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Western Press Review: Military Strikes In Afghanistan And Middle East

Prague, 4 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in today's Western press continues to be dominated by events in Afghanistan and the Middle East, as the Israeli army begins a second day of retaliatory attacks on Palestinian areas following three Palestinian suicide bombings over the weekend that left 100 dead.


An editorial in Britain's "The Independent" says that ever since 11 September, America's "war on terrorism" has been juxtaposed with the cycle of violence between Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East. The paper says that "many who see justice in the Palestinian cause have had a hard time rebutting one seemingly straightforward assertion: How can it be wrong for Israel to take stern reprisals against the Palestinian terrorists who wreak such bloodshed on its soil, when America is engaged in an all-out military campaign to hunt down Osama bin Laden and overthrow the Taliban regime that sheltered him?"

The editorial adds that it is now "politically impossible" for U.S. President George W. Bush to ask Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to "turn the other cheek".

"The Independent" says this situation highlights the complications of America's "war on terrorism." In the Middle East, it writes, "violence begets more violence." Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat should be urged "to stop the suicide bombers and arrest the terrorist ringleaders, for good. But [Arafat] cannot do that without signing his political -- and perhaps physical -- death warrant. And without him, [the] way would be clear for Hamas and the rest [to] take overt charge, ensuring only a further radicalization of the Palestinian cause, and of anti-Israeli and anti-American elements throughout the Islamic world."


In the "Chicago Tribune," senior editor for "In These Times" Salim Muwakkil questions the U.S. media's references to a U.S. "victory" in Afghanistan. "Let's stop for a minute and soberly survey exactly what [has] been accomplished: Through the overwhelming power of sophisticated weapons, the world's mightiest military apparently has forced a shaky regime of religious idealists to abandon their leadership experiment."

Muwakkil reminds us that Western governments initially supported the Taliban as a buffer against Soviet communism. Western oil companies also hoped the Taliban "could provide the stability necessary to spur the development of pipelines through Afghanistan, linking an energy-hungry world to the Caspian Sea basin's massive oil and gas deposits."

Muwakkil notes that the current U.S. ally, the Northern Alliance, presided over several years of anarchy and chaos throughout the 1990s in Afghanistan -- a period that left many Afghans so fearful that they welcomed the Taliban's extreme methods, which were intended to bring order to a lawless situation.

"Many of our recent bogeymen -- Manual Noriega, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden -- were shaped and molded in the State Department labs of U.S. foreign policy and deployed to serve our national interest. When their purpose was served, the U.S. moved on to other interests. But like Dr. Frankenstein's monster, they continue to [wreak] havoc, eventually turning against their creator."

"Is this what we mean by victory?" Muwakkil asks.


In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Christoph Schwennicke discusses the role of Germany in Afghanistan's future. The Germans, he says, have good intentions but modest possibilities.

Schwennicke says the Germans should not take too seriously the flattering remarks regarding their hospitality in hosting the Bonn conference on Afghanistan. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty of actually joining UN forces in Afghanistan, Germany must politely insist that "the responsibilities should be shared by all the allies." Above all, he says, "it must be made clear to the U.S. that a division of labor -- such as, 'We do the bombing, you clean up afterwards' -- is out of the question."

Schwennicke says the UN approval of U.S. actions in Afghanistan after the 11 September terrorist attack "includes a follow-up to assure stability and security in the aftermath [and] is based on the trust that the U.S. is aware of its responsibilities."

As far as Germany is concerned, Schwennicke says the German military is at the end of its tether. It has exhausted itself by sending thousands of soldiers to the Balkans. Assigning troops to Afghanistan would be a burden difficult to bear, he says, and by looking at the images of the battlefields in Afghanistan there is little promise of it being a "peaceful mission."

Suicide bombings in Israel over the weekend by Palestinian extremists have led many commentators to question whether Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has the authority to rein in extremists and put an end to such bombings.


In the "Financial Times," Harvey Morris says the weekend violence has "prompted a marked change of attitude in the U.S. administration. Most significant of all, the events have further weakened [Yasser] Arafat's position in the Palestinian Authority. None of this can have disappointed the perpetrators, who are among the minorities on both sides that have no commitment to a compromise peace settlement. [Israeli] officials now say they have no faith in Mr. Arafat's determination to contain the violence and that the Israeli army will now simply do the job itself."

The paper notes that since 11 September, Israeli officials have compared the Palestinian Authority to the Taliban because it protects extremist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But it says until last weekend, Israel "had enjoyed only limited success in persuading the U.S. that Israel's terrorist enemies were on a par with Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda."

Now, the paper notes, the U.S. administration has stated Israel "has a right to defend itself." The "Financial Times" writes, "If Mr. Sharon interprets that as a green light, he may be encouraged to resume his policy of military incursions and even to dust off plans to unseat Mr. Arafat."

But the paper says if Arafat were to go, "his departure could be interpreted as a victory for the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants. Israel might then find its actions served only to strengthen its enemies."


An editorial in "The Washington Post" says the weekend bombings in Israel "perpetuated one of the most destructive patterns in Israeli-Arab affairs. Almost every time an effort is made to advance peace negotiations, extremists respond with crimes meant to shock and freeze the process -- and more often than not their primitive strategy succeeds."

The paper says the Palestinian extremist groups responsible for the weekend attacks "clearly intended to destroy the mission of U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni, who arrived in the region a week ago to press home a cease-fire plan that depended on a crackdown on the extremists by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. This time the terrorists should not be allowed to achieve their aims," the paper warns.

The editorial notes that Arafat responded to the bombings with condemnations and a pledge to round up those responsible. But it says, "What Mr. Arafat never has been willing to do is unequivocally break with Hamas, the author of the weekend attacks, and its terrorist partner Islamic Jihad and use his security forces to uproot their terrorist networks."

The paper suggests that Arafat's only chance to maintain his legitimacy is "an all-out confrontation with the extremists."


Writing in "The New York Times," former U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross says that unless Arafat "can respond forcefully to the current challenge, he will probably see the central aspiration of his life's work -- securing independence for Palestinians -- destroyed."

Ross notes that Arafat has acted before against extremist groups when he knew the Palestinian cause was being discredited by their actions. Now, he says, Arafat "must decide that the Palestinian Authority will not be a safe haven for terrorists. He must stop glorifying suicide bombers by calling them martyrs. He must demonstrate that nothing justifies terror. Ultimately, he will have to make it clear to Palestinians that their aspirations were nearly achieved last year at the negotiating table and that the Intifada and suicidal attacks have imperiled the Palestinian cause."

"To a greater extent than ever," Ross continues, "Mr. Arafat's power among Palestinians comes from the fact that the international community still confers on him the authority to speak for Palestinians." By not taking action, Ross says Arafat "endangers his own power and increases the likelihood that splinter groups will no longer see any advantage in taking directives from him."


An editorial in the French daily "Le Monde" notes that after the weekend bombings, Israeli authorities placed responsibility for the attacks on Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, accusing it of wanting to sabotage new attempts at mediation by the United States in the Middle East.

But "Le Monde" says this is "a questionable charge. The weekend bloodbath further weakens the leader of Fatah. The attacks shake the [Palestinian] Authority, which has been wavering for the past 18 months, ever since it refused to follow up the peace proposals of [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Barak; since it began an Intifada that it is incapable of stopping; [since] the administration, undermined by corruption and division, suffers repeated strikes by the Israeli army."

Hamas, on the other hand, thrives on the situation faced by the Palestinians in the territories, says "Le Monde." It is not entirely justifiable to require Arafat to hold in check the radicalism that keeps up the vicious cycle of attacks and reprisals. But "Le Monde" says that Arafat's "moment of truth" has come. He can no longer claim to guide the Palestinian national movement if he does not act against Hamas. He has a chance of success only if he can bring something to the Palestinians -- but this also depends on Israel, says "Le Monde."


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Amin Saikal of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University says that the weekend bombings will bring, "as usual, massive and disproportionate Israeli response."

"[One] issue that the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan has brought to the forefront of the global agenda is the plight of the Palestinian people. It is now clear that Israel's draconian and bloody approach to the Palestinian resistance has been important in enabling Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network to have plenty of fertile ground for recruiting activists and galvanizing public support. [Israel's] policies of targeted assassination of Palestinian figures, frequent invasion and closure of Palestinian towns and cities -- involving destruction of properties and killing of innocent people -- to force the Palestinians to accept peace on Israeli terms have generated a dangerous cycle of violence."

Saikal says the more Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "draws on Israel's military might to pacify the mostly unarmed Palestinians, the more the Palestinians will resort to what is readily and cheaply available to them: suicide bombing." There is one peaceful solution, however, says Saikal -- for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian lands it has occupied since 1967.

Saikal concludes that Israel "cannot expect the world to continue to view its anti-Palestinian actions as self-defense while condemning the Palestinians' retaliatory suicide bombings as acts of terrorism."


In "The Washington Post," columnist Jim Hoagland says the Russian troops deployed to Afghanistan are "small in presence but overwhelming in their irony." Hoagland adds that their participation in the Afghanistan campaign is part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's goal of rebuilding Russia's "position in Central Asia and ultimately its role in world affairs."

Putin has perfected the art of the geopolitical zig-zag, says Hoagland, by moving forward on agreements, then moving "sideways and then stepping back as his interlocutors seek closure. NATO membership for the Baltic nations is not a problem for Mr. Putin at one meeting with the NATO secretary-general, George Robertson, but becomes a problem at their next session."

"The hallmarks of this strategic nimbleness have also emerged in Mr. Putin's negotiations with President George W. Bush over missile defense, in Russia's advancing dialogue with NATO over a European security condominium [partnership] and in Mr. Putin's patient, focused effort to weave a web of new influence or control over the former Soviet republics on Russia's frontier."


In "Eurasia View," free-lance journalist Igor Torbakov also looks at Russia's involvement in the Afghanistan campaign. Torbakov says that regional rivalry is growing between Russian and Western powers.

"Some Russian observers draw comparisons between recent developments in Afghanistan and the political atmosphere that existed before the fall of Nazi Berlin in World War II. The members of the anti-Taliban coalition, like their predecessors that formed the Big Three during World War II, publicly assure each other of mutual trust and pledge to coordinate their actions in Afghanistan, analysts in Moscow note. In reality, however, each player is seeking to strengthen its own position on the ground, knowing that the greater a country's physical presence in Afghanistan, the larger the role it will have in determining the war-ravaged country's future."

But Torbakov says Russian analysts and policymakers "have yet to reach a consensus on the shape of a post-Taliban provisional government." Nevertheless, he says a spirit of competition "clearly permeates Russian policies in the region," and cites State Duma Foreign Relations Committee Deputy Chairman Konstantin Kosachev as saying that Russia will act as a "counterweight" to Western expansion in Central Asia.

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