Prague, 10 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and analysis in the Western press both today and over the weekend discusses the convening of Afghanistan's Loya Jirga (grand council), which is bringing together over 1,500 delegates in Kabul to decide on a future Afghan government. Reports today say the grand council is being delayed until tomorrow by disagreements over the role of deposed former King Zahir Shah. Among the other issues addressed today are the meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Russian-Iranian relations, Chechnya's refugees, and France's first round of parliamentary elections, in which the conservative allies of French President Jacques Chirac have made a strong showing.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
A "New York Times" editorial today discusses Russian-Iranian relations, considered also in light of Russia's increasing cooperation with the West. The paper says Washington and Moscow have recently "found common ground on many issues that once divided them, with one notable exception." Russia continues to transfer nuclear energy and weapons technology to Iran. The editorial expresses concern that Russian technology could be used to help Iran "acquire nuclear weapons and delivery systems that could threaten the United States and Europe, including Russia."
The editorial says the plutonium created as a by-product of energy production at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant "could potentially be reprocessed" into fuel for a nuclear weapon. The paper also notes that Russia has resumed selling conventional weapons to Iran, and cites intelligence reports that say Moscow "is secretly transferring ballistic missile technology to Tehran."
"The New York Times" acknowledges that Russian sales of such technology "are an important revenue source for Russia's beleaguered arms and energy industries." But it says Russia has more to gain from improving relations with the West than from what it calls Russia's "risky deals with Iran." Moscow's dealings with Tehran "belong to a bygone era and run directly counter to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's goal of realigning Russia with the West," the paper writes. "The New York Times" says instead, Moscow "should be working with Washington to meet the threat the two countries face from the alarming spread of unconventional weapons."
Britain's daily "Guardian" discusses Afghanistan's Loya Jirga meeting to decide on a future Afghan government, originally scheduled to begin today but now delayed until tomorrow. The paper predicts that Western-backed interim administration leader Hamid Karzai, a member of the Pashtun majority, will be reappointed as prime minister. But the future leadership of several government ministries is less certain, it says, as many are dominated by Tajiks, an ethnic minority in Afghanistan. The paper says it is still uncertain whether they will be willing to cede enough power to allow the government to better reflect the ethnic balance of the country itself.
But politics aside, the paper says, "the country is still desperately short of aid." The promises by foreign governments "of a massive infusion of cash have not been implemented quickly enough. In the cities money is needed to pay government employees. In the villages hundreds of thousands of displaced drought victims [still] rely on food aid." The "Guardian" says foreign governments must be generous with more aid or else the promises heard from U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair that this time the West "will not walk away" from Afghanistan will have proven to be false.
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
Commentator Erhard Haubold, writing in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," says the 1,500 delegates to Afghanistan's Loya Jirga may have been selected by means of "blackmail, bribery and other dubious methods," but that the first two rounds of UN-organized voting have given people in the provinces the feeling -- for the first time -- that they are represented in Kabul.
Haubold notes that many in the provinces do not yet recognize a central government. Once the Loya Jirga has installed a new two-year government, Haubold says it is crucial that the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force is broadened beyond Kabul. Only then, he says, can this "historical experiment succeed. Only then will it be possible for the warlords to be subjugated and their revenues diverted to the central government. Only then will the rebuilding of Afghanistan's public administration, schools and hospitals benefit more than just that 10 percent of the population in the capital."
Haubold notes that some in Afghanistan consider interim leader Hamid Karzai an American lackey, but Haubold says Karzai symbolizes the country's unity. As a member of the Pashtun majority, he can mitigate the political influence of the Uzbek and Tajik minorities.
Haubold goes on to note U.S. reports that Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders are now based in the semi-autonomous region near the Afghan-Pakistani border. "The extremists may have suffered a defeat in the battle for Afghanistan," Haubold concludes, "but their holy war continues."
In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Peter Muench also looks at developments in Afghanistan in light of the Loya Jirga. He says waning German interest in Afghanistan can be perceived as a sign that all is going well. On the other hand, he says, the convening of the Loya Jirga is only a minor step on a long road to restoring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan after 22 years of war. The Loya Jirga, based on ancient traditions, could mean a new beginning for Afghanistan but also might unleash new battles, he says. Those who do not achieve their political ambitions could resort to arms. And those who fail to gain power in Kabul might establish their own fiefdoms in the provinces. This would see a reversion to the old Afghanistan, partitioned by warlords and factional leaders.
Muench sees hope for a solution, provided that the rivals recognize they can achieve more by working together rather than against each other. But this sentiment must be brought home to them from outside, he says. The promised aid is the bait that they all want to pursue; so far Muench says this has functioned fairly well, although the country is still a far cry from establishing a civil society. Muench concludes that, "Food, naturally, is more a priority than morals -- but morals may follow, after hunger has been satisfied to a certain degree."
THE WASHINGTON POST:
An editorial in "The Washington Post" discusses the Russian campaign in Chechnya, and wryly says Russia President Vladimir Putin has won "two important tactical battles" in his campaign. The paper says although Russian forces are "no closer to winning the war than they were when Putin launched it [in] 1999, Mr. Putin has succeeded in squelching almost all critical discussion of the conflict in the Russian media. And though the corrupt and undisciplined Russian forces continue to commit war crimes and gross violations of human rights against Chechen civilians, European governments and the Bush administration have largely abandoned any serious effort to hold Russia accountable." The editorial says this new political climate "has allowed the Russian president to contemplate even greater steps of repression."
Now, says the paper, a new and ambitious plan is under way in Ingushetia, where 200,000 Chechen refugees are living. Russia wants to force the return of these refugees to Chechnya, where the editorial says they would again be subject to the Russian army's "cleansing" operations. The paper warns of an impending human rights disaster if the relocation plan is implemented.
"The Washington Post" calls on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to oppose this forced relocation of refugees, and calls on Western governments -- "Russia's new partners in NATO" -- to do likewise. The newspaper notes that Putin is once again counting on the silence of Western governments as he pursues his campaign in Chechnya.
Germany's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" carries a commentary today by Wolfgang Koydl on the latest diplomatic developments in the Middle East conflict. Koydl says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reason to be satisfied "with his friend in the White House," who exhibited his support for Israel by giving a very cool welcome over the weekend to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and rejecting his proposal for a timetable for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Bush made clear his stance on two vital issues: the establishment of a Palestinian state and the future of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Here Koydl says Bush's policy is at one with that of Sharon, in that Palestine should either never achieve independence, or should do so only if it complies with a long list of "unfulfillable" conditions. As for Arafat, the U.S. agrees with Israel on removing the Palestinian leader from politics as fast as possible.
Koydl says the U.S. believes in the slow development of a solution, but Koydl questions whether the required time is still available. Mubarak has warned that there will be no end to Palestinian violence as long as a solution to the conflict is not in sight. And Koydl concurs, for he says "the Palestinians have nothing more to lose."
THE INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
In a commentary in today's "International Herald Tribune," John Vinocur looks at yesterday's first-round parliamentary elections in France. He says that despite results indicating a healthy lead for the country's center-right parties, "no new innovative horizons for France, and barely any political momentum that might influence a rightward turn for all of Europe," have emerged.
Vinocur elaborates, saying that despite the apparently safe majority of President Jacques Chirac's conservative allies going into the second round, "nothing indicates a willingness to take on soon the complex web of interest groups and statist tradition that make opening up the labor market and reducing vast social costs a perilous undertaking for any French government."
He adds: "Little suggests either that revisions are at hand of basic French views on foreign policy, defense, attempts to retain influence within the European Union, the EU's cash support of its over-priced agricultural sector, or the country's self-conscious need to maintain its identity through occasional petty opposition to the United States."
Yesterday's results appear to confirm a trend apparent in other European elections over the past 18 months -- the rejection of traditional leftist parties. But, Vinocur writes, "the change in France represents more a switch in personnel than a deep alteration in policy orientation." The basic policy consensus in France cuts across all political parties, to the degree that "a majority of presidential voters told poll-takers that they could not find substantial policy differences between Chirac and his challenger, Lionel Jospin."
The end result, in terms of European and international policy, is that no major changes are expected. Vinocur concludes: "If there are nuanced changes in policy, they come in hints that France is basically not opposed to the American view that NATO must become more specialized to handle terrorist threats, and that the armed forces of member countries be revamped to fit specific tasks that would create a new definition of alliance capabilities."
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba, Grant Podelco, and Daisy Sindelar contributed to this report.)