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Western Press Review: U.S.-Led Air Strikes Begin In Afghanistan

Prague, 8 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today is dominated by discussion of the U.S.-led air strikes, which began yesterday (Sunday) in Afghanistan. While some commentators consider the method and motivation of the strikes, others examine the strategic and diplomatic difficulties of waging an antiterrorist campaign against a decentralized network.


A "New York Times" editorial considers the nature and scope of U.S. and British airstrikes begun yesterday (Sunday) in Afghanistan. The editorial calls the commencement of this military campaign "a moment we have expected since September 11," the date of the attacks on New York and Washington. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, the paper advises, "must continue to proceed carefully and wisely. These military actions represent just one front in a wider campaign that also includes diplomacy, intelligence and law enforcement. Getting the proper balance will be complicated."

The paper goes on to say military action should be carefully directed at "reasonable" objectives. These include disrupting the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base and weakening the military capability of the ruling Taliban militia, which is harboring the prime suspect in the 11 September attacks, Osama bin Laden, and his Al-Qaeda network. It adds that Bush "has wisely made providing humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people an integral part of American strategy. It is important, for humanitarian and practical reasons, to minimize the suffering of innocent Afghan civilians." The paper says that the U.S. administration can expect the support of the American public "as long as it believes the troops are being led well, and are being directed at the right targets."


Writing in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger calls the Taliban regime offer on 6 October -- to try bin Laden in an Afghan court -- "one final yet transparent attempt to strike a deal." Frankenberger criticizes the Taliban's shifting position on bin Laden -- first claiming it does not know where he is and then indicating that it can locate him well enough to bring him to trial. Frankenberger says that once the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan began yesterday, "the time for aimless maneuvering was over."

Now, he says, "the Taliban is no longer writing the script in a conflict for which they are in no small part responsible. After weeks of uncertainty, the first strikes on the Taliban's military targets and on Mr. bin Laden's terrorist camps signal a shift from an almost unrealistic phase of animated suspense to concrete action." Frankenberger adds: [It] will be a long, drawn-put campaign, fought on several fronts. Predicting its end and making judgments on its success is an almost impossible task."


An editorial in the "Boston Globe" joins the chorus of voices warning against inadvertently destabilizing Pakistan with the "war on terrorism." It notes that the Taliban originated from elements of Pakistan's secret services, known as the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. The editorial says that the Taliban "was nurtured by the ISI and backed after its seizure of power on the premise that it would endow Pakistan with strategic depth." Now, the United States has asked Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, to "reverse course completely and sign up for a campaign that aims to sweep the Taliban -- the ISI's proteges -- from power."

The "Globe" writes: "The great danger is that, during the decade since the United States ceased its programs of military training and cooperation with Pakistan, a significant number of Islamic fundamentalists may have infiltrated Pakistan's officer corps. In the past, the Pakistani military has functioned as a unified institution, even when toppling elected governments. Musharraf had better be sure he can count on that institutional unity in coming months."


In "The New York Times," Michael Gordon considers the immediate objectives of the strikes begun yesterday in Afghanistan. He says that the principle aim of the airstrikes is to "tilt the balance of power within Afghanistan against the Taliban and give American-led forces [command] of the skies for the difficult mission to come." The air strikes are the easy part, he says, adding: "The more difficult task will be hunting down Osama bin Laden and helping the anti-Taliban foes within Afghanistan install a new government. In effect, the airstrikes were a conventional start to an entirely unconventional conflict."

The United States usual objective in a military campaign, Gordon says, is to identify and neutralize the adversary's "centers of gravity," or command centers. But the Taliban's loose and decentralized chain of command and methods of operation make this difficult. Instead, writes Gordon, "The Pentagon's hope is that the combination of the psychological shock of the airstrikes, bribes to anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan covertly supported by Washington and sheer opportunism will lead many of the Taliban's fighters to put down their arms and defect."


The "Wall Street Journal Europe" runs two editorials today discussing yesterday's launch of air strikes against targets in Afghanistan. Both mention the simultaneous air drops of humanitarian aid to the country's impoverished civilians and note, as one editorial puts it, "this is the first war we remember where the attacking power has accompanied its bombs with parcels of food. This was done to underscore that the U.S. is not going to war against the long-suffering people of Afghanistan."

The "Journal" says that these air strikes are targeting "carefully chosen military targets, intended to cripple command and control and air defenses but also to minimize Afghan civilian casualties. This is in direct moral contrast to the terrorist method, which seeks to kill as many civilians as possible as at the World Trade Center." The "Journal" says that the corresponding humanitarian effort -- the distribution of both food and medicine to the civilian population even as the country's ruling regime is attacked -- "underscores that these strikes are not aimed at Islam but against bin Laden's perversion of that religion."

The "Journal" goes on to say that the anti-terrorism coalition "wisely [seems] prepared to leave the bulk of [the] task on the ground to other Afghans, notably the opposition Northern Alliance. The U.S. air assault [will] significantly weaken the Taliban. But the occupation of Kabul and other centers of Afghan government are best left to the Afghans."


The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" carries a commentary by Tomas Avenarius that says Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is attempting to perform "a hair-raising feat."

The risky balancing act that he is currently pursuing would be a "masterpiece" for Pakistan's leader if he can pull it off. Pervez's policy of supporting the U.S. in its antiterrorism coalition could lead to peace in Kashmir and an end to interference in Afghanistan; it could progress toward a peaceful coexistence with archenemy India. But, Avenarius notes, this is easier said than done. General Musharraf, brought to power in a coup, must now pacify his army using his still-insufficient political experience. In addition, he must improve Pakistan's economy to satisfy the poverty-stricken population.

Therefore, Avenarius writes, "Pakistan must make a decision. It has the choice of secular, democratic development that respects the Muslim identity of its people but does not abuse Islam as a political force. Otherwise, the future holds an Islamic republic, with all the consequences."

The commentary says the only solution to this dilemma is an easing of tension in the area and the development of the economy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Otherwise, new bin Ladens are bound to arise and this would constitute not only a threat to Musharraf's balancing act, but to the world as a whole.


In the "Guardian," Washington-based correspondent Julian Borger writes that the video of Osama bin Laden released yesterday -- which contained numerous angry anti-American remarks -- "was not an afterthought. It was an essential part of [bin Laden's] strategy, almost as important as the September 11 terrorist attacks themselves." Bin Laden's remarks, Borger writes, were "consistent with his long-standing aim of arousing upheaval throughout the Islamic world, intended to drive the U.S. out of the Middle East and topple pro-Western Arab regimes."

Borger says that bin Laden's appeal "to a common sense of Islamic identity is central to his propaganda war. In fact, the faith is as divided as Christianity, between Sunni and Shi'ite and a range of sects within those two broad strains, such as bin Laden's own Wahhabis. [In] his address, [bin Laden] taps a deep-rooted sense of frustration across the Arab world that in the double standards adopted by the Western media, dead Muslims count for less than dead Westerners."

Bin Laden's rhetoric, Borger continues, "is calibrated to trigger an apocalyptic sense of the moment when the world will fall into camps, the believers and the infidels, and each person must choose his camp." A battle of this nature would "dispel the deep-seated sense of powerlessness afflicting the Arab world," he says. For those reasons, Borger adds, "it will resonate deeply across the region."


An editorial in France's "Le Monde" says the questions surrounding the proof of bin Laden's involvement in the 11 September attacks were settled -- or almost settled -- by the time the U.S. launched its military strikes against the Saudi-born dissident yesterday. The paper says that in his video, bin Laden, while not expressly claiming responsibility, said he "was delighted" by the events of 11 September. The speech, "Le Monde" notes, also announces new operations against the U.S.

"Le Monde" says that with such remarks, "bin Laden legitimized the very operations launched against him." But the paper adds that even with the question of proof being settled, the question of targets remains. The only legitimate target, it says, is the Taliban regime, whose political and military structure is linked to bin Laden's logistics and ideology.

Finally, "Le Monde" says that this campaign will have long-term meaning only if it results in a reexamination by the United States of its alliances in the region. The paper says both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two U.S. allies, "nourish and support radical Islam." The paper concludes that bin Laden "illustrates, in his explosive way, the contradictions of U.S. foreign policy in the region. There is a link of cause and effect between the religious extremism of Riyadh and the support of Islamabad for terrorist Islamist groups, on one hand, and bin Laden on the other."


A piece by Peter Preston in the "Guardian" looks at the tension between journalistic and military objectives in a time of war. He writes: "The briefers, bureaucrats and politicians who act as reasonably 'reliable sources' in peace are operating now under different house rules." Common sense, he says, asks a difficult question: Would anyone in the military tell a journalist exactly when and how military operations will take place?

Preston writes: "Ensure that reporters are cooped up on aircraft carriers [and], as long as you keep decent clamps on back at the political ranch, there is total information control. Grenada and Panama proved the point and the Gulf was its apotheosis, war watched from afar by video screen. Globalization meant being further away from, not nearer, the action. More space, less truth."

He continues: "The world's correspondents [are] there in force and deployed: Uzbekistan, Quetta, Peshawar and the Afghan enclave where the Northern Alliance rules. But, save for the deeply unfortunate [British journalist Yvonne] Ridley and a handful of Afghan agency reporters, they aren't in Taliban country, let alone camped outside bin Laden's rural retreat." Preston says journalists, as well as the watching world, will be "distant spectators of this enterprise." He adds: "Believe nothing implicitly."


"Washington Post" columnist Jim Hoagland considers the differing methods exhibited in recent days by the world's leaders. Of them, he says that British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin "stand out in quickly grasping the possibilities that rise from the terror of September 11 and the Bush administration's efforts to shape the international environment for a U.S. response. [In] less than a month, [Mr.] Blair and Mr. Putin have articulated separate visions of where the war on terrorism can take the world. These visions go beyond simple self-interest to link today's actions to tomorrow's consequences and to the fate of nations. [They] see a moment in which power relationships can be changed in profound ways by ideas and new thinking as well as by bargaining."

While many nations have sought to haggle or benefit from the geopolitical shift of the past few weeks, Hoagland writes, "the political behavior of [these] two men in recent days transcends and alters established images. These do not run away from dramatic change. They run to lead it in their direction."

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