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Western Press Review: ABM Treaty Withdrawal, Future Of Middle East, And Bin Laden Tape

Prague, 14 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western commentary in the press today focuses on a variety of topics. Much discussion centers around the U.S. announcement yesterday that it intends to withdraw from its 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, long considered a cornerstone of global nuclear security. Some commentators laud this decision as the "end of an era," while others fear it may threaten international stability. Commentary also focuses on the videotape of Osama bin Laden, released yesterday by the U.S. Defense Department, and what insight it might give into the mind of the suspected terrorist. Other topics include planning "phase two" in Afghanistan as well as the situation in the Middle East, as many continue to question whether Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is unwilling or unable to rein in extremists.


In Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Berthold Kohler says the U.S. announcement yesterday of its impending withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty marks the formal end of the Cold War. Kohler writes that this treaty "embodied the realization that there could be no protection against the combination of hydrogen bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles, [that] security could stem only from 'mutual assured destruction' -- MAD." He adds that "the restriction of defense measures agreed in the ABM Treaty introduced an element of calm into relations between the then-superpowers that enabled them to limit and later even reduce nuclear armament."

Fears that the cancelation of the ABM Treaty will plunge the United States and Russia into antagonism once again, he says, are unfounded. Russia's relations with the West are now based on a system of cooperation, which is now more important than ever to its interests. "This explains Moscow's unperturbed reaction to the U.S. withdrawal," writes Kohler. He adds that it also demonstrates the confidence that "the ties reinforced by the antiterrorism alliance can also withstand differences of opinion."


Michael Dobbs of "The Washington Post" foreign service discusses the videotape of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, released yesterday by the U.S. Defense Department, that appears to show bin Laden had prior knowledge of the 11 September attacks in the United States. Dobbs says that, unlike the two videotapes bin Laden had previously released to the Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera, this tape was "clearly intended for a small group of hard-core Islamic supporters."

Dobbs writes: "For the first time, a worldwide television audience was able to get an inside view of a terrorist chuckling over the deaths of thousands of people, including some of his own operatives." The author quotes Islamic affairs analyst Fawaz Gerges as saying bin Laden came across as "extremely cold-blooded, [and] without any feelings at all, not just toward Americans, but also to Arabs and Muslims."

Dobbs says that the bin Laden tape makes it clear that he "was intimately involved on the attack on the World Trade Center, [but that] he gave his subordinates considerable latitude in the details of how it would be executed." The overall strategy may have come from bin Laden or other high-level members of Al-Qaeda, says Dobbs, but the operatives appear to be highly compartmentalized, "with information about forthcoming attacks restricted to bin Laden and a few key aides." Dobbs also says the tape seemed to verify U.S. investigators' suspicion that operatives were also divided into "brains" and "muscle," the muscle being "largely ignorant of the nature of the operation."


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry and Middle East analyst Shlomo Avineri considers the situation in the Middle East and says that if Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat fades from the scene, it will be the commanders of the well-entrenched Palestinian security services who will take over.

Avineri says Mohammed Dahlan, head of Palestinian security in the Gaza Strip, and Jibril Rajoub, head of Palestinian Preventive Security in the West Bank, are "the real wielders of power -- and the players of the future." Avineri writes: "Mr. Dahlan, Mr. Rajoub and a few others emerged from the Oslo agreements as heads of local fiefdoms. In Afghanistan they would be called warlords. They control territory and people, they have the guns and they are interested in maintaining this control. Unlike Mr. Arafat, they are not going to jeopardize this real control for the chimera of another war of liberation."

This pragmatic guarding of their own interests enables them to curb the actions of extremist groups such as Hamas, says Avineri, "because they have the means and will for it."

Avineri says that they "may not be able or willing to sign an ultimate peace accord with Israel." But they do understand -- and have said so -- that it is "in the Palestinians' best interest to accept Israel if they don't want to bring upon themselves another 1948-type catastrophe."


A Stratfor commentary says Israel's attempts to isolate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are being coupled with attempts to discredit his possible successors. Stratfor says the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon views the Palestinian Authority as a threat due to its international support.

As Stratfor puts it, "Most of the world has viewed the [Palestinian Authority] as the legitimate voice of the Palestinian people and pressured the Israeli government to negotiate with them. These negotiations inevitably involve handing over parts of the West Bank and Gaza, a prospect the Sharon government finds intolerable."

By isolating Arafat, the prime minister improves the standing of extremist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Stratfor says, "Although these groups are extremely dangerous, Sharon would rather they carry the mantle of the Palestinian cause rather than Arafat. Most nations consider these to be terrorist groups, and there is little thought of handing territory over to them."

Marwan Barghouti, a hard-line member of the Palestinian Authority, is "a potential challenger to Arafat and could take over the West Bank if Arafat should fall. Barghouti advocates a much more militant approach than did [Arafat]."

Stratfor says the last thing Israel wants "is for Arafat to be replaced by a militant leader from the Palestinian Authority who could provide diplomatic cover for Hamas. This would mean higher levels of violence from the Palestinians without the 'terrorist' label that Hamas leadership would bring."


An editorial in "The New York Times" says that by scrapping the ABM Treaty, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush "may alienate the Kremlin and give rise to a dangerous new arms race with Russia and possibly China as well."

The paper says Bush's decision yesterday to withdraw from the treaty, "at a moment when he badly needs Russian cooperation in the war against terrorism, is baffling. It is not as if the lesson of September 11 were that the United States is vulnerable to a missile attack," the paper writes.

"Giving Russia and China an incentive now to build more missiles so that they can defeat an American shield that may not be perfected for years does not make sense," it says.

In addition, this decision will "severely test his budding friendship with Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, who has taken considerable political risks at home by embracing the West in recent months. [The] hardest move for Mr. Putin to absorb is an unnegotiated American withdrawal, the step Mr. Bush plans to take."

Putin could respond in a number of ways that would undermine U.S. interests, the paper says. Without Putin's agreement, "U.S. forces would be unable to use bases in several nations bordering Afghanistan that were once Soviet republics, including Uzbekistan and Tajikistan." The paper adds that Bush "will certainly need Russian support if he hopes to get international arms inspectors back into Iraq."


In a news analysis, Thomas Ricks of "The Washington Post" considers what the overall objective is for the United States in its campaign in Afghanistan. U.S. officials make it clear that their top war aim is to "destroy" the Al-Qaeda network, he says.

"But whether that means killing all of Qaeda's members has been left somewhat unclear." He writes: "If the United States does, in the last phase of the Afghan war, wage a campaign of extermination against the network's leaders -- for example, by refusing to accept surrenders so it can continue bombing the Tora Bora caves where some Qaeda members are holed up -- it may lose international support by appearing overly vengeful [and] could even find itself accused of war crimes."

Ricks notes that Afghan leaders reported U.S. military advisers rejected a possible surrender deal on 12 December, after Al-Qaeda members sought to set conditions for their surrender.

Ricks says some officials from Britain, America's chief ally in the antiterrorism campaign, have expressed wariness. Ricks quotes Admiral Michael Boyce as saying Britain must decide whether to "follow the United States' single-minded aim to finish bin Laden and Al-Qaeda."

Pope John Paul has also urged restraint. But Ricks notes that "destroying" every Al-Qaeda member would be impossible, and that some sort of trials for Al-Qaeda members seems inevitable.


While recognizing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's failure to prevent terrorist attacks against Israelis, an editorial in the Swiss "Zuercher Zeitung" questions the alternative. What kind of peace can Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon offer? it asks.

Arafat's weakness in being unable to stop terrorist extremists has proven to be his downfall, says the paper. Due to Arafat's ambivalence, Sharon now seems to be more in command of the situation. But the editorial doubts that Sharon can determine the fate of millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The Israelis are aware, in their heart of hearts, that the Jewish state cannot act as an occupying country without losing its democratic integrity. Israel is, in practically every respect, stronger than Palestine and, so far, Sharon has made no attempt to exploit this superiority to arrive at a peaceful compromise.

"If he fails to make use of this chance, he may well meet the same fate -- of becoming an outsider in world politics -- as Arafat," the editorial concludes.


Poland's "road to truth" is the subject of a commentary by Gerhard Gnauck in the German paper "Die Welt." The writer makes some observations on the interpretation of Poland's communist past. Speaking yesterday at a 20th anniversary commemoration service, President Aleksander Kwasniewski said the 1981 crackdown by communist authorities on the Solidarity pro-democracy movement was, in his words, "evil," but that Poles should understand and forgive those who imposed it.

Kwasniewski, himself a former Communist, has succeeded in discarding his past, says Gnauck. Without forgetting history, the president declared that we must not continue to live in the past. We need the truth, but not to exploit it for revenge. Bitterness should not be passed on to the next generation, he said.

Gnauck says he agrees with Kwasniewski in that humanity depends on the ability to make a new start and to live together peacefully in a democracy.


An editorial in France's daily "Le Monde" says the United States has "won the war in Afghanistan, but the fight against terrorism is not over." The campaign in Afghanistan, it says, has "opened the way for the political and military victory of the Afghan opposition, which now prepares to learn the ways of democracy."

The attacks of 11 September revealed a reality that the international community -- and the Americans above all -- had preferred to ignore, says "Le Monde." With the exception of Iraq, the "rogue states" so reviled by Washington were not those that had been suspected, the paper says. Saudi Arabia, a faithful ally of the U.S., also fed terrorism with its Wahhabi proselytism. And "the financial links between ruling families, large corporations, pseudo-NGOs, and terrorist networks, facilitated by the globalization of markets, were discovered."

Washington can no longer think to isolate itself in a bubble of prosperity protected by high-tech security, says the paper. Recent events have shown how deeply the problems of the world -- the negative effects of globalization, the north-south discrepancy, poverty, AIDS, etc. -- feed resentments, and how easy it is for terrorism to use these to feed more hatred.

The lesson, says the paper, is a plea for a more just and well-balanced world.


An editorial in "The Washington Times" argues against American involvement in peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan. The editorial says, "From the very beginning of U.S. military action in Afghanistan, President Bush made clear that America's war is a fight against terrorists -- not an exercise in nation-building. [Kabul] has yet to be demilitarized, and neighbors such as Iran, Pakistan, China and Russia have their own strategic interests in Afghanistan that conflict with U.S. interests. Also, key Afghan warlords rejected the Bonn deal, leaving the interim government in a precarious position. So, keeping American soldiers in Afghanistan during phase two might prove to be a serious mistake."

The editorial goes on to say that providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan as the nation begins to rebuild "is a vital part of America's mission." But it adds that the war on terrorism "is far from over, and our military resources can best be used to bring terrorists to justice. Fortunately, America's allies, having offered their assistance and their resources, are standing ready for peacekeeping operations."


In "The Times" of Britain, Time Hames says phase one of the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan is "very nearly over." He says attention is now turning to phase two of the antiterror campaign.

He writes: "The potential candidates for phase two can be divided into three categories. The first are the 'failed states,' nations where conventional political authority has partly or entirely collapsed, and terrorist cells have exploited the anarchy. These include Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. The second consist of the 'insurgency movements' -- rebellious organizations in countries where the central government is otherwise in reasonably solid order and does not pose any threat to American interests. Indonesia and the Philippines reside in this collection. The last, somewhat exclusive, contingent can be labeled 'old scores.' It consists of Iraq."

Hames says that, regarding failed states and insurgency movements, "military activity will probably be limited" and may consist largely of the U.S. pouring arms or money into the region. And since there is no evidence linking Iraq to the 11 September attacks, such a policy shift for the "war on terror" would be diplomatically risky.

Instead, Hames suggests pursuing the infrastructure already in place -- of sanctions, no-fly zones, and support for opposition forces -- to slowly increase pressure on Iraq. Hames concludes that U.S. willingness to take action in Afghanistan makes it less likely that it will need do so again in the future.

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