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Western Press Review: From The New Mideast Proposal To Afghan Ethnic Divisions

Prague, 27 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today addresses the Saudi peace proposal for the Middle East, the chances of a new war brewing in Afghanistan, and interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai's 24-26 February visit to Tehran. Other analysis looks at the options for the U.S. eventually taking its war on terrorism to Iraq, and the use of denial and deception as political tools in a time of war.


In Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger says that no matter how much hope is generated by the peace proposal for the Middle East put forth by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah, the fact that it is the Saudis who are now actively trying to break the cycle of violence in the region "speaks volumes with regard to both the prevailing mood among the leadership in Riyadh and the stability of the entire region."

Frankenberger goes on to say that both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia must now review their relations. He writes: "Saudi Arabia and its former protector have drifted apart. And because the United States' most important client in the Persian Gulf region has turned out to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution in the war against terrorism, many in Washington now openly criticize what security interests and oil once forced them to ignore: the regime's corruption [and] its financing of radical Islamists."

He suggests that more pluralism within Saudi Arabia, coupled with "a greater sense of responsibility abroad, could help Riyadh get Washington off its back and take the precautions needed to prevent a regional conflagration."


In Britain's daily "The Guardian," Luke Harding writes from Kabul that Afghanistan is now "in real danger of sliding back into civil war." He says the seeds of future conflict are being sown by a political settlement that gives too large a role to the Tajik minority and too small a one to the Pashtuns. Harding adds that most crucial government posts are dominated by ethnic Tajiks and that, "Sooner or later this imbalance is likely to cause resentment in the Pashtun-dominated south."

Harding notes that Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai is Pashtun, "the ethnic group which makes up about 40 percent of the population, while the Tajiks account for 25 percent. But increasingly, [Karzai] seems isolated and vulnerable, even within his own administration. Critics wonder whether he is much more than an American puppet. Mr. Karzai is still rapturously received abroad: he meets the [British] foreign secretary, Jack Straw, today in Delhi. But he controls little of Afghanistan beyond his presidential palace in Kabul. And unlike the old mujahedeen warlords now back in power, he doesn't have an army."

Harding says that at the same time, Britain is preparing to do "the one thing most likely to bring about another civil war" in Afghanistan -- withdraw their international security force troops from the country. He says that instead, Britain should "commit to Afghanistan for the long haul and send peacekeepers outside Kabul, where they could be of real use."


In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," U.S.-based attorneys Lee Casey and David Rivkin say it seems likely that the U.S. will soon be seeking a "regime change" in Iraq but that questions remain regarding how such a change would occur and under what legal authority. They remark that the legal questions surrounding such an action will likely be highly contentious.

The authors note that several observers have asserted that a U.S. operation against Iraq would require approval from the UN Security Council. But Casey and Rivkin say that "pre-existing Security Council resolutions would allow an attack against Iraq without any further Security Council action."

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Security Council adopted a series of resolutions regarding its authority to "maintain or restore international peace and security in the area." They say that although the forces of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein were expelled from Kuwait in 1991, "international peace and security in the area have not been restored. Iraq has never fully complied with its cease-fire agreements, and no peace treaty has been concluded. [The] U.S. and Britain have been continuously prosecuting armed conflict with Iraq, enforcing no-fly zones and periodically attacking Iraqi targets. The Gulf War, in short, has never ended, and additional action against Iraq would be fully justified based on pre-existing UN authorization."


A Stratfor commentary looks at some of the interethnic violence that has gripped northern Afghanistan in recent weeks. The commentary says Western media reports have been framing the violence -- aimed largely against the majority Pashtuns, who were also the dominant ethnic group within the Taliban -- as "reprisal for years of Taliban brutality."

But Stratfor says, "there is likely more to the story. Removing the Pashtun population from northern Afghanistan [is] a big step in consolidating the power of regional warlords, thus decreasing the influence of Afghanistan's fledgling central government and contributing to the de facto partitioning of the country."

Stratfor remarks that a weakened central government in Kabul "will become increasingly irrelevant as outside powers choose to do business with local warlords or their external sponsors, such as Iran, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, [and] also would be increasingly ignored by the international aid community, which would mean a severe blow to any hopes of economic revival in Afghanistan."

But the commentary says such action against the Pashtuns "marks only the beginning of interethnic struggle," and that Afghanistan's minority Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Tajiks "will turn against each other as each attempts to assert control over northern Afghanistan." Such hostilities will also increase the wrangling between ethnically stratified power centers such as Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, and Kandahar, says Stratfor. This, in turn, "[will] make cross-regional activities, ranging from aid work to economic plans to gas pipelines, much more difficult."


In France's daily "Liberation," Jose Garcon calls the Middle East peace initiative put forth by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah "spectacular." The initiative would require Israel to retreat to the territories it held before the 1967 war, in return for a complete normalization of relations with all Arab states. Garcon says even if the Arab world has often predicated the idea of a normalization of relations with Israel on progress in the peace process, this offer cannot be disregarded, given who proposed it. Prince Abdullah, notes Garcon, has long been considered an Arab nationalist, and his proposal carries legitimacy within the region as a result. The crown prince "can thus be prided with having given renewed life to diplomacy in the Middle East," writes Garcon.

Initially denounced by the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as purely a public relations move, the Saudi proposal is now being considered more seriously. Egypt and Jordan have praised the move, as have the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The United States is similarly lauding the initiative. Garcon notes that Saudi-U.S. relations have been strained since the attacks of September, in which several Saudi nationals were implicated, and also because of Riyadh's recent indications that it wishes to close U.S. Army bases in Saudi Arabia.


In "Eurasia View," journalist and Afghan-Iranian affairs analyst Camelia Entekhabi-Fard looks at the recent visit of interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai to Tehran. She says Karzai received "an important boost" from Tehran, as Iranian leaders pledged to cut off their support for warlords in Afghanistan. But she says a "less visible, yet just as significant" outcome of the visit was its effect on Iranian domestic politics. She says the visit marked a victory for reformist President Mohammad Khatami "in his long-running struggle with conservative political forces inside Iran." Karzai's interim administration won a public endorsement from Iran's conservative supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This approval, she writes, "indicated that Iranian hard-liners would refrain from action that undermines the Kabul interim government's authority."

In recent months, she says, "Iran's actions towards Afghanistan have become increasingly enmeshed in the domestic political struggle between reformists and conservatives." Following the 11 September attacks on the U.S., Iran's reformists made gains as conservative forces shrank from the possibility of U.S. reprisals. But the U.S. president's recent characterization of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" reinvigorated conservative forces, who then "opened a media offensive" on Karzai's government, says Entekhabi-Fard.

"However," the author concludes, "the fact that Karzai's visit went off largely as planned indicates that Khatami retains the political high ground in Iran."


An editorial in "The Washington Post" criticizes the U.S. administration's unwillingness to admit to wrongdoing during its campaign in Afghanistan. The paper says that the explanations Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his senior commanders "have been offering about the deaths of innocent people during American raids in Afghanistan have been riddled with misstatements, contradictions and denials of the obvious. They seem, if not deliberately false, then driven by an arrogant refusal to own up to truth when it happens to be embarrassing."

Confronted with evidence of numerous accidents, as well as allegations of unnecessary force used by U.S. forces, the editorial says Rumsfeld and Central Command Chief Tommy Franks "have publicly insisted [that] U.S. troops did nothing wrong, that no mistakes were made and that there is no need for further investigation." But the paper says, "[One] reason for a serious investigation would be to credibly establish the facts of what happened. [By] refusing to acknowledge [certain] self-evident facts, much less conduct a serious investigation that would insist on accountability, Mr. Rumsfeld and General Franks send the message that the loss of innocent Afghan lives at U.S. hands is not a matter of importance; that Afghan allegations of U.S. misconduct are not to be taken seriously, even when they are numerous and repeated; and that nothing need be learned or corrected following such tragic mistakes." The paper concludes that the U.S. administration has treated these incidents with what it calls "arrogance and high-handedness."