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Western Press Review: Afghan Battles, Inspecting Iraq, And Pankisi Gorge

Prague, 5 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western media today is dominated by discussion of recent events in Afghanistan, as an unprecedented number of U.S. casualties sustained since 1 March sparks debate and a reassessment of the campaign. The final section of our press review today will discuss Afghan issues exclusively. Other topics include the election yesterday of Ibrahim Rugova as president of Kosovo, pursuing a legitimate strategy for resuming UN weapons inspections in Iraq, U.S. military intervention in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, and the Saudi peace proposal for the Middle East.


An editorial in "The Washington Times" today looks at the heavy ongoing fighting near the eastern Afghan town of Gardez. Close to 2,000 antiterrorism coalition and Afghan troops are attempting to destroy a force of several hundred Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in the mountains near the Pakistani border, and are attempting to cut off their escape route in a U.S.-led operation dubbed "Anaconda."

This battle requires troops on the ground, says the editorial, a fact that should come as no surprise. "[More] like it are sure to be fought as the remnants of the Taliban and its terrorist cohorts are found. The war in Afghanistan is by no means over, and it may not be for some time. The interim government of Hamid Karzai will not be able to stabilize the country soon," it says.

The editorial goes on to say that interim leader Hamid Karzai's policy of releasing Afghan Taliban members is further complicating operations. It says, "Prisoners taken in wartime are usually held until the war is over, and this one clearly isn't."


"The Washington Post" today also discusses the ongoing battles in Afghanistan and the heavy casualty toll of recent days. The paper calls it the "largest and costliest battle for American soldiers since the intervention in Somalia more than eight years ago." Nine U.S. servicemen have been reported killed in intense fighting that has raged since 1 March against Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets in eastern Afghanistan. These casualties, it says, "come nearly five months into a military campaign that quickly ended Taliban rule of Afghanistan but has grown steadily more difficult as U.S. and allied forces seek to eliminate the enemy concentrations and leaders still scattered around the country. But even if the cost is high," it writes, "there can be no doubt" that this is a battle that had to be launched and that now must be finished.

The aggressive tactics being used are necessary, says the paper. If the Afghan campaign is to be concluded successfully, it writes, military commanders "cannot allow Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces to regroup [or] to slip away once they are cornered. Moreover, those commanders [cannot] allow the casualties of recent days, or the prospect that more may come, to weaken their willingness to see the battle through."


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the aim of ensuring that Iraq does not develop weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) conflicts in many ways with the idea of ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power. Only seeking to prevent Iraq's development of WMDs carries any degree of legitimacy, she says, and at least the potential for wide international support. Only this goal "has a legal basis for action. Iraq is in violation of UN Security Council resolutions requiring dismantlement of its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs." Thus, pursuing this aim is compatible with a world governed by the rule of law, says Mathews.

But she goes on to say that seeking a "regime change" in Iraq might undermine the international cooperation necessary for long-term success in the war on terrorism. The U.S. should not be "affirming the right of a government to attack another that it considers evil," Mathews suggests. "Perhaps the least-sound justification is that the United States would be acting in 'preventive self-defense.'" There could be several "nightmare [results] of that becoming an acceptable norm of international behavior," says Mathews. For example, it could send an "invitation to India to attack Pakistan to end terrorist attacks on itself, a course likely to end in nuclear war."


In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Peter Muench sees "a chance for Kosovo" in the election yesterday of Ibrahim Rugova, the head of the Democratic League of Kosovo, as president. But he says the Kosovar Albanians continue to consider themselves unfortunate, as having 2 million inhabitants, a parliament, a president, and a government still does not grant them independence.

Nevertheless, says Muench, they have taken a substantial step forward. Kosovo remains a UN protectorate two and a half years after the end of NATO's 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, aimed at ending Serb repression of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority. But the future status of the province is still an open question. Muench says this is, for now, unavoidable. He cites Michael Steiner, the new UN administrator in Kosovo, as saying the prospects for a new Kosovo depend on a cohesive vision for the region, on fixing new borders, and on an honest will to cooperate. The election of a president, however, offers the first proof of a step in the right direction, says Muench.


An editorial in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" also comments on the election yesterday of Ibrahim Rugova as president of Kosovo. The paper says it might seem that Rugova has achieved his goal by being officially elected by a legitimate Kosovar parliament. In actual fact, however, it says that "Rugova is just getting started," for he and all Albanian political parties seek the creation of an independent province. The election of pro-independence Rugova has reinforced this as a goal.

Nobody wants a return to Serbian supremacy over the majority of Albanians in Kosovo, says the commentary, but neither is anyone willing to offer a definitive solution to Kosovo's status. Rugova is bound to continue to strive for an independent Kosovo Republic, the paper says, adding that such a campaign will not be prevented as long as the democratic rights of minorities are assured.


In "Eurasia View," Georgian affairs analyst Jaba Devdariani discusses the anticipated deployment of U.S. military advisers to Georgia. He says that since news of the U.S. deployment broke on 27 February, "both U.S. and Georgian officials have worked to assuage concerns about the impact that the arrival of U.S. advisers would have on regional security. Authorities in Tbilisi seek to project an air of continuity and suggest that the U.S. deployment is an outgrowth of Georgia's involvement in the NATO Partnership for Peace program." Officials stress that the number of U.S. military personnel will be relatively small and "have attempted to cast the development as part of long-standing security cooperation efforts."

Devdariani says some observers believe the U.S. presence will inject a destabilizing element into the region. Much of this response is linked to the Russian response to the U.S. troops. While Russian leaders are unwilling to oppose the U.S. deployment at this time, Devdariani says that they are "clearly not enthusiastic" about the American presence.

The U.S. deployment seems to have lifted morale in the Georgian military establishment, which suffers from chronic shortages and a lack of funding, he says. Devdariani remarks, "The deployment also seems to be emboldening Georgian political leaders, who are staking out more aggressive stances towards the separatist-minded regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia."


A Stratfor commentary looks at the latest peace initiative for the Middle East, proposed by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. The proposal calls for Israel's withdrawal to its boundaries before the six-day 1967 war, in exchange for a normalization of relations with all Arab nations. Stratfor says this plan has less to do with the Middle East than with U.S.-Saudi bilateral relations.

"Saudi Arabia is hardly in a position to deliver all the Arab states. [It] would appear that Saudi leaders have made a proposal on which they can't possibly deliver," says the commentary.

Stratfor says that since the 11 September attacks and the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan, the Saudi leadership has found itself "trapped between its relationship to the United States and the pro-Al- Qaeda sentiment within its own borders." Rather than being willing to help the U.S. in its operations, Saudi Arabia instead requested that American bases within its borders be withdrawn. Washington responded by re-evaluating its Saudi relations "in a fundamental way," says the commentary, to determine whether the Saudi leadership itself supported Al-Qaeda.

The Israeli-Palestinian initiative was the Saudi solution to deflecting American criticism, says Stratfor. It recast Saudi Arabia as peacemaker and put Washington on the diplomatic defensive. "It would be simply impossible for Washington to force a confrontation with the Saudis at the very moment they appeared to have provided a potential solution to the [Middle East] problem," Stratfor concludes.


In the French daily "Le Monde," Gilles Paris writes from Jerusalem on the latest violence in the Middle East. Paris says that it will never be known with certainty whether the two suicide attacks carried out on 2 March in Jerusalem and the West Bank were calculated retaliations for the Israeli army's incursions into two Palestinian refugee camps, in Jenin and Nablus. But these events certainly lead one to question the legitimacy of that operation, he says. The Israeli tanks had not yet left the camp near Nablus when "an identical message" was sent, says Paris. More than 20 Palestinian deaths occurred in the camps, and more than 20 Israeli deaths followed. Paris says that they were "all victims of two mirroring terrors."

Paris says this latest cycle of violence appears to have been started by the Israeli army, and "leaves the Israeli government in a particularly intolerable position." The attacks call for a response, but the international outcry over the raids on Palestinian refugee camps has hardly dissipated.

Paris goes on to say that in spite of a "free-fall" in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's popularity over the past month, he persists with his military policies. But dissension is growing among the Israeli public, he says. Paris notes that the Israeli press has joined the calls for a resumption of political dialogue with the Palestinians, and has asserted that there is no military solution to the intifada.


An editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" says that the ongoing U.S. offensive "is a fresh reminder that the U.S.'s military role in Afghanistan is not over yet. It raises new concerns about the fragility of Afghanistan's peace. And it underlines the continued need for concerted U.S. attention to prevent [the country] from falling back into the sort of chaos that turned it into a terrorist haven."

The regrouping of the Taliban is only one sign of trouble, it says. Afghan warlords fighting to carve up areas liberated from the Taliban also pose a challenge to the authority of the interim administration of Hamid Karzai. The paper calls for an expansion of the size and scope of the 4,500-strong British-led peacekeeping force. "As the U.S. works to finish the war, it also must show leadership in securing the peace," it writes.

The editorial says the Pentagon "is eager for a quick military exit from Afghanistan. [It] is not inclined to take a more hands-on role in peacekeeping and favors instead training an Afghan army. [Building] a local security force, however, is likely to take years. In the meantime, peacekeepers must be deployed beyond Kabul."

The editorial concludes, "Washington has given Afghans a rare hope of building a nation, and a quick exit would bitterly disappoint them."


Britain's "The Times" says current operations in eastern Afghanistan have learned lessons "from the mistakes of the operation to trap Osama bin Laden and his followers in the Tora Bora caves complex three months ago, when hundreds of Al-Qaeda fighters were able to slip away. This time commanders have set up a base to intercept fleeing enemy troops before they can reach the Pakistani border. Unlike earlier engagements, the assault does not rely on air power and proxy Afghan fighters," it remarks. Instead, U.S. fighters are now leading the offensive.

The paper says that the U.S. has invested significant planning in what it calls a "decisive battle to finish the first phase in the war on terrorism." It adds that "for the first time, America's Western allies have been included in the operations, to bring home to Europeans the continuing threat from an organization that still has the potential and intention to [cause] terror and shed blood across the world."


An analysis in "The Washington Post" by staff writer Thomas Ricks says that the broadened scope of ongoing U.S. operations in Afghanistan indicate the strong American resolve to carry out its objectives in the region. "In launching a ground offensive in the dead of winter in some of the harshest terrain in Afghanistan, the U.S. military seems bent not only on crushing a pocket of Al-Qaeda fighters but also on sending a broader message: that it is willing to put troops in harm's way as it prosecutes the war on terrorism. For the first time in the Afghan war, U.S. forces are at the forefront of ground combat," Ricks adds.

He says this shift is correspondingly reflected "in the sharply escalating number of U.S. casualties: Over the last three days, more U.S. troops have died than were killed by hostile fire in the previous five months of the war." Ricks notes that U.S. President George W. Bush also reflected this renewed determination when he remarked that he was saddened, but undeterred, by the casualty figures.


In "The New York Times," Michael Gordon discusses the stiff resistance that remaining Taliban and Al-Qaeda members have put up in the face of the U.S. offensive. "There is no question that Al-Qaeda members and other 'non-Afghan Taliban' [will] be defeated by [the] American force. But it also seems likely that the American victory will not come easily."

He says that foreign fighters in particular have every reason to fight with ferocity. While Afghan or Pakistani troops can fairly easily reintegrate themselves into their homelands, the foreign militants "who joined Al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and fought alongside the Taliban do not have such convenient options. While some have fled to the Middle East or Asia, getting home for many is dangerous if not impossible. So their basic strategy seems to be to take refuge in the mountains and other sparsely populated stretches of the vast and often lawless spaces of Afghanistan and to wait for the Americans and their Western allies to grow weary of Afghanistan's [internal] political struggles and quit the country."

In effect, says Gordon, "their choices are to fight in the mountains of Afghanistan or to take up residence in the jail cells" at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "Faced with that choice, [many] of them seem determined to fight to the death."

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