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Western Press Review: Do Bonn Talks Stand Any Chance Of Success?

Prague, 26 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today focuses on the Afghan conference beginning tomorrow (27 November) in Bonn, Germany, when representatives from four of the largest Afghan political factions will attempt to create a working, broad-based interim government to replace the Taliban militia. Several commentators express doubt that Afghanistan's sprawling and historically divisive ethnic groups can reach a consensus on a unified transitional government. Other comments look beyond the week's talks to U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, war in the 21st century, and the potential danger posed by the West's dependence on Arab oil.


An editorial from "The Washington Post" printed in today's "International Herald Tribune" says "a confusing and contradictory welter of rhetoric" has preceded this week's Bonn talks on a new government for Afghanistan. One thing, however, is clear -- the U.S. is limited in terms of how persuasive it can be in getting the minority ethnic groups of the Northern Alliance to cooperate during the talks.

"U.S. diplomats, playing their usual role, have sounded constructive and optimistic notes, predicting that it will be possible to hammer out a formula for an interim government that will include all of Afghanistan's major ethnic groups. [But] in the short term, the paramount U.S. goal [of eliminating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda network] may constrain the ability of the Bush administration to force an Afghan political solution."

The paper continues: "A stable Afghan solution will require the Northern Alliance leaders to accept the political primacy of southern Pashtuns." But, it adds, American dependence on the Northern Alliance in achieving its military aims in Afghanistan has left the U.S. with little leveraging power when it comes to convincing the Alliance to accept the Pashtun majority into the fold of any future government.

The editorial concludes: "For now, with crucial battles still to be fought against [Al-]Qaeda, it is worth giving America's Afghan allies the chance to be reasonable. Over time, if reason fails, stronger steps should not be ruled out."


An editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" likewise stresses the importance of assuring Afghanistan's Pashtuns are given a voice in any future government. "To have [this week's] talks succeed, the U.S. and its allies will need to support the anti-Taliban leaders of the ethnic Pashtuns, who make up 40 percent of Afghans and were the base for the Taliban. That doesn't mean abandoning the Northern Alliance, but it might mean confronting them."

The paper continues, saying that Afghanistan can avoid a return to civil war, but only if the United States helps it find "the right political mix" and achieve lasting economic stability. "The lure of billions in aid for Afghanistan will help align the [Afghan ethnic] factions in harmony, [but] it may not alone help bring long-term political balance that only Afghans can create on their own."

It adds: "The U.S. will need to show a commitment to the welfare of Afghanistan beyond ridding it of terrorists. That will persuade peoples in other nations that now harbor terrorists that it's worth supporting the U.S. in seeking an end to pro-terrorism regimes."


Peter Sturm, writing in "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," says that Afghanistan "appears set to return to the bad old days." "In all likelihood, the individual parties [at this week's Bonn conference] will be offering few ideas that could provide even a glimmer of hope for agreement. Each side wants as much power as it can get."

Sturm says ideas from outside parties -- notably Pakistan and Iran -- about Afghanistan's future are "no less contradictory and muddled." The United States, he adds, is no exception. "From the outset," he concludes, "Washington has pinned its military hopes on the Northern Alliance and kept its fingers crossed that it would later find Pashtuns to make any new government appear representative."


A commentary in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" also casts doubts on the Bonn talks' chances of success. Andrew Forbes, the editor of the Crescent Press Agency specializing in news about Southeast and Southern Asia, writes: "No one familiar with Afghan politics can have any illusion about the difficulty of forming a government of national unity to replace the Taliban. Afghanistan simply isn't a readily unifiable kind of place."

Afghanistan, he writes, owes its current makeup to the 19th-century imperialist drives of the British and Russian empires, which divided up the country's torturous geography into precise but unsustainable corridors of power. The result, Forbes says, is "a peripheral land, a nation without a real center. [No] single group absolutely dominates the land."

Of the Pashtuns, Forbes writes: "Pashtuns may not agree on everything, but they do agree on the necessity of maintaining their tribal primacy in any Afghan government. One reason for this is their hostility toward, and fear of, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance."

It is clear, he adds, that significant Pashtun participation is a must if any national government is to succeed. "Probably the best hope for the disparate peoples of Afghanistan, as well as for the West," he writes, "is that the Taliban will soon withdraw from Kandahar, allowing power to pass to a respected and internationally acceptable Pashtun leader, most probably Hamid Karzai" -- a prominent Pashtun and official representative of Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah.

That, Forbes writes, "would place one of the four main Afghan cities, Kandahar, squarely where it belongs -- under Pashtun authority."


Tomas Avenarius, writing in "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," adds his voice to the crowd of skeptics regarding the Bonn conference. "When two Afghans meet, they enter into a long discussion. When three Afghans meet, then there is bound to be a dispute." Taking this into consideration, he says, "the prospects for a successful outcome of the Petersberg Conference in Bonn are not great."

On the other hand, he writes, the very fact that discussion is under way already represents an advance. What is especially crucial, he writes, is that Afghanistan's regional neighbors maintain what he calls a "neutral attitude." If Russia, Iran, and India -- who have traditionally supported the Northern Alliance -- convince the Alliance to resist a unified government, nothing is likely to come of the Bonn talks, Avenarius says.


Turning away from Afghanistan's political future to the roots of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, two commentaries look at the pivotal role of oil in global relations. Jim Hoagland, writing in "The Washington Post," writes, "The line that connects energy-wasting habits and the gas guzzlers that now clog U.S. highways to the 15 young Saudi Arabians who helped massacre some 4,000 Americans and others [is] both tenuous and clear." The need for imported energy, he adds, has "kept the United States deeply entangled with decadent regimes of the greater Middle East."

The United States, despite initiatives in the early 1970s to curb and develop alternatives to fossil fuel consumption, today remains a nation of "energy addicts," Hoagland writes, adding that its willing provider, Saudi Arabia, has likewise squandered its time instead of pursuing much-needed reform. "[In 1991], at the end of Operation Desert Storm, U.S. military power seemed to have opened the way for a newly secure Saudi royal family to exert leadership in Arab politics and embark on a political and economic modernization program at home. The U.S. imprint on victory promised a bright collaboration. [But] it did not happen."

"Why did so many young, affluent Saudis answer [Osama] bin Laden's call to exterminate Americans?" Hoagland asks. The answer, he suggests, lies in a stubborn mutual dependence on oil. "Rich regimes in the Gulf monopolize their countries' wealth and power. [And] affluent American consumers are unwilling to sacrifice comfort to save on oil imports."


A commentary in Britain's "The Guardian," however, takes a more skeptical approach. Gwyn Prins of the London School of Economics writes: "Plainly, oil flows all through the fabric of contemporary geopolitics. But to what effect? And how connected?" The Afghan war, he writes, is less about Western energy needs than some people think. "The U.S. National Intelligence Council reminds us that 80 percent of the world's oil and 95 percent of the world's gas remain underground. [Even so], at some point [before 2015], we shall shift into post-carbon primary energy technologies. Inevitably, this phase will be led by the U.S.; and the present oil aspect of geopolitics will be transcended."

In the meantime, fossil fuels still rule the market. And where the Afghan war and oil issues are most clearly linked, Prins writes, is in the fate of the politician "who has gained most from the past 10 weeks: Vladimir Putin." He continues: "No one will want soon to revive plans for a trans-Afghanistan pipeline route, which were being sounded out only last year with the Taliban. So Central Asia oil going West [will] want to go through Russia and/or the Caucasus. [Oil] access reasons may likewise increase Western interest in a stable post-[Eduard] Shevardnadze Georgia." The economic rise of China and India, he adds, means a double boon for Putin as those countries increasingly vie for Caspian and Central Asian fuel.

The result, he says, is that much of the West will be scrambling to assure easy access to fuel is maintained. Prins cites a reports by the British Ministry of Defense stating that the U.K. will likely become a net importer of gas during the next decade. "By 2020, [the U.K.] could be importing as much as 90 percent of [its] gas supplies." The main sources of supply? Russia, Iran, and Algeria.


Other commentaries take a broader look at U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and what the Afghan conflict means for the future of warfare. An editorial in "The New York Times" says the rapid success of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan does not mean it should extend its scope to include another regional adversary, Iraq. "The world would be a safer place with [Iraqi leader Saddam] Hussein's cruel dictatorship removed," the paper says. "At this point, however, there are no good short-term options for getting rid of him."

A war in Iraq, the paper argues, would shatter the delicate coalition the U.S. has painstakingly built for its antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan. "While some Arab leaders have no love for [Saddam]," says the paper, "public opinion in the Arab world would not allow them to support American military action against him."

Furthermore, it says, a war in Iraq could dampen any remaining prospects for restarting the Mideast peace process. Iraq, too, presents a far more formidable challenge militarily than does Afghanistan. "[Saddam] can count on the loyalty of a large army, equipped with more modern and lethal weapons than the Taliban ever had."

What Washington should do now, the paper advises, "is intensify its efforts to build up a more serious internal Iraqi opposition. [There] are hundreds of thousands of discontented Iraqis. [An] effective internal opposition could develop into a potential fighting force and perhaps the nucleus of a future government."

The paper concludes: "More than two decades of experience suggests that Saddam Hussein is unlikely ever to become a respectable international citizen. The challenge of removing him is best left for a day when the United States can count on the strong and effective support of opposition forces in Iraq."


In a comment from "The Washington Post" published in today's "International Herald Tribune," David Ignatius praises the collapse of the Taliban government in Afghanistan and asks, "Where does this war of liberation go next?" His suggestion: Removing Saddam Hussein from power and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"A joyous celebration in Baghdad would greet Saddam's demise. [Iraqis] have been praying that the United States and its allies would finally turn this odious page in their history. That task won't be easy, but it is time to begin building the coalition of support, overt and covert, that will someday make it possible."

A good opportunity to start, he suggests, comes this week when the UN Security Council revisits the notion of imposing "smart sanctions" against Iraq. Russia has vetoed the sanctions in the past, Ignatius says, but may now be persuaded to cooperate in light of its warmer relations with the U.S.

As to the Middle East, Ignatius writes, "The American motto toward Israelis and Palestinians right now should be 'tough love.'" That, he says, means enforcing America's long-standing verbal opposition to Israeli settlements and working harder to stop Palestinian terrorism. "Change comes slowly in the Middle East, but it is coming," he writes.


In a comment in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," John Keegan, defense editor of Britain's "The Daily Telegraph," writes that over the past 20 years he has been asked to analyze and predict outcomes in five different wars: the Falklands, the Gulf, the civil war in former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, and now Afghanistan. "The task," he writes, "has become progressively more difficult."

The problem, Keegan says, is that war has escaped from state control "and into the hands of terrorists, bandits, and criminals. While they often command large arsenals previously affordable only to tax-raising governments, they do not obey the rules that sovereign governments observe."

The civilized world, he continues, was confronted by a new face of war in the days following 11 September -- a war, he says, "waged by young men who apparently do not value their own lives and glory in inflicting death on the innocent and defenseless." Keegan concludes: "There has been talk of a '50 Years War' on terrorism. In truth, it may last far longer than that. Until militant Islam -- or any other of the ruling religious or ethnic ideologies and their criminal adherents -- has been terrified into passivity, this war will continue."