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Western Press Review: What To Do With Osama Bin Laden And The Real Concerns Of Afghan Women

  • Grant Podelco

Prague, 23 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and analysis in the Western press today focuses on the war in Afghanistan, including what to do with suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden should he be apprehended; the propaganda behind Western claims of concern for Afghanistan's women; and the chances of success for the upcoming conference in Bonn to discuss an interim government in Kabul.

Other analyses examine the future of Russia's economic rebound, Germany's economic malaise, and prospects for peace in Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya.


A commentary in "The New York Times" looks at the issue of how to treat chief terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden or his accomplices, should they be captured. Harold Hongju Koh, a professor of international law at Yale University, first criticizes two proposals that have already emerged -- secret trials before an American military commission, an order already signed by U.S. President George W. Bush, or the creation of a special international tribunal.

Koh -- who was assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Clinton administration -- says both options are wrong because both rest on what he calls "the same faulty assumption" -- that U.S. federal courts cannot give full, fair, and swift justice in such cases. Koh asks: "If we want to show the world our commitment to the very rule of law that the terrorists sought to undermine, why not try mass murderers who kill American citizens on American soil in American courts? Israel tried Adolf Eichmann. We can try Osama bin Laden."

Koh says he supports international adjudication but adds that creating new tribunals is slow and expensive. He says such tribunals are preferable only when there is no functioning court already in place. The U.S., he says, has a long history of successfully trying international criminals.

"If any judicial system in the world can handle a case like this fairly, efficiently, and openly, it is ours," Koh concludes. "No country with a well-functioning judicial system should hide its justice behind military commissions or allow adjudication of the killing of nearly 4,000 residents by an external tribunal. Why not show the world that American courts can give universal justice?"


Analyst Patrick Cockburn, writing in Britain's "The Independent" newspaper, says next week's conference in Bonn to discuss an interim government for Afghanistan is unlikely to succeed.

The Northern Alliance, which Cockburn says was hanging on by its fingertips a few months ago, today is master of Kabul. Now the Alliance, he says, is not eager to share power and has called the Bonn conference "symbolic."

It is guns, Cockburn writes, that count in Afghanistan, which is why plans to bring back former King Zahir Shah will founder, since he has no armed force at his command.

But the problem facing the Northern Alliance today is similar to that which the Taliban faced until a few days ago. "Its base is too narrow for it to hold on to the power it has seized," Cockburn says. "In such a militarized society, stability is difficult to achieve because the threat of armed force is always just beneath the surface. It is exacerbated by deep ethnic divisions."

But there are reasons for optimism, he writes. Afghans are war-weary and there is a deep desire for a normal life at every level. There exists an unprecedented opportunity for foreign aid if civil peace can be maintained. And external pressures on Afghanistan should also lessen. Iran and Russia, the traditional backers of the Northern Alliance, will want to expand their influence, "but neither wants a confrontation with the U.S.," Cockburn concludes. "Power in Afghanistan is fragmented and will remain so."


In Britain's "The Daily Telegraph," Alice Thomson writes about her recent trip to Afghanistan as part of an appeal to raise money for Afghan refugees. She says the West is mistaken in its beliefs about what Afghan women really want.

"In the West," Thomson says, "we have built up a picture of Afghan women desperate to cast off their shrouds, pull on their jeans and have a party." But what women really want, she says, is food and medicine. Next, they want peace. Then, she says, the country's "countless widows" want the chance to work in the fields or markets to support their families.

"A long way after that comes education and, way in the distance, make-up and clothes. Many rural Afghans have always worn burqas; it makes them feel safer, particularly now that the Northern Alliance -- whose hobbies once included rape -- have taken over," Thomson writes.

Thomson criticizes efforts by U.S. First Lady Laura Bush and others to "lift the veil of oppression" of Afghan women. She writes: "[Their] message is clear: Whether or not Western women agree with the bombing campaign, they should unite in their efforts to free their Afghan sisters." Thomson criticizes such sentiments as "wonderful propaganda."

She continues: "Only a small minority of educated women in Kabul want to wear high-heeled shoes, read the news or go jogging. Baring one's head in public is something even liberal Muslims don't do lightly."

The real causes for concern are famine and infant mortality and the safe return of refugees. The way to solve these problems, Thomson writes, "is not to tell them they can burn their burqas, but to help them with food, security and education, all of which they can enjoy from behind the veil if they choose."


Stefan Kornelius, writing in Germany's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," observes that the success of the Afghan conference to open in Bonn on 26 November depends, above all, on the representatives of the Northern Alliance. Three days ahead of the beginning of the conference, he writes that it is still not clear who will be in possession of a mandate and what the composition of the Northern Alliance delegation will be. This, in turn, calls into question the chances of success for the conference as a whole.

"Whereas the American and British ambassadors are displaying cautious optimism," Kornelius writes, "the Northern Alliance is sending signals which make its willingness for compromise questionable."

One possible aim of the conference is to nominate a 15-member executive body, which would serve as a transition government in Afghanistan and which would draw up a constitution. Any such plan, Kornelius writes, hinges on the "Northern Alliance's willingness to share power."

Kornelius believes efforts to set up an interim government will be a very long-term process. "Without the agreement of all groups," he concludes, "the consignment of a force is far from certain."


Just over a week after the liberation of Kabul from Taliban rule, Britain's "The Economist" writes in an editorial, the future of Afghanistan remains far from clear. The war is not yet over, and the shape of peace is far from planned.

"It is one thing to call for an Afghan government that is 'broad-based, multi-ethnic and fully representative,' as the United Nations Security Council has just done, and quite another to bring it about," the magazine writes, in reference to next week's conference in Bonn.

Merely getting Afghan groups to show up is an achievement, it says. The conference attendees -- the Northern Alliance and an array of mainly Pashtun groups -- "look multi-ethnic and, at a pinch, broad-based," the weekly says. And "no one could reasonably ask at this stage that it be fully representative. The overriding questions are whether it can agree on how to share out power and whether it can translate that agreement into effective mechanisms for administration inside Afghanistan."

The worry, the magazine says, "is that local politics are outpacing UN-led country-building just as the military offensive did. A motley cast of characters is grabbing power by virtue of tribal stature, religious authority or access to money or guns."

Afghanistan, it adds, has not yet descended into the chaos that prevailed before the Taliban took over. In many ways, life has improved already. But the country, "The Economist" writes, "cannot continue for long without politicians who command wide assent. Long-time observers see the Bonn meeting as a last chance to create a central authority that gives the country coherence without repression and modernizes without trampling traditional ways of life."

But the forces working against the success of Bonn, it concludes, are powerful.


A commentary by Vladimir Socor in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" looks at the behavior of the Northern Alliance's ethnic Tajik faction, which it says is almost single-handedly in control of Kabul. This faction has, in the past, aligned itself with Moscow. Its recent behavior, Socor says, was only possible because of Russian and Iranian support.

And Socor, a senior analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, says "a flurry of statements by Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov made clear the intention to use this group in order to extend Russian influence in Afghanistan."

Ivanov, Socor says, has credited Russia for being responsible for the Northern Alliance's military advances, while minimizing the decisive role of U.S. air operations, intelligence gathering, and special operations on the ground. Meanwhile, he says, Russia is implying it may send its own troops into Afghanistan, and is threatening to use its veto power on the UN Security Council to give it a disproportionate role in decisions on peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and the country's political future.

"The optimists among Afghans claim that without the temptations and pressures that come with foreign backing, a patriotic longing for a peaceful unified Afghanistan will win out," Socor writes. "For the time being, however, [the] warlords seem content to rule their respective fiefs."


An editorial in Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says that while fighting is still going on in Afghanistan, international interest now is focused on the upcoming Bonn conference of Afghanistan groups and parties.

"The Northern Alliance, which thanks to the American bombing has been revived as a power factor, is still not playing a transparent role," the newspaper says. It is questionable, the paper writes, whether the Northern Alliance is willing to share power or whether it is leading Afghanistan into the kind of anarchy that made possible the rise of the Taliban in the first place.

It would be naive to draw conclusions ahead of the conference, the newspaper concludes, but recent statements such as that by Northern Alliance foreign affairs spokesman Abdullah Abdullah, saying that the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan is unnecessary, is cause for wariness.


Two commentaries in the Western press today examine Russia's war in Chechnya. In an editorial, "The Boston Globe" acknowledges that the 18 November meeting between Kremlin representative Viktor Kazantsev and Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakaev may have been staged in an effort to show that Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Nonetheless, the newspaper says, the meeting "should be regarded as the unlocking of a door that now ought to be pushed open."

"There is good reason to be wary of any quick progress toward a truce, much less a negotiated political resolution in Chechnya," the paper says. "One skeptical reading of Putin's opening of talks with Chechen leaders is that he intends merely to mollify his partners in the West without taking any action that would impinge on the prerogatives of the Russian military brass in Chechnya."

Another source of skepticism about a swift conclusion, the paper writes, is that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov is not believed to exercise true control over notorious field commanders whose ultimate aims are not those of most Chechens. Chechens, "The Globe" writes, "yearn above all for an end to the war and the withdrawal of the Russian troops who have been pillaging Chechen villages and kidnapping and killing civilians."

The paper concludes by saying U.S. President George W. Bush's muting of U.S. criticism of "Russian savagery" in Chechnya "is a price that should not -- and need not -- be paid for Putin's allegiance in the war against Al-Qaeda. On the contrary, Bush should make a peace settlement in Chechnya the price for Moscow's accession to the club of liberal democracies."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" also makes it known that it does not believe Putin is a sudden convert to Western-style democratic values. But the newspaper says that everyone can agree that Putin is "charting a new, and infinitely preferable, course for Russia. Support for the war on terrorism, economic reforms, a new willingness to work with the U.S. -- all suggest that this president is both learning on the job and applying what he learns."

The most significant evidence of Putin's education are the signs that he wants to end the war in Chechnya. Putin hasn't escalated the war as expected, the paper writes. In fact, he seems to be pursuing the opposite course -- disengagement. The 18 November meeting, it writes, "does seem to signify the Kremlin's desire to find some kind of modus operandi that does not involve feeding new waves of Russian conscripts into the Chechen meat-grinder."

The paper notes that Putin, put in charge of the war by former President Boris Yeltsin, "authorized -- or implicitly condoned -- what is probably one of the most strategically and morally misguided military campaigns in Russian history." The newspaper also notes atrocities by ruthless Chechen rebels.

At this stage, it says, "anything that ends the cycle of misery and bloodshed, any process that seeks a political solution, has to be an improvement."


An editorial in "The New York Times" says the current economic rebound in Russia will not be sustained unless Putin makes further reforms. Even with oil prices declining, the Russian economy, it says, looks likely to expand by more than 3 percent this year.

"Putin has continued to bolster Russia's financial institutions and has made progress in stemming corruption. Businessmen have started to reinvest their profits at home rather than sending them abroad, a sure sign of increasing confidence in Russia's future," the paper says. "Still, the scarcity of foreign investment suggests Mr. Putin needs to do much more."

Russia must put in effect full-disclosure rules in Moscow's financial markets and end its tolerance of "shady insider deals." It should also lay the foundations for a national banking system and institute substantial corporate tax reform. "And rather than seeking to block the westward overtures of its Baltic neighbors," the paper says, "Russia should reach out to them as a bridge to Western Europe's economies, as Hong Kong and Taiwan are for China."

But the Russian economy relies too much on natural resources and heavy manufacturing. Russian dependence on commodities makes the economy too vulnerable to fluctuations in prices.

"A shift to more modern, high-technology manufacturing and services," the paper concludes, "would be the true guarantor of Russia's economic future."


Meanwhile, the "Financial Times" comments on what it calls Germany's economic malaise. Germany, it says, expected to be celebrating the performance of its economy in 2001. Real economic growth would exceed that in the U.S. for the first time in a decade. Unemployment would continue to fall.

"The reality," the paper writes, "could not be more sobering. The U.S. will grow faster then Germany in 2001. Yesterday's small decline in third-quarter gross domestic product, with worse in the cards for the fourth quarter, indicates an economy falling into recession." And Germany itself must take full blame.

The malaise runs deep, it says. Growth has stuck around 1.5 percent for the past decade. Last year's 3 percent expansion was an exception. Fear of mass unemployment again threatens to undermine consumption next year. This could cause Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder great difficulties in the general election.

The most worrying possibility is that Germany's age profile is simply not conducive to consumption growth. Germany has one of the fastest-aging populations and is short of free-spending young people.

"Unless Germans can be persuaded to spend," the paper concludes, "Germany may find itself suffering from the long-term weakness in consumer spending also afflicting Japan."

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