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Western Press Review: Afghanistan, Middle East, Uzbekistan, NATO

Prague, 10 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today and over the weekend centers on the situations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Other issues include Uzbekistan under the rule of President Islam Karimov, debate over the West's future approach to Iraq, and NATO's changing role as a new cooperative relationship is formed between the alliance and Russia.


In the German "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Georg Paul Hefty considers what logistical support will be needed to maintain stability in Afghanistan as the new interim government attempts to take hold of the country. "Political systems can be destroyed from the air, but they can only be built on the ground," he says. The inter-Afghan conference near Bonn yielded "impressive results," he adds, "but declarations of intent and agreements are at best the foundation for the future shared house of the Afghan tribes. Only the Afghans themselves can build this house."

Hefty continues: "Outsiders can only provide help. It is too early to say whether that will be restricted to lending a helpful hand, or whether the Afghan warlords and regional rulers are willing to grant foreigners the right to mediate between them or to decide whether their claims are justified." And Hefty warns that the needs of the millions of Afghan civilians may be pushed into the background by inter-Afghan power struggles.

Hefty says that the remaining tasks in Afghanistan will require diplomats and aid workers, but also "soldiers with a concrete mission" to guarantee law and order and to ensure delivery of supplies. But there is no Western army trained to carry out such missions, he says, noting that the German army in particular is already "stretched to the limits of its capability."


A "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" commentary from 8 December by Leo Wieland notes that for U.S. President George W. Bush, "any unambiguous success" in Afghanistan is "inextricably linked to getting hold of the key figures: Osama bin Laden of [Al]-Qaeda and Mullah Mohammad Omar of the Taliban." Wieland says that for Bush, allowing the presumed perpetrator of the 11 September attacks on the U.S. to escape capture would be "simply unbearable."

But, he adds, the Americans seem to be "quietly changing" from their original position, an unequivocal demand that Mullah Omar be handed over to U.S. authorities. Now, says Wieland, a White House spokesman has said that "justice in any form" would be acceptable. Wieland writes: "If Mullah Omar were to be tried in an Afghan court, for example, something that would give the interim government additional legitimacy, this would be welcome. But first, somebody has to catch him."


An editorial in "The Boston Globe" says the manner in which the siege of Kandahar was concluded may have saved the lives of many civilians, and may have also increased the chances "of creating a stable political order in post-war Afghanistan." The paper writes: "This traditional way of arranging a surrender [can] encourage the losers and their kin to abjure any obligation to seek revenge." The editorial says that if the head of Afghanistan's new interim government, Hamid Karzai, and his fellow leaders "can come to power as the wise leaders who sacrificed pride for the sake of Afghan lives, they may start out the new era with reserves of well-deserved good will."

The "Globe" goes on to suggest that the U.S. insistence that it will decide the terms for bringing Mullah Mohammad Omar and Osama bin Laden to justice may be misguided. The paper says: "Most of Omar's great crimes were committed against his own people, particularly Afghan women and girls. Afghans should bring him to justice for those crimes. America's primary aim must be to bring justice to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist accomplices. The crucial first step in dismantling bin Laden's network is to make certain that Afghanistan will never again serve as a staging ground for terrorism, and the Afghan forces who negotiated the surrender of Kandahar may know best how to accomplish that aim."


A commentary in Britain's "The Guardian" by Seumas Milne says that the support of the U.S. administration for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "latest onslaught in the West Bank and Gaza must surely bring to an end any illusion that, in the wake of September 11, U.S. influence would be brought to bear to achieve a just peace in the Middle East."

Milne notes that in the first phase of the Afghan war, when the antiterrorist coalition sought to assuage the concerns of the Arab world, there was much speculation that the U.S. might at last put pressure on its Israeli ally. But barely a month later, says Milne, this idea has been discarded. "Instead of pressure on Israel to end its 34-year-old illegal military occupation, the United States is cheering on its attempt to smash the fragile institutions of the Palestinian Authority. Instead of using its unparalleled leverage to help bring about new negotiations, the United States has lined up behind Mr. Sharon, the man of blood responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the past year, and still facing war crimes investigations over his role in the Sabra and Chatila massacre of 1982."


A "Eurasia View" editorial suggests that Uzbek President Islam Karimov is using Uzbekistan's membership in the antiterrorism coalition to increase his authoritarian grip on the country. Human rights groups have already warned that America's new strategic alliance with Uzbekistan confers legitimacy on Karimov's regime, and ignores Uzbekistan's alarming human rights record. The editorial notes that on 6 December -- a day before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was due to arrive in Tashkent -- the Uzbek parliament endorsed a motion to make Karimov president for life.

The editorial says that reports that the United States "is helping to prop up Karimov's regime with economic assistance could prove an additional source of embarrassment for Washington. On December 5, [the] Uzbek newspaper 'Narodnoye Slovo' carried what it claimed was a memo [in] which the United States pledged $100 million in aid and $50 million in credits to Uzbekistan."

"Eurasia View" continues: "Since terrorists attacked the United States on 11 September, Karimov has sought to seize political advantage from the tragedy. He made speeches in mid-September claiming early leadership on the antiterrorist issue, and negotiated American aid commitments in exchange for supporting the military campaign in Afghanistan."

The paper quotes one observer as saying that Powell would have "an uncomfortable time" dealing with questions about Karimov's recent moves. And it adds that Karimov seems unlikely to back down.


A piece in "The Christian Science Monitor" today considers a new framework for Russia-NATO relations, and says that renewed cooperation with Russia, but not full NATO membership, is the best option. "Granting [Russia] full membership would have dangerously removed one pillar for NATO's existence -- European-U.S. defense against Russia. But partial membership -- under a new sub-NATO council dealing with only a few select topics -- is a way to tease Russia into ending its historic imperial intentions and join the developed world."

The paper notes that many former Soviet states in Eastern and Central Europe are still wary of Russia's power. "The plan to admit former Soviet-dominated nations into NATO, even as Russia is slowly welcomed into some NATO decision-making, runs many risks," it says. "If managed carefully, though, the West can defy Russia's history of aggression and someday make it a partner for peace."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" says that the NATO alliance is now facing the "nagging question" of defining its modern role. It says that some believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union has left it without a raison d'etre. At issue is managing its relationship with Russia, which the editorial calls "a nation whose aspirations remain difficult to discern." In deciding on 7 December to develop a council that will include Russia in discussions on issues "ranging from civil emergencies to missile defense," the "Journal" says, "NATO was taking a seemingly hedged step. Whenever Russia cannot reach agreement with the 19 members, the ruling council will simply meet without Russia."

The editorial says that integrating Russia into the "family of Western nations" is "a lofty goal." But it adds that it would be a shame if, "in trying to rehabilitate Russia, the allies damaged NATO at a critical time." The "Journal" writes: "A NATO that because of Russian participation [drags] its feet [is] one that will be shunned by U.S. policymakers. The role NATO plays in keeping the U.S. and Europe engaged with one another is too valuable to risk by rushing too fast to accommodate Russia's aspirations for more influence in Western councils."


An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says that the issue of controlling biological weapons was confused from the very beginning. The editorial comments on the multilateral three-week meeting, scheduled to end today, that brought together representatives of 144 countries reviewing the signatories' compliance with the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva.

At the end of the conference, the editorial says, the Americans "shot themselves in the foot" by proposing the dissolution of the ad-hoc group that has been preparing a supervisory protocol for years. Yet the proposals, including stricter national controls and a codex for researchers, were not bad, although they lacked international enforcement, says the editorial. Nevertheless, they would have created a reasonable basis for further negotiations.

There are positive aspects to the outcome of the conference, the commentary says. It was decided to meet again next year. And there is something beneficial, it says, about America's rejection: "It has welded Europe together." This places Europe in a strong position for negotiations. The editorial adds that if the U.S. continues to oppose international controls it will be excluded, and thus demonstrate that the supervisory protocol is meaningful even without U.S. participation.


In Britain's "The Daily Telegraph," Alan Judd considers reports that after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton chose "the path of least resistance." Despite apparent links between principal bomber Ramzi Yousef and Iraq, the Clinton administration chose to ignore the evidence and treat the bombing as the work of a loose network of terrorists operating independently of state sponsors. Judd says, "The alternative -- accepting evidence of Iraqi involvement -- would have entailed a serious and politically difficult response to a terrorist state." As a result, U.S. policy was founded on avoiding, rather than resolving, the difficulty.

After 11 September, "if the evidence of Iraqi involvement is produced, how could America not react?" Judd asks. And, he continues, "what would a new Iraqi war do to America's relations with Europe and the Middle East? France and Germany, the usual suspects, are already wobbling. Saudi Arabia would find itself between a rock and a hard place."

If such evidence is produced, Judd says the consequences "will be serious and long-lasting, for the Western world and the Middle East, but presentationally everything depends upon whether that single, demonstrable and -- above all -- quotable killer fact can be found. If it is," Judd says, "toppling Saddam Hussein has to be the political imperative of any American government."


In France's daily "Liberation," columnist Fabrice Rousselot considers the videotaped message from Osama bin Laden, released over the weekend, which the United States claims offers further evidence of his responsibility for the attacks on 11 September. In the videotape, bin Laden says that he was at a dinner when he heard about the first plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers. He then reportedly told his dinner guests, "This is only the beginning." In what "Liberation" calls "a conversation filmed by an amateur and which may have been intended as a propaganda tool," bin Laden goes on to "assert that the attacks '[were] a bigger success than he had foreseen.' He would then, notably, explain that he had expected the towers to collapse just to the impact point of the planes, but not [to collapse] totally."

"Liberation" says that "this cassette represents the most convincing [evidence] of bin Laden's implication in the attacks." It notes that Washington had always asserted bin Laden's involvement, but says that until now, the Bush administration had offered "very few concrete elements." Liberation says that according to some officials, the video may have a significant impact on public opinion as well as on America's Arab allies, who have sometimes expressed their doubts regarding bin Laden's responsibility for the attacks.


In "The New York Times," Roberta Cohen, of the Brookings Institution and the City University of New York's joint project on internal displacement, calls upon the international community to send a "substantial force, with a broader mandate" to Afghanistan "to restore security for food distribution and to protect civilians, including [people] who have fled to camps in their own country."

She notes that European nations have already been pressing for such a force. But the American position, she says, has been that they "must first finish the war against Osama bin Laden." But now that this is close to being achieved, she says, "the Bush administration still shows little sense of urgency about protecting Afghan civilians. It does not want more than a limited international peacekeeping force for Afghanistan and appears hesitant to become directly involved in any broader nation-building. Administration officials talk about handing over security to an all-Afghan force, but such a force cannot be assembled in time to ensure the delivery of aid before the current winter season takes what could be an enormous toll."

Cohen writes: "What's needed -- and needed now -- is an international force that can accompany and protect relief convoys and workers, expel warring factions from displaced persons camps and help rid Afghanistan of the more than 5 million land mines that keep its citizens from living and farming in their home villages."

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