As US-Russian Force Prepares to Go into Afghanistan Mid East is Temporarily Sidelined
2 October, 2001
The most significant feature of the imminent US assault against Afghanistan is the major role to be played by Russian military might, following the new and far-reaching understanding reached between President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin.
DEBKAfile’s military sources reveal that the Tadjikistan based Russian 201st Motorized Rifle Division was beefed up Tuesday with staff commando units, Pashtun speakers and interpreters. Its members also received American-made anti-terrorist equipment and weapons flown in especially.
DEBKAfile adds: The anti-terror alliance has split its task into two parts. The Americans and Russians will go for Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda force in the Pamir Mountains, while the UK and Western allies will take on the Taliban in south Afghanistan.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is taking a back seat to events about to explode in Afghanistan. But Israel could find itself in the diplomatic hot seat again once the smoke clears from the initial stages of the U.S. military campaign against terrorism.
A hint of what could be in store appeared on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post on Tuesday. The newspapers reported, in very careful language, that several days before the September 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington, U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell planned to announce in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly the Bush administration’s support for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The speech, which was never delivered in the aftermath of the suicide hijack-bombings that led to the cancellation of much of the General Assembly session, was to have paved the way for a meeting in New York between President George W. Bush and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Now, the reports said, State Department officials are again trying to find the right time to revive the new U.S. peace initiative.
The officials argue that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hampering U.S. efforts to unite Arab states behind Washington’s global coalition against terror.
The Israeli media rushed to report – ad nauseum -- this new U.S. peace initiative, even as several hundred U.S. and British bombers prepare to blast Afghanistan. However, as both U.S. newspapers noted, U.S. policy is set in the White House, not in the State Department.
The real decisions in Washington are made by five people: Bush, vice president Dick Cheney, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- whose position has grown stronger since the attacks in New York in Washington -- deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The group of five, which is spearheading the U.S. war effort, has given Powell and senior State Department officials a free hand in forging a global anti-terror alliance. The coalition’s sole importance, the decision-makers believe, is to serve as a screen or window dressing for military action in the war.
So for now, at least, the sound of the explosions will drown out talk of the U.S. diplomatic move on the Israeli-Palestinian front, but they will not be able to silence completely the murmurs of peace.
DEBKAfile’ s American and Palestinian experts say the real test for Israel will come after the first stages of the war in Afghanistan.
It is possible, our experts say, that State Department officials will eventually try to turn the spotlight back on what they see as the strategic importance of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
The first stage of this State Department campaign to portray Israel as the sole obstacle to a world anti-terror coalition failed, primarily because of a dramatic change in the global strategic picture.
The change was rooted in a new U.S. awareness of who its real friends are.
DEBKAfile’s sources in Washington say that as late as the second week of September, U.S. leaders still harbored the belief that a world coalition could play an important role against terrorism. But a quarter-century of State Department policy effectively collapsed after Saudi Arabia, and in its wake the entire Arab world including Egypt, denied the United States the use of military bases on their soil to strike at Muslim Afghanistan. Adding insult to injury, the facilities were built with U.S. know-how, technology and military expertise.
The Americans, a practical people, instead of complaining publicly about the snub, acted swiftly, effectively and cleverly.
On Sunday, September 23, Bush telephoned Russian president Vladimir Putin and spoke to him for 70 minutes.
The moment both men hung up, the world we live in had changed and the strategic situation in all its regions, including the Middle East, had shifted radically.
The United States and Russia, two old foes who faced off against each other for half a century, became allies in a move that will influence history for the next 25 years.
Both predominantly Christian countries joined in a military, economic and political alliance to defeat Muslim international terror.
In one telephone call, Bush restored Moscow to the position of power it enjoyed between the 1950s and 1980s.
Pakistan and Turkey will provide window dressing for this superpower alliance – the former because it has no choice, and the latter, out of choice. Central Asian countries, such as Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Christian Georgia are falling in line behind them.
The strategic epicenter has now moved from the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula to Russia and Central Asia.
This new world alignment sidelines anything Saudi crown prince Abdullah, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Syrian president Bashar Assad have to say. The same applies to the words and actions of Yasser Arafat, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and foreign minister. Now It’s war-war, not jaw-jaw.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it best in an excellent article on Friday, September 28, headlined “Talk Later”, in which he wrote: “We need to be really focused, really serious, and just a little bit crazy.”
In Friedman’s words: “For everything there is a season. There will be a season later on for talking. There will be a season for dealing with other states that have supported terrorism. And there will be a season for promoting Arab-Israeli peace or economic development. But right now — right now is the season of hunting down people who want to destroy our country.”
Even Friedman, the New York Times’ High Priest of Israeli-Palestinian issues, says they are not currently on the U.S. agenda.
A practical example: In the midst of all this strategic upheaval, Jordan’s King Abdullah showed up in Washington. Bush greeted him warmly and the United States finally agreed to sign a free trade zone treaty with Hashemite kingdom, to bolster its tottering economy.
But the king, still living in the past, remains blind like the rest of the leaders in the Middle East to the strategic shift in the balance of world power. He therefore stated that he had received a promise from Bush to refrain from attacking any Muslim country but Afghanistan, including Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin Powell was quickly sent to publicly deny any presidential commitment to refrain from attacking Iraq. He went so far as to say that Washington might consider it after its first moves against Afghanistan. Powell, who with his departmental staff has labored long and hard to build an Arab-Muslim wing into the global anti-terror alliance, made no mention of the possibility of American attacks on terrorist targets in Lebanon and later in Iran.
Despite the strategic shift, the New York Times and Washington Post reports on Powell’s plans for a Palestinian state should not be dismissed.
Israel might be relegated to the sidelines at this stage of the war, but it find itself a scapegoat should the Bush anti-terror campaign go badly.