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Western Press Review: Afghan Reconstruction And Debate On Iraq

Prague, 30 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today continues to be dominated by events in Afghanistan, as UN-sponsored talks proceed near Bonn, Germany, on the formation of a new Afghan government. Discussion also focuses on the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to Afghanistan, and debate over the costs and benefits of expanding the campaign against terrorism to include Iraq.


A piece in this week's "The Economist" looks at the processes involved in rebuilding Afghanistan, and suggests a way to deliver much-needed aid to the country -- by setting up what it calls a "trust fund."

"Donor governments often [control] aid programs by dictating how their money is used; a trust fund would pool their contributions. Working through Afghanistan's budget and a 'reconstruction agency,' [a] trust fund could help ensure that the money goes where it is needed most."

"The Economist" says Afghanistan's rebuilders are now focusing on projects with immediate results, what it calls "quick wins." "Many of these are simple public-works programs, such as rebuilding roads, repairing irrigation canals, and clearing land mines, which would put a lot of people to work quickly on projects that meet obvious needs. They can also help to attract refugees back to their homes and thousands of armed men away from unruly militias."

The magazine says that at the same time, "the slow work of building structures and institutions that are meant to last can begin. It will have to contend with politics, ambition, greed, and other forces that disrupt progress in most other countries. Some quick wins will make the long [road] easier, and quiet the cynics."


In a contribution to Britain's "Financial Times," Philip Gordon and Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution say the question of whether the U.S. should expand its antiterrorism campaign to include Iraq is becoming "the hottest debate in the war on terrorism."

The authors suggest that advocates of a war with Iraq "systematically understate the costs and risks." "Those who believe a palace coup could be easily induced by a few days of bombing, or that an Iraqi opposition could be quickly mobilized and armed to lead a march on Baghdad, are living in a fantasy world."

A U.S. offensive might also prompt Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to use chemical or biological weapons; the American offensive might "produce the very outcome they were designed to prevent."

The authors say these considerations leave the question of whether Saddam can instead be deterred. At present, they write, "most evidence suggests that he can. [Saddam] tolerated inspectors until he rightly recognized that impeding their work would be met with only limited U.S. and British air strikes. He invaded Kuwait in 1990 only after the U.S. suggested it would tolerate such an action. [He is] someone who clearly wants to stay in power and stay alive."

The authors conclude that for now, "the costs and risks of containment appear lower than those of attempting to overthrow Saddam."


In Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Gunther Nonnenmacher discusses the deployment of an international force to Afghanistan. He says such a force is "indispensable to enforce or keep the peace, and to back up and protect civilian helpers of all kinds."

"If we left Afghanistan -- along with its hostile tribes and competing political groups -- to its own devices, [civil] war would certainly continue, at best with reduced intensity. Aid for rebuilding the infrastructure and economy would flow into a bottomless pit, while the population would become permanently dependent on international aid."

But Nonnenmacher adds: "There is no doubt that stationing such a force in Afghanistan requires the consent of the dominant forces in the country. [There] also is no doubt that the United Nations will have to legitimize the intervention."

Deciding who would lead such a mission still poses many problems, however. The operation, says Nonnenmacher, "would have to be in the hands of a nation experienced in such matters. The force would be multinational, and it has often been reiterated that most of the soldiers should be provided by Muslim states."

But Nonnenmacher says that even the combination of all of these elements "does not produce the outline of a politically acceptable and militarily effective shielding and fighting force."


In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," author David Rieff says the only option that would offer a secure future for Afghanistan is making it "an international protectorate in which the warlords had little or no say." Rieff says the UN meeting taking place near Bonn is not, as is widely believed, a first step to creating a representative government in Afghanistan. He points out that the Northern Alliance is a reluctant participant in the talks and says that "any commitments it makes are unlikely to be honored in practice." The other factions that are attending, he says, are no more committed to creating a representative government.

"In other words, [it] will be a meeting of precisely those leaders who over the past two decades have brought Afghanistan to its current state of ruin and horror." He notes ironically that the Taliban was initially welcomed to power as an alternative to the violence of the groups that the international community is now presenting as founders of Afghan democracy.

The process of democratization is going to take decades, Rieff says. And this process cannot be entrusted to people who "wouldn't know a human right if they tripped over it." He concludes, "No amount of UN window-dressing, high-flown rhetoric, and humanitarian aid can change this fact."


In France's daily "Liberation," Jean-Pierre Perrin says the Northern Alliance has recently reversed several of its positions on issues relating to the future of Afghanistan.

On 28 November, the leader of the Northern Alliance delegation to the inter-Afghan conference near Bonn, Yunus Qanuni, stated that an international force was not necessary to provide security in Afghanistan. Yesterday, however, Qanuni announced the alliance would not be opposed to the presence of international forces.

"In the space of a day," writes Perrin, "the Northern Alliance considerably softened its position on the question of the deployment of a multinational force under a UN mandate." This change of heart should allow the Bonn conference to move forward, says Perrin, since the other three Afghan delegations are favorable to a deployment.

Qanuni's position on the role of former King Zahir Shah has also seemed more flexible, says Perrin. Qanuni said yesterday the involvement of the former monarch would bring integrity to a new government. But former Afghan President and Northern Alliance political leader Burhanuddin Rabbani has said Afghans would not accept leaders forced upon it from the outside.

Perrin says that behind these differences also lies a possible Russian-American rivalry: Moscow openly supports Rabbani, while Washington has expressed unwillingness to recognize the authority of the former president.


In Germany's "Frankfurter Rundschau," Rolf Paasch discusses the deployment of a security force in Afghanistan, which he considers in relation to German politics. In spite of the Northern Alliance's initial resistance, there now seems to be a consensus at the current conference between four Afghan factions that an international security force is necessary to ensure stability in postwar Afghanistan.

In this connection, there are proposals for the deployment of a Turkish Muslim unit. But Paasch says, "The Turks have a rather close affinity to the Northern Alliance." He notes that UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi would like to see a European power heading the peacekeepers. Paasch says a referendum among the conference delegates and the Afghan people would provide an almost unanimous vote for a German mandate.

He adds, "These are not empty words, but a clear depiction of relations between Koenigswinter [where the Afghan conference is being held] and Kabul -- and a future problem for the German federal government."


An editorial in Germany's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" focuses on relations with Iraq in light of the campaign against terrorism. The writer says there is bad news from New York because the UN Security Council has extended sanctions against Baghdad for another six months -- sanctions that the editorial says are "aimed at the elite but which harm the common people."

The sanctions have neither forced the renewal of weapons inspections nor caused Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's fall from power. "On the contrary," the editorial says, "Saddam is using his people's poverty to intensify their dependence on him and to promote hatred against the Americans. And this state of affairs is likely to continue...."

Russia's economic interests in Iraq have led Moscow to join Baghdad in the call for lifting the sanctions. Now, because of Moscow's improved relations with Washington, word comes that Russia is willing to consider so-called "smart sanctions," which would target the regime in Iraq but not its people.

The commentary says that it seems America is bluffing in threatening military action against Baghdad; the U.S. may merely be trying to impose more effective sanctions. But even if it succeeds in forcing Iraq to permit weapons inspections, Saddam could expel the inspectors again and continue developing arms undisturbed.

The editorial says, "Washington would then again be faced with the question: Sanctions or war?"


An editorial in the "Los Angeles Times" says that the many who are skeptical of the UN-sponsored talks near Bonn between Afghan factions "reasonably had low expectations, since feuding among brutal, corrupt warlords is what nearly destroyed Afghanistan in the 1990s. But what they didn't take into account was the sheer exhaustion of combatants and civilians alike. Combined with sufficient pressure from the United States and other countries, that war-weariness may lead to agreement on a peacekeeping force and a transitional government for Afghanistan during current talks...."

The editorial calls on the U.S. and the international community to remain committed to building a stable future for Afghanistan, even after they have achieved their initial goals.

"After 1989, when the Soviet Union's troops left Afghanistan, the United States abandoned the country and years of civil warfare erupted, eventually ushering in the draconian Taliban. This time, Western nations are rightly holding out the carrot of billions of dollars in reconstruction assistance in return for an inclusive government and civil rights for Afghan women. [Washington] must help ensure the country's future [so] that it will not become a base for terrorism again. That means sticking with the commitment well after [suspected terrorist] Osama bin Laden is gone."


A piece in "The Economist" considers Pakistan's uneasy position in the coalition against terrorism. The government of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was dealt a blow when Northern Alliance forces took Kabul, within hours of American assurances that the Alliance would hold back.

Pakistan considers the Alliance to be a tool of its rivals India, Iran, and Russia. Although Pakistan has broken off diplomatic ties with Afghanistan, "The Economist" says that two of the ties between them survive. One is the Pashtun ethnicity of the Taliban, as well as of 15 percent of Pakistan's population. The magazine says Musharraf "must ensure that the victory of the Northern Alliance, mainly Tajik and Uzbek, does not imply the defeat of Pashtuns."

The second enduring tie is that thousands of Pakistanis joined the Taliban for its fight in Afghanistan, and many remain in the country. "All this explains why General Musharraf was at such pains to stress that Afghanistan has not been seized by Pakistan's enemies. The notion that the Northern Alliance is hostile to Pakistan is a 'wrong perception,' he said. Nevertheless, he must be praying that the Afghans gathered [near] Bonn agree on the broad-based, Pushtun-friendly government they say they want."


Hans Christoph Buch is a columnist and author of a book entitled "Blood and Boots" containing reportage from war and crisis zones. He contributed a commentary to the German newspaper "Die Welt" entitled "Afghanistan is not Absurdistan."

This statement is prompted as a response to articles in the German media reporting on Afghanistan from what he calls a safe distance. He says, "Naturally, there are skeptical voices when premature victories are reported, for flattery serves no one, but when the military successes of the Northern Alliance are equally doubted, as well as the spontaneous jubilation of the people in Kabul on the withdrawal of the Taliban, then something is wrong."

These negative assumptions are based on some false premises. Firstly, that the war against the Taliban is a destructive war against the Afghan people. And secondly, that in principle there are no differences between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. Underlying such assumptions, he says, is a racist judgment that all Afghans are fanatic Muslims, robbers, murderers, and cutthroats who cannot be trusted.

History has proven how the Afghans have managed to play the great powers against each other and how they have survived thanks to cunning diplomacy. On the one hand, Buch accuses the West of ignorance of a foreign culture, an ignorance that has evolved into unrealistic expectations for an overnight return to peace and representative democracy in Afghanistan. The motto, "Children, behave yourself," has failed in the Balkans, Buch says.

The lesson to be learned, says Buch, is to adapt far more to the interests of the various Afghan factions.

In fact, Buch recommends strongly that it be left to the Afghans themselves to settle their problems without foreign interference, without treating them as children. Of course, this does not mean opposition to any sort of "Marshall Plan" for a country in dire need of economic support.

"But the best policy is and remains to rely on the initiative of the people of Afghanistan, so that after years of foreign interference, they take their fate into their own hands," Buch writes. "Help for self-help is the correct recipe."

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