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Western Press Review: Afghanistan, Middle East, And New Trans-Atlantic Rift?

Prague, 7 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and analysis in the Western media today looks at the West's role in Afghan stability, Europe's criticism of the new U.S. world view, imbalance in NATO members' military might, the expanding U.S. military presence in Central Asia, and the ongoing violence in the Middle East.


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal" looks at the West's role in providing security in Afghanistan. The paper says that while the U.S. administration had from the beginning been "circumspect" about playing a peacekeeping role in the nation, Britain had emphasized the need to stabilize and rebuild the country after the fall of the Taliban. But domestic political reality "seems to have intruded abruptly on that vision," writes the paper, noting that British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon has refused requests by interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai to increase the British troop presence.

The paper says that all of this "leaves a vacuum of sorts in Afghanistan, particularly outside Kabul. Warlordism is the biggest problem to Afghan unity and the biggest threat, for the moment, to stability." The paper adds that since stable government is a precondition for Afghanistan successfully resisting the destabilizing forces that seek to "use it as a base for everything from drug-running to terrorism, helping provide that security ought to be a priority." The paper concludes that Afghan warlords no doubt sense a power vacuum and are encouraged to fill it.


An analysis by "The New York Times" reporter Suzanne Daley published in today's "International Herald Tribune" looks at European reactions to the State of the Union address given by U.S. President George W. Bush last week (29 January). She notes that French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine has assailed Bush's approach to terrorism as "simplistic." He warned that Bush's view reduces all the problems in the world to the struggle against terrorism, and added that this approach was "not well thought out." Vedrine went on to suggest that Europeans will need to speak out more often, as they face an America that acts unilaterally and in its own interests.

Daley writes that since Bush's speech last week, "signs of dissent have been growing. Many leaders are drawing a sharp distinction between attacks on Afghanistan, justified as self-defense, and attacks on other countries like Iraq or Iran and North Korea, countries that Mr. Bush dubbed part of an 'axis of evil' that threatened the world."

She says Vedrine's comments "may be the harshest yet, but other European leaders have also begun to distance themselves from Washington" -- including Britain, Washington's staunchest ally. Both German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, have made it clear that they favor a political strategy based on engagement rather than a military solution.


In Britain's "Financial Times," Gerard Baker looks at recent trans-Atlantic tensions and says that on the surface, they have centered "on European concern at America's gung-ho approach to the war on terrorism. But at their heart they reflect a fundamental [flaw] in the U.S.-European relationship: the asymmetry of military power within the [NATO] alliance." But Baker adds that secretly, "neither side is really interested in rebalancing the relationship. The simple truth is that it suits both of them."

Baker notes that U.S. President Bush's State of the Union speech last week compounded tensions and drew European criticism. He adds that Europeans "are right to be nervous about U.S. intentions. But when they try to influence U.S. policy, they are hamstrung by the inescapable reality of the massive disparity between U.S. and European military clout."

"But how much real willingness is there in European capitals to build up the puny military pillar of NATO?" he asks. There is little popular support in Europe for significantly raising defense spending and to do so would jeopardize other, more pressing budget priorities, he says.

In addition, U.S. policymakers know that if European countries ever did get serious about upgrading its capabilities, "they would demand a much more powerful voice in decision-making. In the end," writes Baker, "for all the talk of a dangerous asymmetry in modern military strength, the status quo discreetly suits governments on both sides of the Atlantic."


An editorial in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" discusses to what degree Iran is yielding to pressure from U.S. accusations that its borders with Afghanistan are not sufficiently secure. The U.S. fears that members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have been allowed to slip through from Afghanistan into Iran. The paper says Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi is now ready to concede that the long mountainous border is impossible to seal.

However, the editorial notes that Kharrazi is an Iranian moderate, and any accusations that Iran is helping Al-Qaeda fugitives should be leveled at supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who also has more influence than Kharrazi in this sphere. Washington seems to have recognized the fact that any further pressure on Tehran would play into the hands of Iranian hawks. And "nobody in the West wants that," the commentary says.


In "Eurasia View," Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation says that as the United States expands its military presence in Central Asia, regional rivals "appear to have few means at their disposal to prevent the United State from implementing its antiterrorism plans."

New U.S. bases in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan "can help the U.S. military quickly establish air superiority throughout Central Asia, and even into the Middle East," he says. Cohen observes that Iran is particularly concerned about these developments, as are Russia and China.

U.S. President Bush's State of the Union address intensified these misgivings. Cohen says Iran's response to the speech "has been to increase its intervention in Afghanistan by starting broadcasts of its television Channel 3 from Tajikistan." He cites sources in Moscow as telling "EurasiaNet" that "it is likely that Iran asked the Kremlin for permission to broadcast, and Moscow agreed, knowing full well that such a step would draw Washington's ire."

But Russia's public response to Bush's State of the Union speech "has been muted," he writes. "Russian leaders seem intent on keeping open a wide variety of diplomatic and economic options. [Despite] recent disagreements, and Moscow's unease about the U.S. bases in Central Asia, the anti-American rhetoric of the past has not resurfaced."


In the German daily "Handelsblatt," Markus Ziener paints a bleak picture of the situation in Afghanistan. "Hamid Karzai is a prime minister without a country, without an army, and without any staunch local political support. That is the bitter truth six weeks after the nomination of a Pashto interim government chief in Kabul," he says.

Ziener cites mistakes made by the international community in helping to create the current situation. For instance, it was a grave error to accord key positions, such as the ministries of the Interior and Defense, to members of the Northern Alliance, he says. Nothing has prevented strife among warlords, and former Prime Minister Burhanuddin Rabbani still resides in the presidential palace in Kabul.

In all these conflicts, Ziener says there is no sign of Karzai asserting himself. Even though Karzai is respected, Ziener says he is now considered weak and subject to influence.

There seems little hope for improvement, as Karzai is unable to boast of any successes. The country has still not received the funds to pay civil servants, and many of the government departments are just not functioning. "The large sum from Tokyo [pledged at the January donors conference] has become a hollow promise, ridiculed daily in Afghanistan," Ziener writes.

The empty pledges and lack of assistance is generating much political damage, says Ziener -- and not only in Afghanistan.


In France's daily "Liberation," Jean-Pierre Perrin considers the recent endorsement of the Afghan interim government given by Ismail Khan, the so-called emir of the western town of Herat. He now makes "a pretense" of recognizing the central government, says Perrin. He quotes Khan as saying: "The Afghans were men of war and violence. They are henceforth men of peace who seek security," and adding, "We will help and support the government until the end of the current process."

Perrin says that Khan, a former army officer, had established an almost independent emirate around Herat after the Soviet occupation. "He reigned with an iron fist but the inhabitants were grateful to him for having brought security when the majority of the country sank into anarchy," he writes. Arrested by the Taliban on charges of treason in 1998, he escaped from Kandahar and took refuge in Iran. He then resumed the fight against the Taliban and reoccupied Herat in November.

Since then, Perrin says, Khan has been careful not to ally himself with the interim administration, which tried to secure his support by awarding a minor ministry to his son. So why did he finally throw his support behind the central government? Perrin asks. "It seems that he has no more allies and was afraid of losing his post."

Perrin quotes one observer as saying that the people will support Khan only if the central government also supports him.


Several commentators address the ongoing violence in the Middle East, in light of the one-year anniversary yesterday (6 February) of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's administration.

In "The Washington Post," staff writer Lee Hockstader says that Sharon "has played a key role in the bloodiest 365 days that Israel has undergone in a generation. He has formed a close alliance with the Bush administration, which has helped him isolate and delegitimize his nemesis, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. He has sealed off Palestinian towns, razed and rocketed Palestinian buildings, and crushed the Palestinian economy. If Sharon has a strategy to achieve peace -- and most Israelis say they doubt he does -- it is clearly not working."

Hockstader continues, "Sharon has escalated Israel's campaign of assassinating Palestinian militants, authorized dozens of army incursions into Palestinian territory [and] ordered the first Israeli bombing raids on the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967."

Hockstader says that, allegedly, Sharon is seeking to forge a long-term agreement that might someday establish a Palestinian state, "albeit one lacking in contiguous territory, a capital of its own choosing, control of its borders, and other basic facets of modern statehood," writes Hockstader. But he adds: "Yet, there is no sign of movement in that direction. To the contrary, there is evidence that Mr. Sharon's tactics have further embittered a new generation of Palestinians."


An editorial in the "Chicago Tribune" says that Israeli Prime Minister Sharon plans to ask U.S. President Bush to sever his ties with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during Sharon's meeting with Bush in Washington today.

But the editorial says Sharon and his supporters are "deluded if they think they can solve their problems by boycotting the man who has symbolized Palestinian nationalism for three decades. It's not because of Yasser Arafat that two out of three Palestinians say they endorse suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. It's because they feel they have no other way to resist Israeli occupation. There is another way, of course: by hammering out a negotiated compromise allowing two nations to co-exist peacefully side by side, with neither getting everything it wants."

The paper says: "If Sharon hopes to steer Palestinians away from violence, he has to show them he is willing to give them something worth having in a peace agreement. Likewise, Israelis will not support territorial concession without some confidence that they will yield permanent peace."

The paper concludes: "Unfortunately, neither Israelis nor Palestinians are prepared to come close to the concessions needed to make a settlement that might be acceptable to the other side. Until they are, Israelis and Palestinians will go on dying in a war that neither can win but both can lose."

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