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Western Press Review: The UK Deployment To Afghanistan And The EU's Balkan Commitment

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 20 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Discussion in the Western papers today centers primarily on events in Afghanistan in the wake of the announcement on 18 March that Britain will send 1,700 combat troops to bolster the U.S. force in Afghanistan. Other analysis focuses on the Middle East, as U.S. special envoy Anthony Zinni tries to broker a cease-fire amid daily violence in the region. The dissolution of Yugoslavia into a new federation of Serbia and Montenegro and the European Union's role in the Balkans are also looked at, as are the human rights questions raised by America's newfound support for Uzbek President Islam Karimov.


An editorial in Britain's daily "The Independent" expresses unease over the expected deployment of 1,700 British troops to Afghanistan and the lack of clarity surrounding their mission.

"For such a major deployment of troops, details were scanty," says the paper. The troop commitment also has no time limit. The editorial says that, as for how and when the troops should leave -- "otherwise known as the 'exit strategy' -- this was nebulously defined as 'feeling confident that we have removed the continuing threat from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda'" by British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon.

Removing the threat from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda was what U.S. troops were supposed to have done, the paper notes. Yet recent U.S.-led operations near Gardez suggest that mission "is far from accomplished."

The editorial says accounts of the Gardez engagements have left doubt about whether the U.S. and Afghan troops "won a clear victory, as initially claimed, or retreated." The paper expresses concern that British troops will be required to take on more risks than the Americans -- that "Britain has agreed to act as a U.S. surrogate in highly dangerous operations that could otherwise have become a military and political liability to America, if not at home, then abroad."

The editorial concludes: "At the very least, we deserve more clarity about the precise nature of the new British mission in Afghanistan."


In "The New York Times," columnist Thomas Friedman says: "There is no way that America will be able to sustain a successful Middle East policy -- whether it wants to invade Iraq or do anything else in the region -- unless the U.S. is prepared to station American troops on the ground, indefinitely, around both Afghanistan and Israel."

Specifically, he says, "There is no way that the U.S. will be able to garner any sustained support for taking out Saddam Hussein in Iraq unless it can stabilize both Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan. We don't need to make Afghanistan into Switzerland," he says. But the U.S. must "make the new Afghanistan into something slightly more stable, slightly more decent, and slightly more prosperous than it was under the Taliban."

If the U.S. cannot do that minimum, Friedman says, it will have "no legitimacy, no credibility and no support for taking apart Iraq."

Friedman goes on to suggest a way to ensure security in the Mideast. He says "the only solution is that Israel gradually withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to be replaced by a joint American-Palestinian security force. Palestinians would be responsible for internal security, and the joint U.S.-Palestinian security force would control all borders and entryways."

He says the U.S. must remain involved, as the Israelis and Palestinians "do not have the resources, or mutual trust, ever to find their way out of this problem alone."


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Matthias Rub says Europe's policy in the Balkans is gaining new momentum. He notes that European Union forces will take over responsibility from NATO in Macedonia at the end of June, and from the UN in Bosnia-Herzegovina at the end of 2002. But Rub says this increased involvement "is more a consequence of necessity than conviction." The U.S. has repeatedly indicated that it intends to drastically reduce its political and military involvement in the region. The Europeans, he says, "have to fill the gap."

But Rub suggests Europe may not be prepared for the challenge. He says: "Since 1991, EU policy in the Balkans has seen a series of failures, and even disaster." Even today, he says, "there is still no sound strategy on how to revive the region economically in the medium term, and pacify it politically in the long term."

Unresolved status questions -- such as Kosovo -- "hamper progress because it is only international financial aid that is flowing to the region, and not urgently needed investment ..."

Rub says "it will take years, probably decades, before the Balkan states converge politically and economically with the EU. Merely muddling through until then will not bring lasting stability," he advises.


An editorial in "The Washington Post" discusses the West's relations with Yugoslavia following the recent arrest of a U.S. diplomat in Belgrade on suspicions of espionage. U.S. Embassy official John David Neighbor was detained along with Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Momcilo Perisic and two others for allegedly attempting to obtain material relating to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who is now on trial in The Hague.

The paper says the incident "dramatically demonstrated that the Yugoslav federal government and military establishment remain entirely unfit for Western support and cooperation." The paper writes: "The Yugoslav federal government under President Vojislav Kostunica is already guilty of an almost complete failure to cooperate with the [Hague] tribunal." This episode, it continues, should make clear a U.S. decision due at the end of March "on whether to certify that Yugoslavia has met congressionally mandated conditions for receiving further U.S. aid. Quite simply, it has not."

The paper says reimposing sanctions on Yugoslavia or blocking its efforts to obtain Western funding would be unfortunate, because the separate governments of Serbia and Montenegro are led by reformists "who have worked hard to lead the country out of Milosevic's [nightmare] of nationalist aggression." But the paper says to make a concession for these reformers "essentially means ratifying the agenda of Mr. Kostunica, who wants to restore Yugoslavia's international standing without repudiating Mr. Milosevic's poisonous and repugnant nationalism."


Columnist Bernhard Kueppers, in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," also looks at the latest developments on the Yugoslav political scene following the resignation yesterday of Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Momcilo Perisic and after his arrest on charges of espionage and passing classified material to U.S. diplomat John David Neighbor.

Kueppers writes that the power struggle between Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic appears to be coming to a head. He adds that public sentiment, increasingly influenced by Slobodan Milosevic's televised trial at The Hague, is becoming more and more anti-Western. "Many Serbs have reacted to the [espionage] affair with malicious joy," Kueppers writes. "They view it as a slap in the face to the U.S. superpower."


An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" focuses on U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's meeting yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The editorial notes that Cheney publicly rejected the idea of meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But, the paper says, in the end it was Arafat who "laughed last," as Cheney and Sharon conceded their negotiations had led to a dead end and that the ostracized Arafat still has a vital role to play in the quest for a settlement to the Mideast crisis.

A peace deal in the region is a vital prerequisite for the Americans before attempting an attack on Iraq, the editorial says. It concludes that the withdrawal yesterday of Israeli forces from Palestinian occupied territory can be interpreted as a clear sign of a willingness to reach a settlement.


"The Washington Post" columnist Jackson Diehl writes that in order to pursue its war on terrorism, the United States is supporting a man he calls "Central Asia's leading autocrat" -- Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov. Diehl says Karimov is quickly learning "the art of American clienthood."

This "art," he says, involves a number of stages: ""First, be quickest among your neighbors [to] volunteer bases and staging areas to the [U.S.] Pentagon. Next, serenade Washington with speeches about your love of capitalism and democracy, while releasing a political prisoner or two to appease the State Department. Finally, sit back and count the U.S. aid money that rolls in -- $160 million for Uzbekistan this year -- while quietly sustaining the repression that keeps you in power."

Diehl calls this "the old politics of the Cold War -- [when] thugs could be America's thugs if they opposed Communists and at least pretended to favor democracy." But he says Karimov's "economic mismanagement and political repression [and the] arrest and torture of thousands of democratic activists and devout Muslims with no connection to terrorism" are breeding more extremism in his country. As a result, says Diehl, the U.S. should take a military interest not only in allying itself with Karimov, but also in "liberalizing his regime."


In Britain's "Financial Times," Alexander Nicoll and Charles Clover say the Afghan campaign is increasingly becoming a ground war. They say this shift "suggests U.S. commanders recognize that a long-term campaign, using flexible guerrilla tactics, is needed.... [Early] Western jubilation at the rapid routing of the Taliban has been replaced by somber appreciation of the task ahead." But they warn that the West could be caught up increasingly in local tribal warfare.

The authors go on to look at some of the problems inherent in using local troops for the campaign. "Using troops recruited in provinces where action is taking place means supplying local commanders with arms and money, and could exacerbate warlordism. A second option is to use mainly Western soldiers, though this would risk higher casualties and accusations of foreign occupation." A third option, using the mainly Tajik Northern Alliance troops from the Afghan Defense Ministry, risks exacerbating local rivalries when they are sent into Pashtun-dominated areas.

Nicoll and Clover caution that the dual role of British troops -- for both peacekeeping under the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force, as well as for combat against Taliban and Al-Qaeda remnants -- risks the missions "becoming intertwined." They say this would "directly link the West's involvement in assisting the Afghan government with its pursuit of a war in which foreign commanders could be caught up in local political in-fighting."


"The Washington Post" today carries a contribution from Peter Bouckaert and Saman Zia-Zarifi, who are documenting conditions in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch. They say that "for ethnic Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan, it is payback time. They are paying for the sins of the Taliban, simply because most of the Taliban leadership were also ethnic Pashtuns." They say Human Rights Watch has "visited village after village that had been stripped bare by ethnic militias.... [We] found case after case of beatings, looting, murders, extortion and sexual violence against Pashtun communities."

The authors continue: "Parts of Afghanistan today are beginning to look a bit like they did in the 1992-96 period when warlords carved up the country and brutally abused the civilian population. That era gave rise to the Taliban. Some of those same warlords are back in power in northern Afghanistan, and their forces are responsible for most of the abuses against Pashtun civilians in the north."

The writers says all three major factions -- the ethnic Uzbek Junbish party, the ethnic Tajik Jamiat party and the ethnic Hazara Hezbe Wahdat party -- all took part in the offenses against Pashtun civilians.

Bouckaert and Zia-Zarifi note the U.S. has helped put some of these warlords back in power. Now, they say, the West must act to ensure that the warlords do not destroy the gains that have been made in Afghanistan, and must "see the job through this time."


Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper calls the expected deployment of 1,700 British combat troops to Afghanistan a "perilous deepening of direct British military involvement" in the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The paper says that it remains unclear "whether increased responsibility will bring increasing influence," noting that the British units will remain "firmly" under U.S. command. It suggests that Britain may be "being sucked ever more stickily into a widening conflict" over which it has very little control. Furthermore, it says, the British deployment "may be part of Washington's ongoing effort to sustain its fond but increasingly fictitious idea of a global anti-terror coalition."

The paper says this new troop deployment is problematic for several reasons. The mission's "objectives and method are unclear. It further strains the already over-stretched armed services. It raises the prospect of fighting an unseen, unnumbered, unknown guerrilla enemy for months, even years to come in what could become a Soviet-style quagmire. It thereby places Britain ever more firmly in the firing line of a potentially violent backlash in the Islamic world. And it may swiftly compromise its leading role in the Kabul-based stabilization force," the paper says.

The editorial concludes that if Afghanistan "is ever successfully to address its long-term problems, it needs more peace, not more war. By bowing to Washington once again, Britain is being pulled in exactly the wrong direction."

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