Accessibility links

Western Press Review: Mazar-i-Sharif, U.S. Unilateralism, Liberties vs. Security

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 12 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary and analysis over the weekend and today looks at the reported seizure of the Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif by Northern Alliance forces on 9 November, Germany's new role in global security, and renewed U.S. unilateralism in the war on terror. Other topics include China and Taiwan's joint entries into the WTO and balancing national security needs with the preservation of civil liberties.


An editorial in "The Times" of Britain examines the reported seizure of the Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif on 9 November by Northern Alliance forces. The editorial says that while this success for the alliance and the antiterrorist campaign was an "overdue" victory, it would be unwise to exaggerate the importance of the breakthrough. As "The Times" puts it, "Victory in Mazar brings new challenges as well as new opportunities for the Alliance and the international military coalition operating through it. The Alliance's task on the ground will only get harder [from] now on. The areas in the north of Afghanistan that it holds today are those most hostile to the Taliban for historical and ethnic reasons -- and therefore easiest for enemies of the Taliban to sway. Mazar-i-Sharif was never a natural Taliban stronghold."

The paper says as the Northern Alliance moves south into Pashtun-dominated areas, victory will be much more difficult. The Taliban is mostly made up of Pashtuns. Even if the Northern Alliance were to occupy Kabul, it might face a long guerrilla war waged by the Taliban from the surrounding areas. This type of strategy, the paper notes, is what "[baffled] Soviet troops while they held Afghanistan's cities in the 1980s."


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Karl Feldmeyer says that Germany's security policy has changed this year "with a speed rarely seen before." He examines Germany's decision to support the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism and says that this pledge is "appropriate, given the debt of gratitude owed for the protection that the United States afforded West Germany during decades of the Soviet threat, [and is] also in accordance with Germany's interests, both in proving itself a reliable ally and in contrast to the Persian Gulf War 10 years ago when it did not want to take up arms itself."

He says the German government's declaration of "unlimited solidarity" with the United States and its willingness to participate in the antiterrorism campaign "amount to a revolution in German security policy." The self-restraint that Germany exercised after World War II, he says, "has run its course." But the greatest significance of these changes "is that there are no longer any physical boundaries to where a German military deployment might be considered."


In the "Los Angeles Times," columnist William Pfaff says that U.S. President George W. Bush's statements at a joint press conference on 6 November with French President Jacques Chirac grated on some European nerves. President Bush warned that good intentions were not good enough for members of the antiterrorism coalition and that nations would be held accountable for their "inactivity" -- emphasizing his earlier "you are with us or against us" stance.

Pfaff says that President Chirac intervened at that point to remind the press that it was a resolution of the UN Security Council that obliged participation in the antiterror campaign, and that it was the Security Council that conferred international "legitimacy" on the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan as a response to the 11 September attacks. Pfaff writes that in doing so, President Chirac "was trying to make the point that the world does not automatically endorse the idea of America unilaterally giving the orders on war and peace. But that is what's happening. Europe finds itself once again trying to accommodate a situation where the United States is doing things that make some Europeans uncomfortable, even though they endorse Washington's overall aims." Pfaff adds that, "Mr. Chirac's remark identifying the Security Council, not the U.S. government, as the legitimate source of authority in the anti-terrorist coalition, would undoubtedly be seconded by the other European governments."


Several British-based papers consider the proposals of British Home Secretary David Blunkett to declare a national state of public emergency and pass new law-and-order measures to deal with the terrorist threat. "The Daily Telegraph" writes: "It is true, as the home secretary contends, that the balance between liberty and security shifts when there is a threat to the state. But it is precisely at such times that we should be most vigilant about our civil rights. There is always said to be some good reason why a particular freedom should be curtailed. And, when the country is at war, it seems unpatriotic to dissent. But the fact is that all manner of oppressive measures have been brought in during conflicts and then left in place." The paper says plenty could be done to make Britain safer. But most things, the paper adds, "could be done within [Britain's] existing legal framework. Instead, Mr. Blunkett has decided to pile on new laws. This is likely to leave us no safer, but less free."


The "Financial Times," meanwhile, says that the "most sensitive issue" being addressed in Britain's security-versus-liberty debate is that of detention without trial. Both the United States and Britain have detained suspects since the 11 September attacks; the detainees number into the thousands. The paper says that in times of security threats, a case can be made for the "temporary suspension" of human rights provisions forbidding such detentions. But, it adds, they "must be subject to case-by-case approval by a senior judge on the basis of firm evidence. Suspects must have proper legal representation and a right of appeal. These should be provisional measures. The provisions should be reviewed annually by parliament." The government, the "Financial Times" concludes, "should not use the terrorist threat to push through hasty laws."


In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Wolfgang Koydl discusses U.S.-Russian relations and the "wallflower" position of the EU as it observes the 13-15 November summit between George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Koydl writes that what began with this summer's Ljubljana summit "has surprisingly developed into a kindred-spirit relationship which is bearing fruit, but without Europe."

Expectations are high that the two statesmen are likely to resolve the quarrel over the 1972 ABM treaty. This, Koydl says, would be no small achievement considering how vehemently Russia rejected U.S. plans for a missile-defense shield when Bush first took office. In fact, he says, these two presidents "may establish foundations for a new relationship whereby Russia will be permanently anchored to the West." The Europeans, meanwhile, may be apprehensive that this relationship is being forged "over their heads."

Koydl concludes: "Europe has somewhat miscalculated, but this is no cause to sulk. After all, in the final analysis, relations between states are always subject to interests. And we will not have to wait long until Russian-American interests clash at some point, while Russian-European interests will harmonize elsewhere. Nevertheless, Europe should take one lesson to heart when Bush and Putin embrace: the Europeans can only practice a world policy when they negotiate in concert. Otherwise they will remain wallflowers."


An analysis by Joseph Khan in "The New York Times" considers China's long-anticipated entry on 10 November into the World Trade Organization. Chinese officials, Kahn notes, consider WTO membership "one of their most significant diplomatic achievements since China displaced Taiwan and took a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 1971." China's fast-growing economy now has equal status with other major economic players on the world stage. But Kahn notes that the long-term implications of the decision are uncertain. He writes: "Some Western experts predict that open trade and freer investment will [weaken] the pillars of the Communist Party's power. For its part, China expects to expand the market for its own export industries while maintaining the dichotomy between an open economy and a closed political system."


In France's "Liberation," Jean Piel writes from Islamabad that the "Northern Alliance" -- the name for the group of anti-Taliban opposition fighters -- is really a misnomer, for two reasons. First, because it is a heterogeneous coalition of former resistance leaders and private army commanders, different ethnic groups and different religions, united only by their resistance to the Taliban. Second, because the territory that it controls is not in the north of the country, as its name would imply, but in the center and to the west around Herat.

The Northern Alliance was established in 1996 in reaction to the Taliban's coming to power. Some months ago, the alliance seemed to have lost all hope of reconquering the country. But the attacks of 11 September and the U.S.-led military offensive, Piel says, have changed all this. The alliance has now become a key element of the U.S. strategy, even if Washington distrusts its often unscrupulous fighters. Piel cites Shireen Mazari, manager of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad, as saying that "nothing could be more false" than to imagine that the Northern Alliance will provide Afghanistan's salvation from the injustices of the Taliban. She says that when the alliance's members were in power, from 1992 to 1996, they spread fear through plunder, rape, torture, and massacre. Piel quotes Mazari as saying: "The fear and anarchy that they created explains the success of the Taliban."

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