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Afghanistan: EU, Russia Press U.S. To Add Political Dimension To Strikes

The European Union and Russia have urged the United States to add more of a political component to the military campaign in Afghanistan. Both the EU and Russia believe the UN General Assembly in New York later this week could reach a political breakthrough in talks on the future government of Afghanistan. They say this would help appease public opinion in the Muslim world if -- as now seems certain -- the United States decide to continue strikes during the holy month of Ramadan.

Moscow/Brussels, 5 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and the European Union are putting pressure on the United States to add more of a "political component" to the ongoing military strikes against Afghanistan.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on 2 November met with his counterpart from Belgium, Louis Michel. Michel, representing the current EU presidency, was leading an EU delegation touring Central Asia and ending in Moscow for talks focusing on Afghanistan.

Belgian diplomatic sources say that, during the talks, Ivanov told Michel that Russia agrees with the objectives of the U.S.-led military action. But Ivanov also told the visiting delegation that greater attention must be paid to political reconciliation and reconstruction to assuage public opinion, not only in the Arab and Muslim world, but also in Russia, the EU, and the United States itself.

A day earlier, on 1 November, Ivanov delivered the same message in Washington to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

A Belgian official, asking not to be named, told RFE/RL that the EU delegation had generally found Russia "anxious" about the U.S. stance in Afghanistan.

Ivanov told Michel the antiterrorist coalition could not achieve military victory before a political agreement was in place on the future composition of the government of Afghanistan. The Belgian official said Ivanov stressed it was important for the stability of Pakistan that Afghanistan's Northern Alliance opposition not take Kabul before a new government is in place. Ivanov also emphasized that the Pashtun population -- from which the ruling Taliban militia draws its members -- should have at least a symbolic representation in the victory.

Russia appears anxious over the possible reaction of Muslim public opinion if military strikes extend into the holy month of Ramadan, now less than two weeks away. If, as U.S. authorities have suggested in recent days, it proves impossible to capture bin Laden, then the U.S. may continue the anti-Taliban bombing raids for months to come. Such a move could threaten the integrity of the antiterrorist coalition.

Belgian Foreign Minister Michel indicated after his meeting with Ivanov that the EU shares at least some of Russia's concerns: "We both think that Russia and the EU are partners in the coalition and perhaps have a particular role to play on the political as well as the psychological planes. Each of us has a very specific role to play, notably on the political level -- specifically, to guide the reflection [on problems like Afghanistan] toward a much more political perspective. There is no doubt that the military operations are necessary to destroy the means at the disposal of the Taliban -- and we will without a doubt have to continue with military action -- but it is important at present to put the reflection into a political perspective in order to lend greater efficacy to it and assure our public opinion that the military action will be followed by political action."

Michel said that the EU and Russian positions on the future of Afghanistan are "extremely convergent." Both support setting up a broad-based, ethnically representative government under the aegis of the United Nations. That government should enjoy broad support from Afghanistan's neighbors and put the country on the road to economic recovery.

According to the unnamed Belgian diplomat, the EU hopes that the upcoming UN General Assembly would produce a political agreement between the putative coalition partners in Afghanistan. The official was clear that the EU -- while not contesting the need for U.S. military action and assuming that the strikes would very probably continue into Ramadan -- would like to see what he called greater "political counterbalance" added to the process.

The official said the EU and Russia had also discussed ways to employ their respective contacts in the Muslim world to shore up support for the coalition. He said Michel had set up once-monthly contacts with representatives of leading Islamic countries, which could provide legitimacy to any agreement over the political future of Afghanistan.

Michel and Ivanov also discussed the possibility of calling an international conference on rebuilding Afghanistan after the new government is in place.

Both sides also discussed ways of ensuring long-term stability in Central Asia, where Michel in late Octobe visited the capitals of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. The Belgian official said Ivanov told Michel that although Russia is involved in a number of regional cooperation projects in Central Asia, achieving real collaboration was -- in the official's words -- "not really easy." Saying that Russia wanted more than just a humanitarian partnership with the EU, Ivanov suggested that Russia, the EU, and the Central Asian countries join in a trilateral project to overcome key regional disagreements over water distribution. Michel said he found the idea "interesting and concrete" and promised to take it up with other EU governments.

The Belgian official said Ivanov told Michel that Russia would continue supporting U.S. military efforts in Central Asia. The EU official said there were indications that U.S. troops could very soon be allowed access to bases in Tajikistan as well as Uzbekistan.

Ivanov also said Russia would work to achieve greater cooperation from Turkmenistan in Afghan humanitarian efforts, saying the Turkmen government had been in direct contact with the Taliban before 11 September and still had "good contacts" in Afghanistan. He said Russia would also help channel aid through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan once a key bridge between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan is cleared of mines.