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Western Press Review: Karzai's Narrow Escape, Macedonian Elections, And Radical Islam In Central Asia

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 6 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Much discussion in the Western media today centers on the assassination attempt yesterday on Afghan Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai. Karzai's car was riddled with bullets on a visit to the southern city of Kandahar, on the same day that two separate explosions killed dozens of people in the Afghan capital Kabul. Several commentators have called the events the worst violence the country has seen since Karzai's government took power in June. Other issues today include Islamic radicalism in Central Asia, the possibility of a U.S.-led assault on Iraq and Macedonia's upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for 15 September.


A "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" editorial discusses the assassination attempt yesterday on Hamid Karzai. The paper says, "Hamid Karzai lives dangerously," noting that only recently has he opted for a bodyguard detail of U.S. soldiers rather than native Afghans. This, the paper says, indicates the state of the country. The Pashtun president now mistrusts the loyalty of his own ministries, so the Americans are helping out, and thus far have been able to "prevent the worst."

Relations between ethnic groups in Afghanistan are increasingly tenuous, something that was also demonstrated by the car-bomb explosion in Kabul shortly before attempt on Karzai's life. The commentary says although the details of the Kabul attack are not yet clear, it is apparent that Afghanistan is suffering both from rivals within the ranks of the government and from the remaining members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The paper remarks that Karzai's would-be assassins may potentially emerge from any group.


In the British "The Guardian" daily, columnist Rory McCarthy says nine months after the collapse of the Taliban, security in Afghanistan seems "as fragile as ever." Yesterday's assassination attempt on Karzai reveals that the country is "still struggling with the legacy of two decades of war."

McCarthy notes that it is not yet clear whether Taliban or Al-Qaeda members had anything to do with either the attempt on Karzai or the bomb blasts in Kabul. He says another possible source is mujahedeen warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. U.S. troops for the past several months have been looking for Hekmatyar, who has been in hiding ever since he left Tehran, his place of exile during the years of Taliban rule.

Karzai's government has used the attacks to argue that U.S. and international forces need to remain "heavily engaged" in the country. Yet the West has been reluctant to expand the international peacekeeping force outside of Kabul. Instead, notes McCarthy, Western governments seek the formation of a national Afghan army, "despite the fact Afghanistan is a nation of feuding ethnic groups."


An editorial "The Times" today says Karzai is "vital for the future of Afghanistan." It calls the two explosions in Kabul yesterday "the latest in a series of shootings and bombings in the capital that are clearly intended to destabilize the government, send a warning to international peacekeepers and rally the embittered Islamists waiting for a chance to avenge the defeat of the Taliban." The danger in Afghanistan, it says, is that the extremist former Taliban regime "still has a powerful hold over many tribesmen, especially the Pashtuns," whose political influence through Pashtun President Karzai has been mitigated by the dominance of ethnic minorities in the government.

Karzai is vital, the paper says, for "he alone commands enough respect at home to attempt to extend loose central authority over all the country. He alone has the vision of an open, tolerant democracy where girls can be educated, woman live in dignity and Afghans rebuild their shattered social structures as well as their ruined cities."

"But danger lies in being seen as anybody's puppet, especially that of the West," the paper writes. His best hope is to secure "rapid material progress." Karzai has repeatedly called for more peacekeepers to secure areas outside the capital. "The world should pay heed."


"Le Monde" columnist Thierry de Montbrial, also of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, discusses some of the logistical difficulties of the U.S. launching an assault on Iraq without first securing international support in the Mideast region.

In a "Le Monde" piece reprinted in part in today's "International Herald Tribune," de Montbrial says the force necessary "to mount even an intermediate operation would be large enough to require extensive basing facilities -- if not in Saudi Arabia, then the Kuwaitis and preferably the Turks must be induced to provide territory."

Therein lies the problem, he says. Although America has enough power to successfully topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the U.S. must still have allied nations in the region from which to stage its operations. So far, says de Montbrial, the U.S. president has "taken little trouble" to build regional and international support for his policy on Iraq.

De Montbrial says the U.S. probably will launch an attack on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, perhaps in early 2003. For now, he says, Europe is right not to adamantly oppose U.S. plans -- but it must also "accelerate the building of Europe." A weak Europe, he says, will not be able to balance the U.S., "spread its values abroad or promote the idea of better world governance."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" remarks that violence is on the increase ahead of 11 September parliamentary elections in Macedonia. Next week's elections will be an important test, it says, as it presents "a stark choice between hard-liners, on both sides, and moderate politicians who want to keep the country together."

Former ethnic Albanian rebel commander Ali Ahmeti has disarmed and created a new political party, the Democratic Union for Integration. Now considered a moderate, the paper says Ahmeti "opposes ethnic division and backs reconciliation." He also leads in public opinion polls, indicating his party may become the largest Albanian group in the new parliament.

Macedonia's opposition Social Democrats seem likely to win most of the Slavic majority vote. The paper says a coalition between them and the Albanian moderates "may make it possible for the 700-strong NATO force to withdraw next month -- or at least give the West enough confidence to reduce its security presence." But this outcome is "by no means assured," it says.

The paper writes: "Reconciliation in a democratic and unified Macedonia remains a worthy, if imposing, goal for the European Union and NATO, which have committed troops, money and political capital over the past decade" attempting to make sure this strategically placed country "doesn't implode." NATO and EU forces "have little choice but to see the job through."


Two items in the regional daily "Eurasia View" today deal with the increasing activity of radical Islamic groups in the region, particularly the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement. Central Asia-based journalist Davron Vali says this banned, nonviolent Islamic group is increasingly active in Tajikistan, especially in the capital, Dushanbe. Tajik authorities are taking steps to counter Hizb ut-Tahrir's efforts, and see it as a threat to the stability of regional government. Vali says Hizb ut-Tahrir is also a source of concern for mainstream Islamic leaders, including Islamic Renaissance Party leader Said Abdullo Nuri.

Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to restore a unified Islamic state, or caliphate, throughout Central Asia. "Because it operates via semi-autonomous 'cells' and because it rejects the legitimacy of secular governments, authorities tend to link the party with violent revolutionary factions like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)." But Hizb ut-Tahrir "is not known to condone violence," Vali says. Nevertheless, some observers believe it to be a real threat to Central Asian governments.

On 13 August, several residents in Dushanbe found pamphlets on their doorsteps. These described mass disturbances taking place in the capital of neighboring Uzbekistan and other Uzbek cities "as the result of President Islam Karimov's unpopular policies." Vali says these techniques make Hizb ut-Tahrir "hard to find and to silence. They also let Hizb ut-Tahrir members send messages more quickly than the government can suppress or discredit them."


Alisher Khamidov, a current intern at Harvard University's NEH Summer Institute on Eurasian Civilizations, says despite being banned by Central Asian governments, "Hizb ut-Tahrir activists are operating in most countries" in Central Asia. In recent months, Kyrgyzstan has become "a particular target for Hizb ut-Tahrir agitators." Khamidov says regional governments "have struggled to contain Hizb ut-Tahrir's activity," but have failed to counter the group's "appeal to impoverished Central Asian citizens for social and economic justice."

Khamidov says Hizb ut-Tahrir "advocates the peaceful overthrow of existing Central Asian governments and the re-establishment of a caliphate in the region that is guided by Islamic law." In Kyrgyzstan, the group "is seeking to take advantage of the Kyrgyz government's inability to address long-standing economic troubles."

Khamidov says the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement "has effectively cast itself as an outlet for those disaffected by political and economic developments over the last decade." He cites regional political analysts as saying Hizb ut-Tahrir's "ability to establish itself in southern Kyrgyzstan should not be surprising, given the region's rising antipathy to President Askar Akaev's government in Bishkek."

Many in the south "are upset that Akaev's administration, which is dominated by northern-based interest groups, is increasingly excluding other clans from access to the spoils of power." Antigovernment protests for this and other reasons took place throughout the summer.

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