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Western Press Review: From Afghanistan To Abkhazia

Prague, 15 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary and analysis continues to focus on the ongoing U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, now in its eighth day. Commentators look at Europe's role in the antiterrorism campaign, the lasting effects of the assassination last month of the commander of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance opposition, and the mounting reports of Afghan civilian casualties.


An editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" says European governments have remained solidly behind the U.S. administration's military campaign in Afghanistan. It remarks that this situation "compares favorably" with Europe's ambivalence regarding the 1991 U.S.-led Gulf War against Iraq. The paper writes: "The most striking change is in Germany. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has seized the moment to redefine his country's postwar foreign policy. He has cast aside the pacifist tradition and called for a more muscular, military role for Germany's armed forces. [Germany's] aspirations to play a more active role could have a profound impact on Europe's goal of a common defense policy."

Without significant aid from EU nations like Germany, the editorial continues, the goal of creating a 60,000-strong rapid-reaction force by 2003 will not be achieved. The current crisis in Afghanistan has once again exposed weaknesses in Europe's military capacity. The "FT" concludes: "It is now up to Europe's politicians to address those weaknesses. Otherwise, Europe will be condemned to be forever preparing for the next crisis, rather than the clear and present danger at hand."


In "The New York Times," David Rohde says that the 9 September assassination of the Northern Alliance's military commander, General Ahmed Shah Massoud, has left the alliance wavering and uncertain. Rohde writes that Massoud's absence is "slowing the alliance's diplomatic and military efforts. [His] loss is being felt most deeply in efforts to persuade Taliban commanders to defect to the Northern Alliance. [Despite] seven days of American airstrikes, the alliance has failed to mount a major military attack."

Rohde says that while there is "no indication that the alliance is falling apart, it is possible that it is taking its leaders longer to reach a consensus on military strategy. In the past, General Massoud would dictate or broker a strategy." The same may be true politically, says Rohde, as Massoud was also able to forge a political consensus. But he says that the real influence of General Massoud "will not be known until ground fighting begins in earnest. Alliance officials insist the assassination will be a rallying point, not a crippling blow. They say that soldiers will fight to avenge his death and that the alliance will be a force."


In Britain's "Financial Times," columnist Robert Fisk says that the deaths of innocent civilians in Afghanistan due to the U.S.-led military campaign are undermining the chances for diplomacy. Last week, a bomb went astray in Kabul; a U.S. missile killed four UN de-mining staff members and the village of Karam was also hit. Fisk writes: "In every Middle Eastern country, even tolerant Lebanon, suspicion is growing that this is a war against Islam. That is why the Arab leaders are mostly silent and why the Saudis don't want to help us. That is why crowds tried yesterday to storm a Pakistani airbase used by the American forces."

Even while they condemn the 11 September attacks on America, they similarly condemn the U.S. response. Fisk writes: "The Muslim world now sees innocent Muslims who have died in Western air strikes on Afghanistan." As more Muslim civilians are killed, all the Western leaders' assurances that this is not a war on Islam will turn out to be in vain.


An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" advises caution in facing the dangers of anthrax. It is not surprising that people are apprehensive and that any symptoms of fatigue or fever become worrisome. But, the editorial says, the present situation does not warrant panic. It says, "Luckily, considering scientific problems, using anthrax bacteria as a mass killer is a long way off." Anyone contemplating such a strategy is more likely to use chemicals, such as the Sarin nerve gas used in the 1995 attack in the Tokyo subway, in which 12 people were killed. Another argument against the fear of a spread of anthrax are the "[miniature nature of the] attacks, which contradict the hitherto [massive] dimensions of terror threatened by Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization Al-Qaeda."


An editorial in the "The Wall Street Journal Europe" considers Russian President Vladimir Putin's statement on 12 October that Russia would not get involved in the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict. Russia supported separatist leaders in the Abkhaz-Georgian war of 1992-1993, and 2,000 Russian troops still remain in the area. The spate of recent violence in the region has renewed tensions and has Russian and Abkhaz officials claiming that Georgian and Chechen rebels are responsible. Georgian leaders, however, believe this claim is being used by Abkhazia to create common cause and secure more Russian support.

"The Wall Street Journal" says that President Putin's statement denying Russia would get involved in the skirmish was "laced with plenty of exit clauses. While declaring he has no interest in [what he called] the 'Georgian political problem,' [Putin] also noted 'we are undoubtedly bound to be concerned what kind of situation exists on our borders,' which in Kremlin-speak means the door to intervention remains open."


In a contribution to France's "Le Monde," public law analysts Eric Desmons and Pierre Egea say that the United States is trying to fight what they call a "zero dead" war -- a war that only seeks to kill those directly targeted. This idea is based on the assumption that there are two types of people, say the writers -- those that should not be killed and those that can be "sacrificed." This merely means that the lives of "our own" must be preciously preserved and implies that the enemy is "killable."

Desmons and Egea write, "Whatever one says about it, beyond all the humanitarian considerations and beyond all the surgical strikes, the enemy remains indistinctly the enemy -- a sacrificeable life." The terrorists, they note, also claim the right to separate people into two camps -- the believers and the unfaithful. To them, Western lives are similarly sacrificeable. The writers conclude: "The common figure that appears in these two conflicting worlds is that of the innocent victim."


An editorial in Britain's "The Guardian" says that doubt continues to surround the next phase in the declared war on terrorism. On the political front, it says, diplomats imagine "a future Afghanistan run by multiethnic coalitions or broad-based governments or as a UN protectorate with a king or president. They speak ambitiously of a 10-year rehabilitation program, of an end to opium-cropping, and even of free elections for all Afghans. And yet, as the aid agencies' warnings of famine grow more urgent, as the Pentagon admits for the first time that it has killed civilians by accidental bombing and may very well do so again, as [what some term] the 'cruelty of the Americans' is put on grisly media show, [as Pakistani President] General Pervez Musharraf wobbles again, and as an unabashed [Taliban leader] Mullah Mohammad Omar pledges a fight to the last breath, the gap between present-day reality and best-intentioned aspiration begins to look ever more like a gulf."

"The Guardian" continues, saying that many Muslims "already believe that this chasm of expectations cannot be bridged. The possibility grows that increasing numbers of people in the West, too, may begin to lose faith in the ability of their leaders to deliver. Yet overcoming this deadly disparity will be primarily a political task for, as seven days of limited but still deeply problematic operations in Afghanistan have indicated, a military miracle is not on the cards."


Michael Gordon says in "The New York Times" that the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan is progressing much faster militarily than it is diplomatically or politically. Even while it seeks to destabilize the Taliban, the U.S. has not yet produced a viable suggestion as to what should replace the current regime.

The issue, Gordon writes, is immediate and central for three main reasons: "First, there is a risk that the Taliban could collapse more quickly than supposed, throwing the nation into chaos. [Secondly,] some groups within the country will not turn against the Taliban unless they understand what regime is to follow and are promised a role in that regime. [And] thirdly, Pakistan and other nations in the area are looking for assurances that Afghanistan will not turn into a chaotic failed state."

He notes that political hopes are currently revolving around Mohammad Zahir Shah, Afghanistan's former king, now living in exile. It is hoped that he could serve as the "symbolic head" of a broad coalition that would include members from all the nation's ethnic groups. But the antiterrorist coalition and all parties concerned must step up their political efforts in order to avoid what Gordon calls the "looming political vacuum" in Afghanistan.

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