-led war on terrorism is part of what he calls a global struggle between Islam and the West. In a recorded statement broadcast yesterday by independent Al-Jazeera television based in Qatar, bin Laden said "a million innocent children are dying at this time [in sanctions-hit] Iraq" and "Israeli tanks are rampaging across Palestine." He said those actions have divided the world into the "camp of the faithful" and "the camp of infidels."

At the same time, bin Laden accused the Gulf monarchies of backing the West, saying "we hear no denunciation [of Western policies] from the hereditary rulers" of the region.

Othman says such messages have resonance in the Arab world despite the fact that the brand of militant Sunni Islam practiced by bin Laden and other Arabs based in Afghanistan is not attractive to mainstream Muslims.

"The so-called Afghan Arabs, who went to train in Afghanistan -- many of them have created havoc in several parts of the Arab world, mostly in Algeria and Egypt. So they are not looked upon as people who represent Muslims or Arabs, by [any] means. The Arab people [also] are aware of the backward nature of the Taliban and aware of how they treat women, in particular, and resent that."

He continues:

"But [bin Laden] is pointing to something that may be valid in some observers' minds -- that you can go so far in appeasing Western interests and fulfilling them, but on the other hand you must look at what Western governments are doing regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict."

Gulf-region newspapers have varied in their comments on the strikes in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia's "Al-Watan" reiterated its call for the fight against terrorism to apply also to Israel. But in the United Arab Emirates, the Abu-Dhabi government daily "Al-Ittihad" focused only on a need to crush the Taliban, saying, "There was no choice but to hit back [and] let the peoples of the world live in peace and security."

As public debate continues across that region, "The Washington Post" is reporting that Saudi leaders have given U.S. officials private assurances that they will cooperate with American requests to use aircraft command-and-control facilities on Saudi soil. It is unclear whether such facilities, currently used by the U.S. in connection with no-fly-zone patrols over southern Iraq, will play a role in Afghan theater operations.

Qatar is reportedly ready to permit use of its bases as long as it is low-profile, and Kuwait also is expected to offer cautious military cooperation. But Oman and the United Arab Emirates have said they will not allow "offensive actions" from their territory.

Analysts say that the Gulf Arab states' concern for domestic public opinion -- and fear of provoking violent acts by small groups of militants in the oil-rich region -- make it likely these governments will be reluctant to publicly support strikes on Afghanistan. But they will cooperate with the war on terror by sharing intelligence and taking financial steps against the Al-Qaeda network.

David Long, a retired U.S. diplomat and regional expert, portrays the Gulf Arab governments' stance this way:

"Terrorism is much more than just a military operation. It requires diplomacy, it requires intelligence, it requires public policy, it requires military [action]. And it is this last option [i.e., military action], aimed at a Muslim country, where the political costs, the domestic costs, of appearing to be cooperating with the use of force against a fellow Muslim country is something that [Gulf Arab governments] think is very high and that there are very many other ways they can cooperate."

The world's largest organization of Muslim states, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), is due to meet this week in Qatar in an attempt to forge a united Muslim response to the 11 September attacks. The emergency meeting of the 56-member organization has been called by Iran.

Tehran is expected at the meeting to push for solidarity on demands that any coalition against terrorism be led by the UN, not the U.S., and that there be public disclosure of the evidence linking bin Laden to the attacks on America. Tehran also wants a global definition of terrorism which excludes Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah and Islamic Palestinian militant groups fighting Israel.

It is unclear at this moment how much support the Iranian demands will gain at the meeting.