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Western Press Review: Bush's Iraq Speech, Keeping The Faith In Afghanistan, And The Fractious Tajik Opposition

Prague, 25 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the media's attention today is focused on U.S. President George W. Bush's speech last night on his administration's plans for stabilizing Iraq. Several commentators fault the U.S. president for failing to lay out a viable strategy for ensuring a smooth transition to a legitimate interim government in Baghdad by 30 June. A discussion of the conflict in Afghanistan calls it the war the world forgot, while others call for U.S.-Iranian cooperation in Iraq and lament the lack of cohesion among the Tajik opposition.


A multipart series on Afghanistan in the British daily today includes a report by Colin Brown and Kim Sengupta in which they state: "Three years after the overthrow of the Taliban, [Afghanistan] is a nation on the edge of anarchy."

A group of British officials from the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee has returned from a visit to Afghanistan "shocked and alarmed by what they had witnessed," the authors say. The legislators "warn that urgent action must be taken to save Afghanistan from plunging further into chaos because of Western neglect."

With the attention of Washington and London now focused on Iraq, "the situation in Afghanistan has been allowed to unravel. The remaining infrastructure is shattered, opium production is rocketing, and the Taliban and warlords are back in control of large areas."

Moreover, Taliban attacks on humanitarian aid workers have led many much-needed projects to be abandoned.


A second item in "The Independent's" Afghanistan series today -- an unsigned editorial -- says the United States and United Kingdom might not have walked away completely from Afghanistan yet, but they have certainly turned their attention elsewhere, namely to Iraq.

"[Life] in Afghanistan today is just as cheap as it was under the Taliban, [and] it remains a lawless, impoverished state," the paper writes.

"It is salutary to recognize just how badly the world community has failed Afghanistan," it continues. The country's two main exports continue to be terrorism and drugs. The U.S.-led invasion may have helped undermine its locus as a major terrorist training camp, but the "failure of the international community to build a stable domestic economy has left many farmers with little option but to turn to drug crops if they want to provide for their families."

The international community has pledged $7 billion to Afghanistan's reconstruction -- well short of the $15 billion to $20 billion its reconstruction is estimated to cost. Meanwhile, security remains a major concern, and the central government's writ remains limited to Kabul.

The paper writes: "Just as in Iraq, [British and American leaders] claimed to be liberators, but the reality has been different. We have failed to see through our mission in Afghanistan, and unless the international community redoubles its efforts to provide security there, the future will remain bleak. [The] abandonment of the Afghans looks not only ill-advised, but a cynical betrayal."


An editorial in New York's leading daily today says U.S. President George W. Bush's speech last night came "after nearly 14 months of policy failures, none of them acknowledged by the president, which have left Iraq increasingly violent and drained Washington's credibility with the Iraqi people and the international community."

The paper further says that, in watching the speech, it "was impossible not to wonder...why he had waited until the security situation in Iraq had become disastrous [and] until just 37 days before a crucial new phase begins the transition to Iraqi sovereignty" on 30 June.

"[We] cannot live without a serious plan for doing more than just getting through the June 30 transition and then muddling along until the November elections in the United States," the paper says. "Mr. Bush has yet to come up with a realistic way to internationalize the military operation and to get Iraq's political groups [beyond] jockeying for power and into a real process of drafting a workable constitution."

"The New York Times" suggests Washington should renew attempts to internationalize the project in Iraq. A multilateral body should be created to oversee the 30 June transition, and should include greater involvement by the UN Security Council. And the White House should consider reconvening the military force in Iraq under the auspices of NATO, but under a U.S. commander.

The paper calls on Bush to "come up with a more specific plan, to stop listing the things we already knew needed to be done and to explain to us how he intends to do them."


An editorial today says U.S. President George W. Bush "laid out the agenda" for Iraq in his speech. Bush called for handing power to a sovereign interim Iraqi government on the scheduled 30 June handover date; securing a UN Security Council endorsement for the presence of U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq; improving security to allow reconstruction; and planning for the election of a broadly representative Iraqi government by sometime early next year.

Each of these steps is "daunting," the paper says. But even more than these broad plans, the U.S. president "must convince an increasingly skeptical American public and Congress that the goals are achievable and the sacrifices worth making." His speech last night was "a beginning and a commendable show of determination," says the paper. But it is not yet clear whether Bush's recommendations will be enough to reverse the decline of the situation in Iraq.

"Bush would be more persuasive if he would acknowledge more honestly what has gone wrong in the past year and how it can be corrected," the paper says. And it is "misleading to focus only on the problems of Islamic and Baathist terrorism when the United States also faces in Iraq complex challenges of ethnic divisions and growing anti-American nationalism."


A second piece in the Washington, D.C.-based daily says Bush has called for "more patience, more time, more resources and more support to transform troubled Iraq." Staff writers Robin Wright and Mike Allen say Bush "did not provide the midcourse correction that even some Republicans had called for in the face of increasingly macabre violence in recent weeks.

"[Nor] did Bush try to answer some of the looming questions that have triggered growing skepticism and anxiety at home and abroad about the final U.S. costs, the final length of stay for U.S. troops, or what the terms will be for a final U.S. exit from Iraq."

And these unanswered questions could leave the Bush administration open to more criticism, say the authors.

The U.S. president's "soothing recitation of policy particulars offered few benchmarks or specifics on the most sensitive issues, such as the relationship between the Iraqi government to be installed July 1 and the U.S.-led coalition troops that are scheduled to remain in Iraq to provide basic security."

Moreover, what will happen "if Iraqis do not want foreign forces to launch new offensives[?]" the writers ask. This issue highlights some of the political controversies that will remain unresolved even after the occupation ends.


An item by a Tajik journalist writing under the pseudonym of Kambiz Arman says the divided Tajik opposition may be undermining its own hopes for reform. A new grouping called the Coalition for Just and Transparent Elections has brought together the Islamic Renaissance Party, the Social-Democrat Party and the Socialist Party of Tajikistan to join in calling for free and fair parliamentary elections in early 2005. But Arman says several political observers are already concerned that the bloc is suffering "from a lack of cohesion that is hampering its effectiveness."

A study released on 19 May by the International Crisis Group (ICG) pointed out that the new opposition bloc is, as author Arman puts it, "hard-pressed to draw clear distinctions between its policy decisions and those advanced by [President Imomali] Rakhmonov's administration." And the "inability to do so may well damage the opposition's electoral hopes."

The ICG study went on to suggest that the opposition is not overly concerned with challenging the political status quo, and might be content with a moderate amount of political influence within the ruling party's "near-total control" of the political scene.

Unwritten rules abound concerning what opposition activities are allowed and which are banned, and the opposition seems to have accepted these limitations.

But as we approach the February 2005 parliamentary elections, Arman says some observers expect the president "to intensify efforts to neutralize his opponents." And despite Rakhmonov's pledge to institute democratic reforms, few steps are being taken to avoid the malfeasance of past elections.


In a contribution to the Paris-based daily today, Stanley Weiss of the nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based Business Executives for National Security says that, more than a year into the U.S.-led occupation, "it is clear that the road to a stable Iraq runs through Tehran."

The conservative ruling clerics of Iran's theocracy "can turn the U.S. mission in Iraq into a dream or a nightmare," says Weiss. The dream would be "that Washington and Tehran end 25 years of hostility and cooperate" on Iraq "to promote economic reconstruction and fashion a broad-based government" in Baghdad.

Democratic elections would empower Iraq's majority Shi'a, who are Iran's "religious brethren." A federal state in Iraq "would prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan that would incite Kurds in Iran, Turkey and Syria."

But there is also the nightmare possibility that Tehran's hard-liners will "[treat] Iraqi instability as an opportunity to export Islamic revolution."

Weiss asks, "Will Iraq be a stage for Iranian-American cooperation or confrontation? Realists on both sides constantly flirt with dialogue." But the "ideologues on both sides constantly undermine any rapprochement."

And yet today, with U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran's pragmatists "can bargain with Washington without being labeled as traitors."

For years, both sides "have expressed a willingness to talk, but only after the other moves first."

U.S. President George W. Bush should express his willingness to visit Tehran. Taking such initiative "would show wavering U.S. voters that the bold wartime president can also be a courageous peacetime diplomat."

Making such an offer would place Iran's more extremist mullahs "in a bind. Accept and they lose the Great Satan as a scapegoat. Decline and they are exposed as intransigents, further undermining their crumbling regime."


In a contribution to the French daily, Marwan Bishara of the American University in Paris says due to its copious military failures in Iraq, Washington must decrease -- rather than increase -- its troop numbers in Iraq and transfer complete sovereignty to the Iraqis in order to save lives and preserve what is left of the U.S. reputation. In addition, the United Nations and Arab states must limit their roles as well, and leave the responsibility for their country to the Iraqi people.

The "Iraqization" of the country is the only way to move forward, and it is certainly the only moral and democratic thing to do, Bishara says. According to the last coalition-sponsored survey, 80 percent of Iraqis are troubled by the presence of U.S.-led forces and have faith that the fledgling Iraqi police force and the new army can maintain stability. Today, Bishara says, Iraqis associate American freedom and democracy with a "blood bath."

Similarly, a majority in the United States considers the Iraq war to have been a bad idea and the conduct of the war to have been "absolutely deplorable." Nevertheless, Bishara says the U.S. population cannot help being torn between the "typical American desire" to hold the line and the more "ignoble" option of bringing a swift end to a disastrous mission.