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Western Press Review: 'War Crimes' In Afghanistan; Where Antiterrorism Battle Heads Next

  • Grant Podelco

Prague, 29 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-led military action against the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan continues to dominate editorials and commentary in the Western press, but the focus is shifting more to the war's bloody aftermath and where it may be heading next.

Other topics examined include the possibilities for peace in the Middle East, the global fight against AIDS, and the importance of integrating Bosnia into Europe's political, social, and economic fabric.

Two British newspapers focus on the deaths of hundreds of Taliban fighters during the battle for control of Mazar-i-Sharif and after a prison revolt near the same city. Both commentators conclude the West must bear responsibility for the "war crimes" that took place there.


Analyst Isabel Hilton, writing in "The Guardian," says "there is no excuse for the savagery" that occurred during the prison revolt. We know how the prison revolt ended, she writes -- with the deaths of hundreds of Taliban fighters, many of them dismembered, some of them with their hands tied behind their backs. U.S. and British forces helped to quell the revolt. But the story of how the revolt began is much murkier.

"We are invited to believe that in the final appalling hours of the prisoners' revolt, they were fighting to the death and by then, no doubt, they were," Hilton writes. "But if that had been their intent from the start, why did they not fight to the death defending Kondoz? Were they led into a trap in the [prison], then provoked into rebellion once they realized that the promises they had been given were hollow?"

Hilton says there has been a "deafening official silence" following the massacre. Amnesty International has called for an investigation. The Taliban fighters are not innocent civilians, Hilton acknowledges, "but how you treat a captive enemy divides the warrior from the criminal."

It's much neater that the prisoners are dead, "victims of their own desire for martyrdom," she says. No questions of security or of future trials. But it is time, Hilton says, to remember what this war is supposed to be about: a crusade against terror, a defense of the right to live in peace, a defense of the superior values of a civilized society against the immorality of the terrorist.

"Whose war is this and who must take responsibility for the war crimes that have been committed?" Hilton asks.


Commentator Robert Fisk, writing in "The Independent," begins an analysis with the words: "We are becoming war criminals in Afghanistan." U.S. and British forces helped the Northern Alliance overcome the prison uprising, resulting in the "executions" of Taliban prisoners. "It is an atrocity," Fisk writes. "British troops are now stained with war crimes."

What, Fisk asks, has gone wrong with our moral compass since 11 September?

Over the past 50 years, the West has lectured the Chinese and the Soviets, the Arabs and the Africans, the Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs, about human rights, and put many on trial for their crimes. "Yet suddenly, after 11 September, we went mad," Fisk says. "We bombed Afghan villages into rubble, along with their inhabitants -- blaming the insane Taliban and Osama bin Laden for our slaughter -- and now we have allowed our gruesome militia allies to execute their prisoners."

U.S. President George W. Bush has signed an order to establish secret military courts to try suspected terrorists. Fisk calls such tribunals "legally sanctioned American government death squads."

"When people with yellow or black or brownish skin, with Communist or Islamic or Nationalist credentials, murder their prisoners or carpet bomb villages to kill their enemies or set up death squad courts, they must be condemned by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and the 'civilized world,'" Fisk writes. "But when our people are murdered -- when our glittering buildings are destroyed -- then we tear up every piece of human rights legislation, send off the B-52s in the direction of the impoverished masses and set out to murder our enemies."

Other commentary about Afghanistan in the Western press examines where the war against terrorism will head next.


An editorial in "The Christian Science Monitor" says media commentators aren't the only ones speculating about where the Bush administration' assault on terrorism will be aimed, once things are wrapped up in Afghanistan. "Governments in various countries that have been tagged by Washington as friendly to terrorists, and have witnessed the U.S.-led rout of the Taliban, are busily trying to get out of the bomb sights," the paper says.

Somalia, it says, is virtually pleading with the U.S. to renew ties and help it achieve stability. Some among the country's Islamic fundamentalists are said to have ties to Al-Qaeda, but the paper says the U.S. would be unwise to ignore Somalia's pleas for aid. Another Afghanistan could be prevented.

The U.S. would also be wise to gain what it can from diplomatic engagement with Sudan, which the paper says is trying to emerge from the shadow of once having been a refuge for Osama bin Laden. The country has even turned over the names of suspected Al-Qaeda associates to Washington.

Yemen is also cooperating, the newspaper says, in the fight against terrorism, and its president is in Washington this week "to cement the newfound friendship" with the U.S.

"The mood in these three countries reflects a growing world awareness that the terror attack on America will have long and profound repercussions. Allies [could] emerge from unlikely corners of the globe," the paper concludes. "Working with them could open the way for wider political change down the road -- change that might help eliminate some of the root causes of terrorism."


A Stratfor analysis says the next phase of the war against terrorism is unlikely to include another military strike but will instead focus on destroying terrorist cells around the world through military and intelligence assistance, special operations, and economic and police actions.

Striking Iraq, it argues, would threaten cooperation from other Arab and Islamic nations. Logistically, such a strike would also take months to prepare. As for a military strike against North Korea, it would demonstrate that Washington is not solely targeting Islamic nations, but such a benefit would be outweighed by the political backlash from South Korea, China, and even Russia and Japan.

The second phase of the terrorism war, Stratfor says, likely will include discrete military actions, but it will also be "more clandestine and less media-friendly than the bombings of Kabul. Information in this phase of the war will trickle and seep out, appearing perhaps as unrelated incidents. Far from being uncoordinated, however, this broader international phase involves close cooperation and intelligence-sharing among the United States and its coalition partners."

Although totally eliminating a threat against the United States is impossible, Stratfor says, "Washington is taking the war to the terrorists -- hitting them simultaneously around the world and thus undercutting their ability to regroup, formulate or carry out planned attacks."

Another large-scale military strike will come only after all other means of denying terrorists sanctuary in these countries is exhausted. "This, however, remains a long way off," Stratfor concludes.


Forget the camaraderie of the recent Texas summit between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, a commentary in the "International Herald Tribune" advises. International politics Professor Robyn Lim writes that while the U.S. ups the ante in its military campaign by deploying marines for ground operations, "Russia, at no cost or risk, has reinstalled itself in Kabul." Lim calls the move -- accomplished as part of a Russian humanitarian airlift that included installing an ambassador in the Afghan capital -- "the latest round of the Great Game of big power maneuvering for advantage that was first played out in Afghanistan in the 19th century."

But this time around, she writes, Russia "is much weaker than it was in the heyday of the Great Game. [It is] also a shadow of what it was in 1979, [when] it invaded Afghanistan." She continues: "Putin may have decided that Russia is so weak that he now must get a deal with the West on the best terms available. He is clever at playing from a weak hand. His rush to Kabul shows that he hasn't given up realpolitik." She concludes with a stern warning: "Those in the West who advocate letting Russia into NATO should think again."


Commentator Peter Muench, writing in Germany's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," examines the problems facing the negotiations on Afghanistan's future now taking place in Petersberg, near Bonn.

The representatives of the various Afghan factions who have convened there, says Muench, are somewhat dizzy with success -- a sensation that actually lies merely in the fact that "they have come together and are prepared to start afresh."

This new attitude became apparent when consensus was immediately reached on the principle of broad-based representation in an interim administration. But, says Muench, this alone does not represent a breakthrough. He writes: "The delegates have positioned themselves on the starting line. Now the race begins for jostling for the best positions."

The "blissful atmosphere" that now prevails at Petersberg is not solving any problems. Creating a new beginning for Afghanistan from such disparate interests will be a stressful process, Muench writes.

"In this game, in which the cards are not revealed, the United Nations has only one trump which is valid," he says. "All the leaders of ethnic groups and factions have probably recognized that there is no future for them without billions of dollars of support. The sugar can serve decisively as a whip."


In an editorial, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" discusses the possibilities for settling the festering conflict in the Middle East.

The promises made by former U.S. President George Bush during the Gulf War 10 years ago to promote an independent Palestinian state next door to Israel are now in the hands of his son, President George W. Bush. Bush's prime reason to tackle this problem "in a constructive and energetic way," says the commentary, "is his dependence on his Arab partners in the anti-terror alliance."

But the high hopes for peace placed on the U.S. envoys to the Middle East have so far been reduced to simply achieving a truce. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "iron fist" demands -- for at least seven days of non-violence as a condition for sitting down at the negotiating table -- are considered impractical even by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

On the other hand, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is in a weak position, seemingly incapable of stemming the violence by Palestinian militants. The editorial concludes that -- given the positions of the two sides -- "the prospects for peace bode ill."


UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan writes about the global fight against AIDS in a commentary contributed to "The Washington Post" ahead of World AIDS Day on 1 December.

Every day, Annan notes, more than 8,000 people die of AIDS. Every hour, almost 600 people become infected. Every minute, a child dies. More than 40 million people are now living with the virus. "Before the terrorist attacks two months ago," Annan says, "tremendous momentum had been achieved in that fight. To lose it now would be to compound one tragedy with another."

After years of "painfully slow" progress in acknowledging the crisis, he writes, the past year has seen the international community finally recognizing the magnitude of the challenge. Public opinion has been mobilized, drug companies have made their AIDS drugs more affordable, corporations have created programs to help employees both prevent and treat the disease, and foundations are making important contributions to prevention and the search for a vaccine.

Annan notes that pledges to a UN-sponsored fund to help finance an urgent response to the epidemic stand at more than $1.5 billion, just seven months after it was created. Last June, the UN met in a special session of the General Assembly to devise a coordinated global response to the crisis.

"It is clear," Annan concludes, "that we have the road map, the tools and the knowledge to fight AIDS. What we must sustain now is the political will."


Balkan diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch makes a case for reaching out to the Europe Union's 12-million-strong Muslim community in a commentary contributed to "The New York Times."

Petritsch -- who is responsible for implementing the civilian provisions of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement in Bosnia -- notes the events of 11 September have sparked an unfortunate debate about Islam that's been framed in terms of "Us" -- or the civilized, Western world -- and "Them" -- the so-called dangerous, suspect Muslims.

"While Europe is searching for its response to global terrorism," Petritsch writes, "it must at the same time actively reach out to Muslims in Europe with the values it stands for: democracy, individual rights and religious and national tolerance."

Europe must also open itself to the idea of admitting nations into the EU with large Muslim populations, remembering that Islam is part of the European tradition. And it also must stand by its political and economic engagement in the Balkans. "Exclusion and alienation would only breed fundamentalist ideas," he writes.

Bosnia, he says, needs Europe's support to prove that peaceful coexistence of Islam and Christianity is possible. Since 1995, Bosnia -- with its multi-ethnic, reform-oriented government -- has made what Petritsch says is "impressive progress" in improving the lives of its citizens. And refugees are returning in significant numbers.

But the EU, he says, must intensify its efforts to help Bosnia develop as a "self-sustaining multireligious democracy," including greater formal association with the union.

"Bosnia," he says, "is the place to render the notion of a clash of civilizations null and void and to prove that democracy, freedom and human rights are universal."

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