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Western Press Review: Afghan Talks, Day Two; NATO-Russia Relations

Prague, 28 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Western press continues to be dominated by commentary and analysis focusing on the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, and especially the talks being held this week near Bonn, Germany, aimed at creating a multi-ethnic post-Taliban government in Kabul.

Other commentary centers on whether it's time for the war against terrorism to branch out on new fronts, specifically the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and the advisability of NATO forging a closer relationship with Russia.


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" assesses the progress made so far in the war against the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, including the current Afghan talks near Bonn, and says, "Nobody could have predicted that things would get this far before Christmas."

As for those talks, the paper says that only a fool would predict the outcome since Afghanistan's recent history is not marked by successful compromises. It is encouraging, though, that the factions are at least sitting at the same table. And in a reference to former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, the paper says it is also heartening that there does not seem to be a larger-than-life diplomat hovering around the talks with blueprints for what Afghanistan should look like after the Taliban.

"The last thing the Afghans need is a Dayton-type agreement," the paper says. "That treaty, named after the conference in Dayton, Ohio in 1995, may have contributed to ending the war in Bosnia, but in practice it has permanently tied the outside world to the implementation of the peace there." The paper continues: "In that sense, Bosnia has been like one of those cultures in which the rescuer who saves a life becomes responsible for taking care of the rescuee forever."

The Western nations with troops in Bosnia fear that if they pull them out, the Bosnians would, in the paper's words, "fall upon one another again. Nobody wants that for Afghanistan, which presents even greater difficulties."

The paper urges the U.S.-led West to make a clear risk-benefit assessment of what lies ahead in Afghanistan. The end result should be an Afghanistan that does not provide safe haven for terrorists and that is free to choose its own leaders. The outside powers, it concludes, can contribute to this end by channeling development aid to the groups that seek true peace for their country.


Hugo Restall, the editorial page editor of "The Wall Street Journal Asia," says the political foundations of any new Afghan government must be sound if the world wants to avoid a repeat of what happened in Cambodia following Paris peace talks a decade ago.

In a commentary, Restall says high hopes for peace and stability in Cambodia after those talks quickly evaporated when the Khmer Rouge continued to launch attacks across the country and boycotted elections. The UN was unable to prevent violence and intimidation of voters and left Cambodia, Restall says, "worse off that when it arrived."

"One of the key lessons for Afghanistan," Restall says, "beyond the warning to involve the UN as little as possible, is to put military men, not diplomats, in charge of security." The Northern Alliance must not be allowed to use its military muscle to stop progress toward an eventual democratic government in Kabul.

The Alliance holds the reins of government in the capital, Restall says, and there will be a temptation to avoid the difficult work of dislodging them in order to form a truly neutral interim government. "But the experience of Cambodia shows that dodging this issue makes a peaceful transfer of power later on nearly impossible," Restall concludes.


Analyst Erhard Haubold, in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," says the war in Afghanistan is not even half won, considering the political challenges that remain. He says the Northern Alliance, which now controls most of the country, has insisted that "possession is nine-tenths ownership." The United States, Haubold says, will have to force the Northern Alliance to share power in Kabul.

"A transitional government must be formed quickly before destructive forces unleash yet another civil war. That is the huge task facing the UN," Haubold writes. The UN is the only international organization that can play a leading and legitimizing role and ensure the peace process includes all the parties concerned -- inside and outside Afghanistan. The UN must also secure enormous post-war financial aid for the country, as much as $10 billion. This combination of power and money, Haubold says, "might be able to discipline the Afghan squabblers."

A suspicion remains that the U.S., in addition to destroying Al-Qaeda, has other interests in Afghanistan, including oil fields and mineral deposits in the region. Even if the United States is interested in such areas, Haubold concludes, "at least that would guarantee that Washington does not quickly lose its renewed interest in southern Asia."


Columnist James Carroll, writing in "The Boston Globe," questions whether the war in Afghanistan should have been fought at all. He says the broad American consensus that the war is "just" represents a shallow assessment, a shallowness resulting from three things.

First, he says, there is vast ignorance among those outside the military establishment about what is really happening on the ground in Afghanistan. The U.S. has revealed very little of what has occurred in the war zone, and has restricted journalistic access.

Secondly, Carroll questions whether the war -- rather than breaking the cycle of violence and terrorism -- may be contributing to it. "By unleashing such massive firepower," Carroll asks, "do we make potential enemies even more likely to try to match it with the very weapons of mass destruction we so dread?"

Thirdly, the war in Afghanistan, he says, constitutes a wrongly defined use of force. The war is not "just" because it was not necessary. Rather than acts of war, he says, the events of 11 September should have been defined as crimes, with a response far more targeted than a large-scale war. "The criminals, not an impoverished nation, should be on the receiving end of the punishment," he says. "The more this war is deemed 'just,'" he concludes, "the more it seems wrong."


"The Washington Post" turns its attention to the crucial support of Pakistan in the war in Afghanistan. Though it has so far stuck to its guns, there is a risk, the paper writes, that Pakistan will falter as the Afghan campaign enters its "dangerous endgame."

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf "needs to explain to his country that support for the war against terrorism is not just a favor to the United States but also is in Pakistan's own interests. And the Bush administration must continue to bolster his position with aid and market access."

Pakistan has differed publicly with the U.S. on two issues -- the repatriation of pro-Taliban Pakistani fighters in Afghanistan, and what it feels is the insufficient representation of Afghanistan's Pashtuns at the Bonn talks. "Up to a point, Pakistan's arguments are reasonable," the paper says. "But Pakistan's political elites do not squarely acknowledge that their countrymen in Afghanistan are guilty of siding with fundamentalist terrorists." And Pashtun dominance of a future Afghan government seems as unlikely to yield stability as Pashtun exclusion.

Pakistan's decision to side with the U.S. in the war against terrorism provides an opportunity for Islamabad to break with its history of fundamentalist violence. "And it will mean putting stability in Afghanistan," the paper concludes, "ahead of ambitions to control the country."


With the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan moving forward at a rapid clip, the war against terrorism is beginning to focus on new fronts, with some hard-liners in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush arguing for the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, with or without evidence of Baghdad's complicity in the events of 11 September.

"The world would certainly be better off if Iraq were run by a reasonable and responsible government," the paper argues. "And it is true that U.S. policy towards Baghdad is in desperate need of new direction" following the failure of UN economic sanctions and the absence, since 1998, of UN weapons inspectors inside Iraq.

But it says that moving the war on terrorism to Baghdad is fraught with risk. Such a move would undermine the international coalition and would possibly be opposed even by staunch ally Britain.

Nor is it obvious, the paper writes, that the practical conditions are in place to conduct a successful military action or to replace Saddam. The Iraqi opposition is deeply divided, and Washington's Arab allies would not tolerate another war in the region without being confident of the outcome.

"Despite these difficulties," the paper says, "the West would be wrong to abandon the ultimate goal of toppling the Iraqi regime." But in the short term, the coalition against terrorism should focus on returning UN arms inspectors to Iraq to ensure that Iraq doesn't pose a danger to the region and to the world.

Saddam should be made aware, the paper concludes, "that failure to comply will carry severe consequences. Equally, in exchange for agreement, the West could offer an easing of sanctions without implicitly giving the Iraqi leader a lifeline."


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," analyst Stanley Weiss, founder and chairman of the organization Business Executives for National Security, says Iraq is central to the war on terrorism and that if the U.S. and its allies are serious, they must remove Saddam from power.

Baghdad, he says, has chemical and biological capabilities and is close to having a nuclear capability as well. He writes: "Unless the West takes him on, once and for all, George W. Bush's prediction of a long war, with many more U.S. military and civilian casualties, will probably turn out to be prophetic."

Saddam, Weiss says, enjoys even less support within Iraq than the Taliban had in Afghanistan. And unlike the Taliban, the Iraqi regime is neither supported nor trusted by its neighbors.

Washington, he writes, seems wedded to the failed approach of relying on a military coup d'etat and fears an attack on Iraq would destroy the antiterrorism coalition. "But holding the coalition together," Weiss says, "should be a means to achieving its anti-terrorism goals, not the goal in itself."

With Saddam gone, U.S. troops would have nothing to protect the Gulf states from, and Israel would be more likely to make concessions to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Iraq could take its place alongside Turkey as a secular Muslim democracy. The economy would be reinvigorated, and 23 million Iraqis, Weiss concludes, "could begin to breathe again as free people."


Wolfgang Koydl, writing in Germany's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," considers the enormous risks an American attack on Iraq would entail. He says the White House is proclaiming ever more frequently that an attack on Iraq is the goal of "Phase Two of the antiterror war."

But in examining the questions of whether the last hour has struck for Saddam, whether the U.S. is prepared to launch an attack on Baghdad, or whether U.S. President George W. Bush is ready to achieve the victory that his father failed to secure in the Gulf War, the answer to all of these questions is "no," says Koydl. He writes: "The U.S. is neither politically or diplomatically or militarily in a position to topple the regime in Baghdad."

Nevertheless, Koydl believes, the U.S. is waiting for the right moment to launch an attack, even though building a coalition and finding sufficient support on the home front is questionable.

In the meantime, the same old arguments are put forward: The U.S. insists on sanctions as long as Baghdad is unwilling to allow weapons-inspection teams into Iraq. There is nothing new about this, says Koydl. But the issue is once more topical, since the UN Security Council is due to decide on 30 November on the continuation of economic sanctions, "and the obstinate U.S. will have to exercise a little patience."


An editorial in "The New York Times" looks at the recent suggestion by NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson that the alliance may be approaching a new strategic partnership with Russia. The paper calls the plan for improved joint decision-making "a bold idea" and "a critical step toward Russia's realignment with the West." But, it warns, "Striking the right balance between giving Moscow a meaningful voice and preserving NATO's freedom of action on issues like military intervention and membership expansion will require complicated discussions."

Any new arrangement, the paper says, will still leave Russia short of achieving veto power on issues it opposes. But the changes will go a long way to softening the country's stance on at least one key issue. The paper writes: "New arrangements with NATO [could] well ease Russian objections to the expansion of the alliance into the former Baltic republics of the old Soviet Union. [Russian President] Vladimir Putin has recently argued that if Russia's own relations with NATO improved sufficiently, Moscow's concerns about expanding the alliance would largely melt away."

The changes proposed by Robertson, the paper says, would give Moscow "the kind of decision-making role it is entitled to on issues that legitimately concern it." It adds: "It would also demonstrate that Mr. Putin's efforts to cooperate with the West and his support for Washington since September 11 are paying dividends in increased international influence for Russia."


In a comment published in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski looks at the chummy nature of the recent meeting in Texas between presidents Bush and Putin and warns: "Personal diplomacy at summits cannot succeed unless it is infused with determination to achieve firmly held strategic goals, derived from a cold calculation of the actual balance of power between the two interlocutors."

In the case of the Bush-Putin summit, he writes, it remains to be seen whether the friendly mood will amount to much in Russia's relations with NATO, which Brzezinski calls "America's greatest post-World War Two accomplishment."

About the proposal to bring Russia officially into the decision-making fold of the military alliance, he writes: "It is not difficult to imagine the political consequences. [The] Russian side will presumably come with its own position defined prior to any meeting, but with the remaining 19 [NATO members] not having worked out a joint NATO position. Russia would become a de facto participant in NATO's political deliberations, able to play on differences among the NATO allies before a NATO consensus has even been shaped."

This, Brzezinski says, "is a formula for internal disruption and not for enhanced cooperation with a non-member." He concludes: "The enduring lesson of the past several decades is that engaging Russia has to be pursued on the basis of a long-term strategy, and not for the sake of personal spectaculars or quick tactical benefits."

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

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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.