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Western Press Review: The Interim Afghan Government, Argentina's Economic Crisis, And The Euro

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 21 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today is dominated by events in Argentina, with rioting erupting in the streets over the nation's ongoing economic crisis, and the country's president, Fernando de la Rua, announcing his resignation. Other commentary focuses on events in Afghanistan, as preparations continue for tomorrow's (22 December) swearing in of the new interim administration; the upcoming introduction of the euro single currency on 1 January; and the imminent departure of the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.


In "The Irish Times," Elaine Lafferty looks at plans for the swearing in tomorrow of the new Afghan interim government, to be headed by Hamid Karzai. She says that "hopes are high" that the new government will allow peace and security to reign for the first time in 20 years. The international community looks for tomorrow's ceremony to "usher in a period of relative peace after more than two decades of civil war," she writes, while noting that the details of the event are being kept secret for security reasons.

Lafferty observes that as plans are laid for tomorrow's event, the UN Security Council voted today on a resolution authorizing a British-led multinational force to protect the interim administration. "The UN resolution authorizes a British-led international force for Kabul [that is] still surrounded by disagreements." New Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim says troops will number around 1,000 and serve as a limited security force; Lafferty cites a British defense official as saying the force will total between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers. Among the Western participants, Germany has already expressed opposition to the strong command role to be played by the U.S. military.

Meanwhile, says Lafferty, U.S. reconnaissance missions continue to monitor Al-Qaeda's former stronghold in Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. But there is "still no news of [Osama] bin Laden," she says.


An editorial in "The Times" of London says that "Argentineans have had enough -- of bad government, flaccid economic leadership, hopelessness, and humiliation. The riots and looting that broke out on Wednesday [19 December] were both spontaneous and predictable," it writes. "The currency board, which cured hyperinflation by linking the peso to the dollar, set in train a progressive deflation that made Argentina's exports less and less competitive, diminished the government's source of revenue, and reduced its ability to repay International Monetary Fund loans."

Most of the blame lies with former President Fernando de la Rua, says "The Times." "He was repeatedly warned that the continued link with the dollar was bringing the country down but refused to see the evidence of economic collapse." The latest tenure of outgoing Economic Minister Domingo Cavallo has exacerbated the crisis, it says. His methods "alienated Wall Street, turned the IMF into a critic, and raised doubts about the [peso's] convertibility plan." In his last week, the paper says he came up with "ever more improbable schemes" to combat the crisis.

"An orderly resolution of the country's external debt now seems impossible," the paper writes. Argentina will not be able to "recover its footing until it has ended the downward spiral of bad government, bad policies, and bad debt."


In France's daily "Liberation," columnist Jacques Amalric says that the situation in Argentina following World War II can be summed up "with a long litany of lost opportunities." To reduce the explanation of the crisis to monetary and fiscal issues "would be to show an immense optimism," he says. "The roots of the evil are much deeper," even if one can lay much of the blame on "the misdeeds" of the IMF or on the "liberal faith" of the outgoing economic minister, Domingo Cavallo.

Once lauded as the hero of the "false recovery" of the 1990s, Cavallo has now become the "black sheep" of the 2000 years. Argentina never made the switch to industrial times, although it had all the means to do so, says Amalric. Its "gold mine" was wasted "demagogically" by former President Juan Peron. The industrial stagnation from which Argentina suffered was not compatible with maintaining social and civil rights, he adds. And the country was further "decimated by the emigration of its elites." "The Argentinean ship is now threatened with shipwreck," says Amalric.


A "Financial Times" editorial takes a skeptical view of the introduction of euro single currency banknotes and coins on 1 January. While the paper says the new currency "will provide a psychological boost on many levels," it adds that, "exaggerating the effect of euro notes and coins is a dangerous sideshow for the pro-euro cause." What is important, it says, is that "euros will at last be tangible. Fear of the unknown is easy to generate; the reality of euro notes and coins is far from terrifying."

The editorial notes that even in Britain, which is still debating whether to join the single currency, "any businesses will accept payment in euros as a service to customers, despite the administrative costs of so doing. But the euro will not displace the pound as long as inflation remains low and sterling keeps its value."

But as the changeover approaches, it says, "there are signs of significant movement in opinion polls. Over the past year, the proportion that think Britain's entry over the next 10 years is inevitable has [doubled]. With things going its way, the government may be tempted to sit on its laurels and hope that British entry to the euro-zone is inevitable. It is not," the paper says. "If ministers want Britain to join, they must redouble their efforts to make the economic and political case for membership."


In "The Washington Times," Benjamin Runkle of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard considers the ramifications of the announcement last week that the U.S. would withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Many of the fears that this decision has given rise to are unfounded, says Runkle. Warnings that the U.S. withdrawal will trigger a new arms race and threaten international stability, he says, "do not bear close scrutiny." Most arms races take place "because of dynamics completely independent of the ABM Treaty and U.S. missile defense plans. China, for example, has been working to rapidly modernize its nuclear forces for years, regardless of the ABM Treaty," Runkle notes.

Such warnings also "fail to recognize that arms races are a reflection of geopolitical tensions rather than their cause," he says. "Conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed region of Kashmir gave birth to their nuclear ambitions, not the other way around."

Moreover, he says, treaty signatories "will ignore arms control commitments if they believe obtaining weapons of mass destruction are in their national interest." He notes Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein developed germ-warfare capability, despite Iraq's status as a signatory of the Biological Weapons Convention.

Still, Runkle says, "legitimate questions about the technical feasibility and cost of any missile defense system remain and must be addressed by the [U.S.] administration." But the "illusory threat of arms races" should not be a determining factor, he says.


Britain's "The Independent" also looks at the week's events in Argentina and the deepening economic crisis there. "Argentina's problem is simply stated," it says. "It owes the rest of the world too much money and it is in grave danger of defaulting on its debt repayments."

"Describing the problem and laying much of the blame at the door of the government is easy. Prescribing solutions for Argentina's seemingly intractable economic problem is trickier. But there are some general pointers to be gained from the experience of [other] countries. [First,] the government should devalue the currency."

The attempt to maintain a rate of one peso to one dollar, the "Independent" says, "has already foundered." Switching the national currency to the U.S. dollar would eliminate the cycle of inflation and devaluation, it adds, but "changing the currency is no substitute for more fundamental economic reform."

Public finances must be put on a sound footing, the paper continues. But it suggests that the IMF should not force radical reform measures "on an already weakened body politic immediately, but [phase] them in as part of a package that rescheduled the debt." Some form of debt write-off "must now be offered to Argentina," says the paper. "But painful change in that country too cannot be long delayed, even if it can be ameliorated."


In Belgium's "Le Soir," Benjamin Quenelle writes from London on the deployment to Afghanistan of a UN-backed security force. The mission is set to operate under British command, with the U.S. military given the authority to ensure the force does not conflict with U.S. regional objectives and to conduct an evacuation of the UN force, should this be necessary.

Quenelle writes, "Once again, British armed forces are the first in line." He quotes Tim Garden, a professor at the Center for Defense Studies, as saying a potential problem is that British troops are already present in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland, and the Falklands. "There is a risk that too much is requested from too few soldiers," says Garden.

But this ubiquity in itself may be an asset for the British army, writes Quenelle. Soldiers may have already taken part in similar operations and can bring their experience to the mission. The British army also has a lot of experience with terrorism, based on events in Northern Ireland, he says. And it is trained for rapid deployment. But, he adds, the British army also has its problems. It has been underfinanced for a decade and has low levels of recruitment and morale. This state of affairs is "a call for prudence," says Quenelle.