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Western Press Review: Propaganda And 'Collateral Damage,' Afghanistan, And Kosovo

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 11 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today considers press freedom and propaganda, the lack of reporting on civilian deaths in Afghanistan, and the challenges facing the new leader of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamid Karzai. Other topics include Russia's emerging geopolitical role and Kosovo's first parliamentary session.


An editorial in "The New York Times" considers the videotaped recording of suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, found near the Afghan city of Jalalabad and reportedly now in the hands of U.S. officials. The editorial says descriptions of the videotape suggest it might be the "clearest evidence to date" that bin Laden was aware of the plot to stage the 11 September attacks. But it adds that, after the U.S. government made the controversial decision to discourage the American news media from broadcasting videotapes made by bin Laden, the White House "now finds itself in the awkward position of weighing what to do with a new recording that it obviously wants the world to see."

The editorial says that the government should not have tried to limit broadcast of earlier bin Laden videos or transcripts in the first place. Pressuring the media to limit public access to the tapes, it says, "was a misuse of government power." Now, the government is learning the danger inherent in trying to control the news. "When information is not to the government's liking, discouraging broadcast and publication may seem enticing to officials. But the tables can quickly be turned, as the White House is now learning."


In "Eurasia View," journalist and Islamic affairs analyst Ahmed Rashid looks at the challenges facing Hamid Karzai, newly appointed leader of Afghanistan's interim government. Rashid says that Karzai has the support of three Northern Alliance "modernizers" -- Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, new Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim and Interior Minister Yunis Qanooni. "All three respect Karzai," says Rashid, adding that Karzai has a reputation as a leader who will put Afghanistan first -- above his clan or ethnic group. But although the three Northern Alliance leaders will be able to sway their own ethnic Tajiks, says Rashid, "it remains to be seen whether they can sway other ethnic groups to win support for Karzai's administration."

The author describes Karzai as "an unflagging negotiator and conciliator" and says that these skills will be much in demand as he faces the challenges ahead. First, he will have to gather Pashtun leaders from the east and south. And he must secure international aid with which he can lure less-agreeable ethnic warlords to take part in the new, broadly representative government for Afghanistan. Rashid writes: "There is little doubt that he will face immense difficulties and the rollercoaster ride that is built into Afghanistan's politics today. However, the once-lightweight Karzai is now a heavyweight."


An editorial in Belgium's "Le Soir" says that, since the U.S.-led military campaign began in Afghanistan two months ago, Washington has continuously evaded the issue of civilian victims, which the paper says may number into the hundreds or even thousands.

The paper notes that last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld again asserted the Pentagon was not capable of assessing the number of civilian victims. But, the paper quotes a Western humanitarian aid worker as saying, "this is propaganda. How else to explain that the United States is capable of determining if one of their bombs has killed an Al-Qaeda member and cannot establish whether a bomb has killed 10 villagers?" The realities of war, the paper adds, have destroyed the illusion of the infallibility of "surgical strikes" carried out by a high-tech military.

The paper says that the question of civilian deaths has been swept aside by American authorities, "often followed by the Western media." Even when nongovernmental workers in Afghanistan report civilian losses, the paper adds, this is not taken into account by the Western press or political authorities. "Le Soir" says that Doctors without Borders claimed 80 civilians were killed between 1 and 5 December in attacks on the Tora Bora region. Anti-Taliban commanders have also stated that hundreds of civilians have been killed in villages, as the U.S. continues to target Al-Qaeda.


In the "Los Angeles Times," Francis Crick, Nadine Gordimer, Jose Saramago, and others submit a contribution prepared in consultation with Nobel Prize laureates. They say that even before 11 September, a worldwide shift had occurred, demanding that future security concerns rest on a firm foundation of global social justice.

From Stockholm, the authors write: "The most profound danger to world peace in the coming years will stem not from the irrational acts of states or individuals but from the legitimate demands of the world's dispossessed. [Global] warming -- not of their making but originating with the wealthy few -- will affect...fragile ecologies most. Their situation will be desperate and manifestly unjust."

The authors continue: "It cannot be expected [that] in all cases they will be content to await the beneficence of the rich. If, then, we permit the devastating power of modern weaponry to spread through this combustible human landscape, we invite a conflagration that can engulf both rich and poor. The only hope for the future lies in cooperative international action, legitimized by democracy. It is time to turn our backs on the unilateral search for security, in which we seek to shelter behind walls,...[a] wider degree of social justice [alone] gives hope of peace."


In "The New York Times," Nicholas Kristof writes from Kabul that one of the problems that threatens to undermine Afghanistan's future success is that between 50 and 60 percent of its workforce is not being used. Kristof writes: "The Taliban are gone from Kabul, but women are still fifth-class citizens."

In addition to the obvious human rights issues involved in the repressed status of Afghan women, Kristof says, "There is another important cost: the missed opportunity for Afghanistan as a whole. Afghanistan has one resource of far greater economic value than oil or diamonds: the half of the population that has been largely excluded from economic life."

He writes: "History has repeatedly shown the economic advantages of education and autonomy for women, and indeed the West pulled ahead of the rest of the world beginning in the 1400s partly because it was educating more girls." He quotes David S. Landes, an economic historian at Harvard, as writing: "The best clue to a nation's growth and development potential is the status and role of women."

Kristof calls on the West to make ensuring autonomy and opportunities for Afghan women a priority. "For the sake of all Afghans," he says, the West should "prod the new government to improve education, health care and job opportunities for women, and also direct [aid] in that direction."


An editorial in Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" examines yesterday's first session of Kosovo's parliament. It notes that the three parties that gained the most support -- the Democratic League of Kosovo, the Democratic Party of Kosovo, and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo -- are all ethnic Albanian parties that seek independence for the province. But it notes that under UN Security Council Resolution 1244, Kosovo remains part of the Yugoslav Federation.

"The UN is thus leading Kosovo to greater self-determination through the ballot box without acceding to the goal which that process implies," writes the paper. "Why lead the people through [elections] and then deny the fundamental aspirations of the parties which won the most votes?" the paper asks. The UN mission and its NATO-backed military force, it says, are merely "an interim mission charged with setting up provisional institutions for self-government."

Kosovo's indefinite attachment to Yugoslavia "appears a recipe for armed revolt," the paper adds. It says UN Security Council Resolution 1244 is becoming "ever more anachronistic, and indeed may well be overtaken by events if Montenegro votes for independence next spring and the federation thereby ceases to exist."


An editorial in "The Washington Post" says that although Russian President Vladimir Putin has frequently proclaimed his willingness to form closer ties with the United States and Europe, "he is still pursuing policies both at home and abroad that are incompatible with that aim, ranging from suppressing independent media to bullying neighbors."

Even so, it says, drawing Russia into "a genuinely cooperative relationship is so important that it must be explored." But it calls the recent agreement between NATO and Russia to set up a new cooperative council a "hurried initiative." The council, it says, will have to reconcile Putin's demand for influence with the West's need to preserve NATO as an effective defense organization not subject to an external veto.

The editorial goes on to say that U.S. officials "rightly rolled back" expectations that Russia would be guaranteed an equal voice and be able to vote with the 19 NATO members. It adds that the U.S. and NATO "must build safeguards into engagement with Russia. Mr. Putin is surely moving his country, but it is too early to say whether he is really headed in the same direction as the Western democracies."


An editorial carried by the German "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" today entitled "Proof Against Bin Laden" says that, on the one hand, there is a growing feeling in the democratic world that a formal charge with unquestionable evidence can now be made against those who planned the 11 September terrorist attacks. On the other hand, it says, there is a growing number of believers in a conspiracy.

In the case of the New York attacks, the allegations go so far as to ascribe them to the U.S. government. This theory states that with the World Trade Center massacre, the U.S. could create an enemy to divert the attention of American citizens from internal weaknesses.

The editorial says that now, the U.S. has a video in which suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden gives convincing evidence of his involvement. While this video is not sufficient proof for a conviction, the signs are becoming ever more persuasive that bin Laden is the "spiritual father" behind what the paper calls "religiously motivated and fatal fanaticism."

The editorial says that bin Laden's arrest would not only serve to punish the culprits of the latest attacks -- as well as the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania -- but could also prevent future attacks.


In "The New York Times," C.J. Chivers writes from Afghanistan's Bagh-i-Shirkat refugee camp on the distribution of food aid by workers from the private International Organization for Migration -- the first distribution of aid at Bagh-i-Shirkat since U.S.-led military operations began on 7 October. Chivers calls the distribution a "monumental task." While some families received a few pieces of clothing and wheat for making bread, others received nothing at all.

Chivers writes: "[T]the needs in Bagh-i-Shirkat and other local camps are clear: the relief agencies hope to reopen their offices and begin arranging for the distribution of food, medicine and winter clothing coming from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan." But Chivers says "the offices of many agencies that normally operate in this region -- including the Afghan Red Crescent, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Kondoz Rehabilitation Agency -- were thoroughly looted in the last days of the fighting in the nearby city of Kondoz. [Because] of equipment shortages and ongoing worries about safety, many agencies' foreign staffs have not returned to work."

Chivers adds: "So far, American help has not been visible, except for an aerial food drop near the airport last week. It rained meals on Northern Alliance soldiers, but not civilians, and had no effect on the camps of hungry people a few miles away."


In the "International Herald Tribune," David Malone of the International Peace Academy looks at the diplomatic shifts that have occurred as a result of the campaign in Afghanistan. He says that in determining policy and action in the country, "diplomatic confusion has been rife. With America focused on important but narrow military objectives, those countries prepared to contribute to a peacekeeping force have failed to organize themselves and articulate a strategy." As a result, he says, the U.S. has maintained "significant diplomatic blocking power." In addition, unlike in Kosovo in 1999, the U.S. carried out military actions largely unilaterally. Malone writes: "If America's allies do not much like this, they have only themselves to blame. For years they have been content to see Washington consolidate its lead in military capacity. As a result, America will also now, very largely, call the tune of international diplomatic moves."

Malone goes on to consider the logistical difficulties arising for aid and reconstruction efforts. He notes that the UN Security Council is soon expected to mandate a peacekeeping mission for Kabul. But he says while security must be guaranteed, "the absence of peacekeepers in broad swaths of the country will make it difficult and dangerous for the United Nations, the Red Cross system, the World Bank and nongovernmental organizations to provide assistance and help underpin economic recovery and reconstruction."


In "The Washington Post," Pamela Constable writes from Kabul that as winter sets in, survival is a daily struggle for thousands of Afghan refugees. She writes: "UN relief officials have described Afghanistan as the worst humanitarian situation in the world, and Kabul, a city ruined by years of war and crammed with rural refugees from drought and civil conflict, is its most visible symbol."

"The immediate need here in Kabul is so dire and public frustration so high that relief officials cannot move fast enough to contain it. The World Food Program was unprepared for the aggressive mobs that have thronged the food distribution sites since Saturday [8 December], breaking down fences and attacking policemen and food workers." She quotes one relief official as saying that controlling the distribution of aid was "impossible." Distribution had to be suspended for one day to "improve security."

Constable writes: "Away from the distribution sites, many destitute Kabul residents are silently enduring the harsh winter in frigid homes. Many are refugees who fled from fighting in rural areas between Taliban forces and the opposition Northern Alliance, and another 10,000 have returned to Kabul this month after temporarily fleeing the bombing by the United States."

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