Prague, 4 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today and over the weekend continues to focus largely on the situation in the Middle East and the ongoing U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. Other topics include attempts to create a "Eurasian OPEC," U.S. operations in Georgia and the reaction from Russia, and the European rapid-reaction force.
An editorial in Britain's "The Guardian" is intensely critical of both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for being either unwilling or unable to stem the violence in the Middle East, which escalated further over the weekend. The commentary, running under the headline "War Without End," says that Ariel Sharon's latest attempt to subdue the Palestinian intifada "has turned out to be as disastrously ill-judged" as his earlier efforts.
The Israeli prime minister's strong-arm tactics in sending the army into refugee camps in Balata and Jenin predictably backfired, it says. "The house-to-house searches for armed militants and their weapons caches [simply] produced more bloodshed, more innocent victims, and more bitterness."
"The Guardian" says it is true that the Israeli army's incursions "were provoked by Palestinian violence. Yet their main achievement is to have ensured yet more Palestinian attacks," the paper says.
The commentary goes on to say that both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are inadequate. "Mr. Arafat is as discredited as Mr. Sharon is bloody-minded, as fatally duplicitous as his Israeli counterpart is inept. An opinion poll taken before this most recent escalation shows Israeli support for Mr. Sharon steadily eroding; for his part, Mr. Arafat is increasingly viewed by many Palestinians as an irrelevance or, at best, an unavoidable evil. On both sides, the victims of this latest bout of bloodletting are the victims of failed, incompetent, and self-serving leadership."
"The Guardian" concludes, "Both sides, both nations, both peoples deserve better than this."
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH:
An editorial in Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" discusses the European Rapid-Reaction Force (ERRF), which is widely viewed as a way to increase Europe's security independence from the U.S. But the editorial says that British officials are aware "that the EU's defense force is likely to be hopeless. The only argument is a presentational one, about whether [Britain] should nonetheless be seen to be part of it." The paper notes that supporters of the ERRF "like to claim that the states of Europe stand to gain by joining forces." But they have already done so, "within NATO and bilaterally," it remarks.
The "Telegraph" says that the ERRF "will not extend Europe's defense capability. All it will do is transfer the lines of command to the EU's politico-military structures. At best, this is a pointless and expensive exercise in duplication; at worst, it will encourage the Americans to reduce their commitment to the Atlantic alliance," the paper writes.
It continues: "The European nations remain almost wholly dependent on the United States for logistical support. The Americans provide NATO with air- and sea-lift capacity, accurate missiles, communications satellites, and military computers. Many Europeans are miffed by their own relative powerlessness. Oddly, though, they are unwilling to increase their defense budgets," says the paper.
In today's "Eurasia View," CIS affairs analyst Sergei Blagov looks at the meeting of leaders from the Commonwealth of Independent States last week (28 February-2 March) near the former Kazakh capital, Almaty. Blagov says that the CIS meeting marked "yet another attempt to boost economic ties and solve political differences." The leaders of Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan approved a joint statement on 1 March that pledged cooperation on energy policy and on measures to defend the interests of natural-gas producers. They also agreed to cooperate more regarding natural-gas production and transit. But Blagov says the summit did not make much progress in creating the sought-after regional energy alliance.
Blagov notes that since January, Russia has been pushing for a "Eurasian Alliance of Natural Gas Producers," uniting Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- dubbed the "Central Asian OPEC." But attempts to coordinate import-export policies and promote a common energy security strategy have fallen short of creating an effective bloc. "Despite the joint statement, the gas-producing states did not formally create an energy alliance," says Blagov.
In "Die Welt," Sophie Muehlmann says that history is repeating itself in Afghanistan, as turmoil once more threatens those regions freed from the Taliban. "The worst fears seem to be coming true: Afghanistan is again drifting into civil war and chaos," she says. Muehlmann accuses Abdul Rashid Dostum, the interim deputy defense minister, of being the chief source of unrest. She describes him as "a gangster general who has changed sides more often than anyone else and has been the most ready to resort to arms."
Muehlmann says that all the hopes for peace, the promised financial assistance, and the presence of international peacekeeping forces have been in vain. "As long as some leaders sabotage the slightest progress, [and] as long as self-interest supersedes the general good, [then] any kind of aid is a wasted effort," she concludes.
The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" comments on the outcome of the weekend (2 March) referendum on whether the staunchly neutral Swiss republic should join the United Nations. The paper says that unlike 16 years ago, the turnout of voters was relatively high and responded by a narrow majority to the political and media campaign. The commentary says that it seems "the strategy of isolationism has almost been abandoned, however reluctantly." Apprehensions regarding the cost of UN membership and the fears of losing its neutral status are groundless, says the paper. It concludes, "UN membership cannot force Switzerland to participate in any action which is not in keeping with its constitution."
THE WASHINGTON POST:
In "The Washington Post," Jackson Diehl discusses the underlying political values that he says should be inherent in NATO member countries. Diehl says that several formerly communist European nations "have begun to look unsavory." He says Prime Minister Victor Orban of NATO member Hungary "has embraced a nationalist agenda worthy of the 1930s while tacitly allying himself with anti-Semites," while the Czech Republic's Milos Zeman "has become notorious for his attacks on the free press and connections to gangsters."
"One of the central tenets of [NATO] expansion has been that the Western alliance can ensure that its values of democracy and human rights take hold across Europe by inviting in the former members of the Soviet bloc, even if they have little to contribute militarily." He says that the "enduring political immaturity of postcommunist Europe now looms as the central issue" as NATO considers further expansion before its Prague summit in November.
"If NATO is going to have any meaning [in its] new size and shape, the old theory has to be made to work: Membership must consolidate and preserve a liberal democratic political order across the continent." He says that NATO may "serve better -- or at least as well -- as an enforcer of political norms than as a collective of military assets."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times" today looks at the expected deployment of U.S. military advisers to Georgia's turbulent Pankisi Gorge. The U.S. is concerned that Al-Qaeda terrorists managed to escape from Afghanistan to the Georgian region, but the editorial says that the chances of this are "slight."
The paper suggests that Washington "should proceed with a limited mission, making clear that its only purpose is to help Georgia hunt down terrorists, not to compete with Moscow for military influence in the Caucasus." Russia has traditionally considered the Caucasus as part of its own sphere of influence. The paper says that training and equipping Georgian soldiers to take control of Pankisi Gorge is a better plan than letting Russian troops do the job, or having U.S. soldiers fight alongside the Georgians.
The paper continues, "Hunting down international terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge would be an appropriate issue for the new cooperation council NATO now proposes to establish with Moscow." More discussion on issues of common concern, such as military action against terrorists sheltered in the Caucasus, "would help assure that this new council does not degenerate into an empty diplomatic ritual," the paper concludes.
A commentary in France's daily "Le Monde" by Andre Fontaine looks at the disparity between the relative strengths of the U.S. and Europe. Fontaine says that the 11 September attacks were meant to deal a blow that would reveal American vulnerability. But he says what is becoming increasingly clear is that the U.S. has never been stronger. Its people perceive themselves to be threatened by a common enemy and are determined to face it, relying on the president to lead them in this endeavor, he says. The U.S. has massively increased its defense spending, which is now far greater than that of Europe, which has no hope of bridging the gap. And what is more striking, says Fontaine, is that the Americans are less and less interested in the NATO alliance, "of which they were the brain, the engine, and the financier for such a long time."
But Europe still has a major role to play, he says. There are innumerable issues on which the "quasi-collective" of the EU disagrees with the White House, from the "axis of evil" to Israeli-Palestinian relations and others. Even the most stringent objections expressed by any member of the EU may not have much effect on the American leadership, says Fontaine. But "diplomatic timidity is no longer allowable if Europe wants to fulfil the aspirations of its founders," he writes.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An analysis in "The New York Times" by Michael Gordon compares the current U.S. offensive in the Afghan village of Gardez to the past fighting at Tora Bora. As in Tora Bora, Afghan forces in Gardez are carrying out most of the ground fighting. But this time, Gordon notes, they are bolstered by hundreds of U.S. Army soldiers. An over-reliance on local troops at Tora Bora allowed many Al-Qaeda members to get away, he says, because local forces did not have the will to track down individual fighters once the battle was over.
But despite the clear shift in strategy between Tora Bora and Gardez, Gordon says that "none of the top leaders at the Defense Department will openly acknowledge that the heavy reliance on Afghan proxy forces at Tora Bora was a mistake. The very idea of an occasional lapse of judgment seems to have been banished from the briefing room at the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld does not even concede that the killing of 16 Afghans in the village of Hazar Qadam in January was an error, though he acknowledges that the incident occurred when the Afghans were mistaken for Al-Qaeda fighters" and calls the event "unfortunate." Gordon remarks that the events at Tora Bora "were clearly not what the Pentagon intended."
THE WASHINGTON POST:
In a piece from "The Washington Post" reprinted in the "International Herald Tribune," Jim Hoagland says that U.S. officials are unclear on the question of what will happen next in Afghanistan. He says the unraveling cohesion in the interim administration of Hamid Karzai and the pace of the U.S. military campaign are moving the U.S. "closer to having to unveil a post-campaign strategy." Hoagland adds that a "vacuum" is developing within U.S. strategy, and says it will be a dicey operation for the West to extract itself from "the Central Asian thicket."
"The military saw its job as breaking Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime and letting Afghans sort out the aftermath. But the rapid collapse of the Taliban and the sudden need for an outside security force have gravely complicated the Pentagon's desire to extract U.S. troops quickly from a warrior land always inhospitable to foreign forces."
The latest plan is to train 50,000 Afghan soldiers that would soon be able to take over from the international security force to maintain stability and ensure that terrorists no longer find safe haven in the country. But Hoagland says that "training the army is exit strategy by another name."
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)