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Western Press Review: Political Alliances Take Center Stage

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 11 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today focuses on the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism and strikes against targets in Afghanistan. Commentators today consider what the campaign will mean for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's hold on power, the importance -- and fragility -- of international political alliances, and the pivotal role of the Central Asian nations, among other issues.


In a news analysis, Lee Hockstader of "The Washington Post" considers the precarious situation of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Hockstader says that among many Palestinians, their anger with Israel is only a little greater than their anger with Arafat. Hockstader says that the question is now "whether [Arafat] can face down a resurgent, home-grown Islamic opposition, enforce the latest cease-fire with the Israelis and cast his political lot with the U.S.-led war against terrorism -- as he appears to want to do -- without igniting a wave of street violence that could crush his increasingly fragile control." Arafat's support has been steadily shrinking, while sympathy has soared for his Islamic opposition, the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hockstader says the anti-American demonstrations of 8 October that left two dead when they were violently put down on Arafat's orders have added to the rage. Originally, says Hockstader, few Palestinians felt much sympathy for Osama bin Laden -- the prime suspect in the 11 September attacks on the U.S. -- or his cause. But with his 7 October videotaped address, bin Laden changed that. Hockstader writes: "[In] his taped statement Sunday, [bin] Laden vowed there would be 'no security for America until there is security for Palestine.' With those words, Mr. bin Laden had suddenly aligned himself with the Palestinian cause. Among some Palestinians, the effect was electrifying."


In a contribution to the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Edward Luttwak of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies considers the importance of both political alliances and conventional warfare in fighting the Taliban. He says that because the Taliban is so loosely organized, the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan cannot be successful by destroying its military system -- because "there is no such thing." The bombing can only succeed by helping the Northern Alliance conquer ground from the Taliban, he says. Now that the opposition Northern Alliance's ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras are being funded as part of the antiterror campaign, the military upper hand is starting to shift. But Luttwak adds that the Taliban "cannot be defeated unless its own fellow Pashtuns decide to turn against them." He writes: "That is the reason why Mohammed Zahir Shah, Afghanistan's aged former king, is now being encouraged to [form] a multi-ethnic transitional government. Although there is no way of knowing how much support he could command, it is a reasonable guess that as a Pashtun himself, the former king could rally the Taliban's Pashtun enemies as no Tajik or Uzbek or Shiite Hazara leader could ever hope to do." As always, Luttwak says, "bombs and missiles can only ultimately succeed when the destruction they cause becomes the instrument of a politically effective plan."


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Guenther Nonnemacher says, "Nobody believed that dropping food and medicines could ease the suffering of the Afghan people. It was a gesture to show the Muslim world that the United States was not fighting Islam, but terrorists and the regimes that support them -- [it] was a symbolic act."

He says that suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden counters the ambiguity of this symbolism with a simple, straightforward message to the Muslim world. Nonnemacher writes: "He styles himself as a warrior fighting on behalf of the powerless against the sole remaining superpower...[and] as wrong as it is, it shows that the struggle [for] the [minds] of so many Muslims will last longer than the war against Mr. bin Laden and Afghanistan's rulers."


Columnist Anatole Kaletsky, writing in "The Times" of Britain, asks who -- apart from bin Laden -- is perpetuating the idea that the West is at war with the Islamic world. American and European leaders, he says, have gone to great lengths to emphasize that this is not war on Islam, but a war on terrorists who have blood on their hands. Yet the impression still prevails in parts of the Muslim world.

"There can be only one honest answer," writes Kaletsky. "It is the Muslim countries themselves. Many Muslim countries [have] denounced the bombing of Afghanistan as a war against Islam. It is therefore these countries -- or at least their governments -- that promote the war of civilizations and besmirch their own religion by publicly associating Islam with the Al-Qaeda killers and the monstrous fanatics of the Taliban." He notes that this characterization of the campaign against terror has come not only from traditional critics of the West such as Iraq and Iran, but also from traditionally pro-Western governments in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Kaletsky says it is particularly confounding that Saudi Arabia would deny the U.S. the use of military bases "on the grounds that any attack on the Taliban and bin Laden would be an attack on fellow Muslims. Curiously," he says, "this argument does not seem to apply to U.S. bombing of the equally Islamic Iraqi people, whose ruler just happens to be a mortal enemy of the Saudi regime."


A Stratfor commentary says that a protracted, U.S.-led ground campaign in Afghanistan will eventually shift the focus of the campaign against terrorism to Central Asian states, and probably Kyrgyzstan. It notes that the Central Asian nations are battling their own internal Islamic extremist groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU. Current operations in Afghanistan may fuel Muslim support for some of the more fundamentalist Islamic factions. In addition, it is largely feared that fighters from the conflict in Afghanistan could slip through the borders. Stratfor writes: "The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, is now concentrating efforts to recruit militants in the Chui region, where the capital of Kyrgyzstan is located. This is a consequence of Uzbekistan's vigilance in border security and the comparative ease of penetrating Kyrgyzstan..." Stratfor predicts that the campaign against terrorism will have no choice but to expand into Central Asia to deal with what it calls the "substantial militant threat emerging north of the Afghan theater."


In "Eurasia View," Josh Machleder of Internews looks at the issue of press freedom in Uzbekistan. He says that, "After years of repressing freedom of expression, [President Islam] Karimov is now taking tentative steps to open up Uzbekistan's tightly controlled media. But gaining popular trust is proving a difficult challenge for the government."

In recent days, President Karimov has attempted to appear more open in discussing Uzbekistan's newly formed strategic alliance with the United States. The major motivation for Karimov's growing candor, Machleder says, appears to be "the government's desire to counter what it perceives as distorted Russian media reports." He notes that many Uzbeks consider Russian media to be more objective, while the Uzbek government is very concerned over how Russian outlets have been portraying recent events in Uzbekistan.

But Machleder says that "[although] apparently determined to provide more information via the local press, the Uzbek leadership seems intent on controlling how developments are framed." And authorities are quick to repeat the official Uzbek position that "not a single U.S. aircraft" taking part in the bombing strikes on Afghanistan "will be given permission to land in Uzbekistan."


"Die Welt" carries a commentary by Jacques Schuster, in which he considers the media in connection with the war against terrorism. He writes: "In the war against terror, the battle of words has begun." Bin Laden and his adherents are forever concerned with publicity, he says. With every appearance in front of the camera they hope to rouse the Islamic masses. They are also intent on demonstrating their might to Muslims throughout the world. They have proved that not only U.S. President George W. Bush can exploit TV publicity.

"The West," says the commentary, "has the chance to counter this propaganda. And it should make use of this." On the other hand, bin Laden's appearance on TV has brought something positive. For those who still had doubts that he was the mastermind behind the attacks a month ago on New York and Washington, this kind of propaganda serves as additional proof. Bin Laden is threatening with more attacks, which justifies the assault on Afghanistan and can be clearly viewed as an act of defense, says Schuster.


Columnist Eric Dupin, writing in the French daily "Liberation," considers life in Afghanistan after the Taliban. He asks if the Afghan opposition Northern Alliance offer a credible alternative. The alliance only controls 5-10 percent of Afghan territory. Since the beginnings of the American strikes on 7 October, they have been on watch, says Dupin. They are unambiguous in their aims, he says -- to seize the capital, Kabul. But many doubt if the Northern Alliance will be a credible alternative, primarily for reasons of ethnic balance. The alliance is made up of ethnic minorities in a country dominated by Pashtuns. And the personalities of its leaders do not inspire confidence, Dupin adds, noting that there has already been criticism of the alliance's human rights record. Thus, says Dupin, the Western coalition is attempting to create a "forced marriage" between the Pashtun former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, and the opposition alliance. But Dupin says that this marriage "will be a battle in Afghanistan, even more than usual."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)