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Western Press Review: From Afghanistan And Middle East To NATO

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 6 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today focuses on the inter-Afghan agreement reached near Bonn, Germany, this week, as well as on recent events in the Middle East. Many hail the Bonn agreement as a first step toward restoring Afghanistan's political process but warn that many hurdles still remain to bringing peace to the war-torn nation. Other topics addressed include the future of NATO and press freedom.


In the German "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Berthold Kohler says the inter-Afghan agreement reached near Bonn is only the first step in restoring the Afghan state and reorganizing its political processes. The agreement has created "the basic outline for a more peaceful future in Afghanistan -- not guarantees," he writes.

Kohler suggests that the inter-Afghan fighting that has destabilized Afghanistan in the past is far from over. He says an international security force must be deployed "to protect the Afghans -- or more precisely, the rival ethnic groups and tribes on Afghan territory -- from each other. The return to civil 'normality' will be long and arduous for a country that has known nothing but the normality of war for more than 20 years. [The] many warlords in Afghanistan not present at the negotiations have different ideas about the country's future shape -- and most particularly concerning the role they are to play in it."

Kohler remarks that the international community's role in Afghanistan must not be limited to "dispensing political advice and throwing around large sums of money."


An editorial in "The Jerusalem Post" says that the international community's willingness to appease repressive regimes in order to preserve stability is often self-defeating.

"A year ago the Taliban, besides harboring the world's most-wanted terrorist, was among the most repressive regimes on [Earth], yet no one considered helping the Northern Alliance to oust them. If anyone had suggested taking on the Taliban, foreign ministries around the world could be counted on to fret noisily over threatening the 'stability' of Afghanistan."

The paper says a similar situation prevails regarding Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Many observers warn that, should Arafat's Palestinian Authority fail, the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad stand poised to fill the void. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and to some extent Turkey, the paper says, are reportedly concerned that a post-Hussein Iraq would see a rise in irredentist Kurdish and Shiite groups that could "destabilize" the region.

"The Jerusalem Post" writes: "Democracy may not be a panacea, but the weakness of Western diplomats for tyranny-based 'stability' is neither rational nor realistic. Though there are certainly examples of the rotten being replaced by something worse -- the Iranian revolution and the Taliban takeover come to mind -- attempting to preserve the rotten can also lead to that worse outcome."


In a contribution to the British newspaper "The Independent," international lawyer John Whitbeck calls on the United Nations to impose a peace plan on the Middle East. He says further Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are a "dead end," and that the only alternatives are continuing violence and a just peace imposed on the parties to the conflict by the United Nations." The guidelines of a UN peace plan may not be fully acceptable to either side, he says, but a successful plan would be "firmly rooted" in international law.

Whitbeck writes that any UN blueprint for peace must be consistent with "two fundamental principles of international law. First, the 'inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,' an essential principle of the post-World War II world [order]. This would confirm, as the borders of the two states, the lines of control prior to the June 1967 war. Second, the sovereign right of every state to determine who has a right of residence in that state. This would mean that only those Israelis acceptable to Palestine would have a right of residence in Palestine and only those Palestinians acceptable to Israel would have a right of residence in Israel."

Whitbeck says the old cries for a return to the negotiating table make "no sense whatsoever." The region's spiral of violence, he says, now "cries out for unorthodox yet practical thinking."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" looks at press freedom in Russia, and notes that the past year has seen the demise of most of its independent media. The editorial cites the takeover of independent television station NTV by state-owned company Gazprom earlier this year. Now, it says, "Russia's last bastion of independent television, TV-6, is on its deathbed. TV-6's demise would leave the Kremlin in de facto control of all the major television stations."

A Moscow court has ordered the liquidation of TV-6's parent company, MNVK, by invoking a Russian law that prohibits a company from running a deficit two years in a row.

The editorial says Russian "press czar" Mikhail Yurievich Lesin has worked to bring independent media under state control and consolidate Russian President Vladimir Putin's power. "The de facto nationalization of television in Russia has safeguarded the next election for President Putin. Now it remains to convince the West that there has been nothing deliberate about the demise of independent television."

But, the editorial says, "nothing could serve as a better advertisement for the Kremlin's democratic intentions than ending the Lesin era in the Kremlin. But don't just get rid of Mikhail Lesin; get rid of the Press Ministry. [A] Press Ministry can serve no other purpose than to expand the state's role in the media to the detriment of democracy."


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," former U.S. official Ronald Asmus and former German defense official Ulrich Weisser say NATO should focus on expanding its capabilities to deal with threats that may come from beyond Europe. The authors suggest that the U.S. and Europe should develop a comprehensive and joint strategy toward the Middle East and the Gulf region, comprised of political, economic, and military approaches.

Asmus and Weisser say the events of 11 September "conform the need to complete the job of building a Europe whole and free. [A] new alliance focus on its southern tier should [be] reflected in the next round of NATO enlargement." In addition to Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Baltics, they say, the rapid integration of Romania and Bulgaria "would be of considerable strategic importance."

In addition, say the authors, the U.S. attacks of 11 September have offered a new opportunity for NATO-Russia cooperation. While noting that NATO and Russia do not necessarily have the same interests on all issues, they say the two can come together in common cause for "practical cooperation on the ground and on a common assessment of future strategic challenges."


Also in the "International Herald Tribune," Andrew Weiss of the Council on Foreign Relations discusses the shift in NATO-Russian relations since the 11 September attacks.

He says criticism of this shift "is rooted in growing anxiety in the Baltic states and other Central European countries seeking NATO membership next year that Russia will try to use its new relationship with NATO to put future NATO enlargement on ice or to block NATO actions that it disagrees with."

Weiss says concern focuses on plans to create a Russia-North Atlantic Council for decision-making on issues of mutual interest. Some observers fear Russia "could use the new forum to sabotage decisions on sensitive NATO business or to stave off NATO military action."

But Weiss says: "Scrutiny of NATO's actual proposals reveals that these concerns are overblown. NATO officials have made clear that even if consensus cannot be reached in the enlarged council, NATO would retain the ability to take necessary action on its own."

He adds, "The new mechanism that NATO and Russia are developing would help both sides to work more effectively on the urgent security problems of the post-11 September world."


An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" considers the challenge facing the UN in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan. It says the UN learned its lesson during the debacle in Somalia -- notably not to enter a country without the consent of the conflicting parties and without a definite command structure and a powerful mandate.

However, says the editorial, the UN's ambitions will be limited to a few thousand men in Kabul, "who can give some assurances, but can't prevent a civil war. Its role is risky because foreign troops will be regarded as invaders rather than peacekeepers."

The question now is which country should be responsible for sending troops. Germany seems an obvious choice, since it is rich and has a well-trained army. But the editorial says that from the German point of view, the matter is not so simple. The issue could bring down the government. On the other hand, it is not reprehensible to require soldiers to stabilize the outcome of a war.

The editorial says that, in the final analysis, just as when the issue of sending a peace force to Macedonia is at stake, the assigning of German troops will turn into a purely academic parliamentary debate.


In "Die Welt," Michael Stuermer makes some observations on the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, which is now sending shock waves throughout the Arab world -- and ultimately, he says, to Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, he says, is making every effort to isolate this conflict and "knock their heads together" so that the two sides stop the violence and negotiate.

The Palestinian terror groups, he says, are provoking Israel to launch counterattacks and aim to break the American antiterror alliance, in order to win other Arab states over to their side. The Israelis, for their part, base their politics on anger with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom they describe as a "terrorist" incapable of taming Palestinian extremists.

Until now, the Americans have been able to contain the imbalances in the region. Now, except for Afghanistan, all the divisive issues are still waiting for solutions. Stuermer writes that words from the last century seem appropriate: "There is a drummer in the Orient, and when he touches his drum, then it can be heard from the Atlas [mountains] to Hindukush."


In "Eurasia View," Kenneth Weisbrode says the inter-Afghan agreement reached near Bonn still leaves many security concerns unaddressed. Weisbrode says that although the new agreement may be "impossible to enforce, [the] United Nations and the signatories are treating the agreement as a breakthrough. They say it disproves the suspicion that Afghans are too partisan to rule themselves. Deriving the right balance of representation among the many factions and local authorities is a huge and difficult task, and recent indications of warlord activity will make the country harder to unify peacefully."

The "logical-sounding approach" of having all ethnicities represented proportionally "masks a weakness of the deal," says Weisbrode.

He says that while the agreement invokes international support, "UN officials have been cryptic about how that support would work. The structure of Afghanistan's security is particularly unclear. [The] delegates at Bonn repeatedly acknowledged that no interim government can succeed amid a chaotic security environment. At present a jumble of local warlords provides that security.... [The] UN admits that it still has a great deal of work to do, not only inside the country but also beyond its borders."

Weisbrode quotes UN spokesman Ahmad Fawsi as offering a warning on the negotiations: "Anything can go wrong," he said.


An editorial in France's daily "Le Monde" calls the agreement reached near Bonn "the first sign of hope" in Afghanistan, a country ravaged by internal fights and foreign interventions. Suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda forces have not been apprehended, and the Taliban has not yet surrendered, "but the way is opened for the reconstruction of Afghanistan under [the] representative power of all ethnic groups by means of the international community."

Leaders who had fought together against the Soviet invasion of the 1980s before turning on one another, exiles whose visions seemed so incompatible, "have agreed to form a temporary government charged with preparing a progressive pathway for democracy," says "Le Monde." But it will be necessary for what the editorial calls "the godfathers of the agreement" to remain watchful. They should continue to exercise "amicable custody" of the agreement to prevent Afghan warlords from destroying it.

Traditional leaders have taken advantage of the space left by the Taliban's defeat to resume control over their fiefdoms, the editorial says. It adds that the Northern Alliance, whose representatives will hold the offices of interior, defense, and foreign ministers, must learn to share power.

"The Bonn agreement represents an almost unhoped-for success, considering the situation of the country hardly two months ago," writes "Le Monde." The editorial concludes by saying, "The Afghans should not waste this chance."


In "The Washington Times," syndicated columnist Paul Greenberg considers the position of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the wake of last weekend's violence. The Israelis "have just about given up on their partner for peace who keeps delivering war," Greenberg says. After the suicide-bomb attacks, he says Arafat "responded as he always does -- by issuing a pro-forma denunciation of the terrorists and ordering his police to round up the usual suspects...."

Greenberg says David Ben-Gurion, former leader of the new Israeli state, once had a problem similar to Arafat's. Israel was also once run by an uneasy alliance of moderates and fanatical militias. And Ben-Gurion knew "he would have to break the power of the terrorists or he would discredit his new state. [He] knew a showdown was unavoidable, even if it meant civil war." After a "brief but bloody" civil war, Ben-Gurion prevailed, and the more-radical Irgun faction "was merged into an Israeli army under his authority. And one state was forged with one army and one voice."

Greenberg says that thus far, Arafat has not had "the courage, or sense, to face down his fanatics."

Greenberg says Arafat may be his own intifada's next victim. "[Distrusted] by the Israelis and despised by his terrorist allies, [Arafat] may be wondering which will drive him out of power first."

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