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Western Press Review: The Campaign In Afghanistan -- Where Will It Lead?

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 21 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The first half of RFE/RL's press review focuses on events in Afghanistan, as Northern Alliance and Taliban forces continue to battle for the cities of Kondoz in the north and Kandahar in the south. Other topics discussed today include EU common security and defense policy and whether the campaign against terrorism will eventually lead to Baghdad.


In "Eurasia View," Tashkent-based journalist Raffi Khatchadourian looks at the meeting between the Northern Alliance and Afghan tribal leaders to discuss the formation of a broad-based government, set to start on 26 November in Berlin. While after some debate the Northern Alliance did agree to meet at a neutral location, Khatchadourian says several obstacles remain to agreeing on a government.

He notes that the UN's special representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, views Afghanistan's former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, as the most suitable choice to head a provisional government. But certain Northern Alliance factions would prefer former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was ousted by the Taliban in 1996. In addition, some Northern Alliance commanders oppose the deployment of an international security force in Afghanistan. Many view such a deployment as essential to ensure the country's stability while a government is agreed upon.

Khatchadourian says the rout of the Taliban created a power vacuum in which Northern Alliance commanders and tribal leaders seek to carve out their own spheres of influence. He notes it was just such internal divisiveness that brought the factional fighting and armed conflict to Afghanistan in the 1980s and early 1990s. And it was this intertribal conflict that led many Afghans to long for the rigid stability promised by the Taliban when it came to power.


In Germany's "Die Welt," Jacques Schuster also discusses next week's meeting between various Afghan factions in Berlin. Schuster questions why Berlin was chosen as the venue and says that, unfortunately, Germany has done little to deserve any credit for ending the Taliban regime. The 3,900-strong German military force that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pledged is still just standing by, he says.

Schuster wryly says Berlin was chosen because of promised European Union aid for Afghanistan, which will largely be dispensed from the German treasury. Moreover, he says, the German government will undoubtedly exploit hosting these talks to "win credibility." Schuster adds that there is a good chance of earning this credibility: "Our partners are used to [Germans] warding off the danger of mistrust by offering money and moral words," he says.

Schuster ultimately concludes that this meeting offers a genuine chance for peace in Afghanistan after 22 years of warfare. He says, "If Berlin can make a contribution, all the better."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" today considers the situation in the northern Afghan city of Kondoz. It says thousands of the most fanatical Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are trapped in the city, surrounded on all sides by Northern Alliance forces.

"The Al-Qaeda men in Kondoz are volunteers from Arab countries -- Pakistan, Kashmir, Indonesia, and elsewhere -- who rallied to Osama bin Laden's call for [a] jihad [or holy struggle] against all infidels...."

Afghanistan, the newspaper says, "is a kind of [school] where they learn havoc-making. After they finish their 'training' they put into practice what they've learned by killing civilians in their target countries...."

The paper goes on to say that the treatment of Afghan locals by these men has been horrible: "They have taken notables hostage and have kidnapped men of fighting age. Residents who can flee Kondoz describe a reign of terror imposed by men who speak Arabic, Urdu, Chinese, or Bahasa -- anything but the local Dari."

The paper remarks that "war is an option of last resort, reserved for dire times when diplomacy fails." But in the battle for Kunduz, it says, "the priority here must be to make sure that the men trapped inside Kondoz do not kill again."


An editorial in "The New York Times" urges swift action to promote a broad-based interim government in Kabul, and calls for the deployment of international troops -- from Jordan, Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and elsewhere -- in the capital and around the country.

"The reason for urgency is rooted in recent Afghan history. During the 1980s and early 1990s, there were seven major political groups based in Pakistan trying to oust the Russians [from] Afghanistan. They typically fought as much among themselves as against their Russian foes. Once these parties took control in 1992, they plunged Afghanistan into civil war, making the Taliban takeover possible. Now the leaders of the seven parties are back, jockeying for power. Unless an interim government is established, they could soon be at war with each other again."

The editorial says the United States is "preoccupied with the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his supporters. But it is critically important to stabilize the situation in Kabul by sending in foreign peacekeeping troops and establishing an interim governing authority. If the capital and its environs can be secured, Afghans in surrounding regions will be more likely to participate in a power-sharing arrangement elsewhere."


An editorial in Britain's "The Independent" calls on the United States to demand "internationally acceptable standards of conduct" from the Northern Alliance as the military campaign in Afghanistan continues. The paper notes that the U.S. has stated that it will not accept surrenders from Taliban or Al-Qaeda forces, and that anyone intending to do so must surrender to the Northern Alliance.

"The Independent" says the assumptions that can be made from this policy are twofold. "First, that the U.S. is concentrating all its forces on catching or killing Osama bin Laden and his associates in Al-Qaeda, and wants no more engagement on the ground than is strictly necessary to that end. The second is that [the U.S.] has next to no interest in what happens in post-Taliban Afghanistan. In effect, while denying that it would condone killings or massacres, the U.S. is giving the Northern Alliance a free hand to deal with its enemies as it will. We have seen too often how brutally it can behave."

The paper says the U.S. approach "comes perilously close to acceptance that the end justifies the means -- any means."


A "Financial Times" editorial considers the European Union's common security and defense policy, which is to be declared "operational" in the next few weeks. But the editorial says the EU definition of "operational" appears to "mean merely that the institutional structure has been put in place. The prospect of coordinated European military operations in the shape of the planned 60,000-strong rapid reaction force is a good way off. So is the prospect of its being properly equipped."

One problem hindering the realization of a well-prepared EU defense initiative is the failure of EU countries to increase their defense spending, "in order to equip themselves properly for the probable crises of the 21st century. The gaps are all too well-known: heavy-lift aircraft, air-to-air refueling capacity, high-technology communications, and intelligence facilities. Rapid deployment is a fiction in most EU countries, apart from Britain and France."

The editorial concludes that declaring the defense initiative "operational" is "ill-judged and potentially counter-productive. It creates a public expectation, which the EU member states are simply not in a position to meet."


A commentary by Jonathan Freedland in Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper says that after the campaign in Afghanistan, the United States is likely to focus on Iraq in its war on terrorism. The U.S. administration is divided on the issue, but the "hawks" have won out, he says. Freedland theorizes that the campaign will begin by providing political support for opposition movements in the Iraqi north, where opposition to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is strongest. This will help organize and exploit the Iraqi opposition to Hussein, he says. "Then let U.S. air power rain down on Saddam's army. His collapse will come soon after."

Freedland asks why Washington's hawks are so eager to take on a fight with Iraq, and suggests two possible reasons. "They are convinced that state sponsorship makes terrorism possible and that, with Kabul removed, Baghdad remains fanaticism's number one patron. But they might also be playing a subtler game. Washington knows that the continued U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia is a provocation which [Osama] bin Laden has been able to exploit. Yet so long as Saddam is lurking nearby, the Americans cannot leave. With him gone, the [U.S.] could pull out and [go] home."


An editorial in today's "Chicago Tribune" says that expanding the campaign against terrorism to include the regime in Baghdad would be reckless and counterproductive. "Many conservatives want to expand our target list to include Iraq's Saddam Hussein, whom they regard as an ally of Al-Qaeda and the biggest terrorist threat in the world today. Otherwise, they warn, he will remain in place to build weapons of mass destruction and, someday, use them against America or its allies."

But the paper says that taking the war to Baghdad would actually undermine the current antiterrorism coalition. If the United States were to attack Iraq, it writes, "much of the behind-the-scenes help Washington has gotten from governments in the Muslim world would suddenly evaporate. Anti-American sentiment in the Middle East might boil out of control, endangering comparatively moderate regimes in Cairo, Riyadh, and beyond. Nor is there any guarantee that Iraqi opposition groups would prove as aggressive and resourceful as the Northern Alliance has in Afghanistan."

The paper adds that the evidence supporting Iraqi involvement in the 11 September attacks is "thin at best. Without a solid case, Washington would find itself with few allies in the effort."


In "The Washington Post," staff writer Thomas Ricks says that as the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan moves to areas in the south of the country, the conflict will become much more like guerrilla warfare. He says the next phase of battle "will be murkier, lacking definable front lines, with U.S. forces pursuing small groups.... Progress sometimes will be difficult to detect. [Most] of all, it may be far more difficult to tell when -- or if -- the United States has won."

Ricks says a major question will be when to declare victory. He quotes Central Asian defense analyst Kenneth Weisbrode as saying, "I would expect [the U.S.] to keep doing more of the same until by design or accident we catch or kill enough senior people to proclaim victory."

But many factors are reinforcing the U.S.'s determination to stay the course and fulfil its objectives, says Ricks. In this campaign, the United States has an unusually clear awareness of the dangers of stopping too soon. The lesson of the 1991 Persian Gulf War was that it ended inconclusively, he says. And many Afghan experts blame the current conflict on the U.S. ending its involvement in Afghanistan too soon after the 1989 Soviet collapse. If the antiterrorism coalition does not finish what it started, it may face a similar situation in years to come.


The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" carries an editorial by Peter Muench in which he examines what he calls the "Kabul chaos theory." He says many words of wisdom speak of learning from history or of history repeating itself. But the current situation in Afghanistan, he says, is an example of history being reenacted as a "brutal tragedy."

There are high hopes for peace, but also plenty of fears, accentuated by the bitter battle for Kondoz, in which thousands are perishing and four journalists were murdered. The general chaos is a reminder of pre-Taliban days, he says. The only response to this chaos, says Muench, is generous help from without to counter the dire threats from within.


An editorial in France's daily "Le Monde" eulogizes the four journalists killed this week while covering the war in Afghanistan. "Their only weapons were their pens or their cameras," it says. "They were there not to fight but to observe, report, analyze. [They] paid with their lives for their professional curiosity, their courage to take risks, their willingness to go in on the ground [to] report reality to the world."

"Le Monde" says that like so many before them, these four -- Maria Grazia Cutoli of "Corriere della Sera," Julio Fuentes of "El Mundo," Australian Harry Burton and Afghan Azizullah Haidari of Reuters -- joined the sad troop of war correspondents who were killed in the exercise of their profession.

Such tragedies, the paper writes, are part of an increasing "'media-zation,' which increases the number of journalists to better inform the public, but which exposes them, unarmed and defenseless, to stray bullets. 'Le Monde' honors them."


In "Eurasia View," journalist Todd Diamond looks at the conference of donor countries which began this week (20 November) to discuss international recovery and construction efforts in Afghanistan. Diamond says that UN officials suggest that the political and economic initiatives must keep pace with the fast-developing situation on the ground and the creation of an administration for the country. But, he writes, "officials are reluctant to estimate the total costs of reconstruction in Afghanistan."

However, to put it in perspective, Diamond says "a five-year plan put in place after the 1975-94 civil war in Mozambique, a country smaller than Afghanistan but equally poor and devastated by war, cost $6.5 billion."

Diamond cites Malloch Brown, in charge of leading the early recovery efforts for Afghanistan, as saying that development priorities in Afghanistan "include rehabilitating municipal infrastructure, including roads and electricity grids. There is also a dire need to restore Afghanistan's agricultural sector to a level of self-sufficiency. Currently many Afghans are dependent on international humanitarian assistance," writes Diamond.

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