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Lawmaker says contribution to U.S.-led effort is essential

by Toshi Maeda

Japan’s reliance on the Middle East for energy supplies and its role as a U.S. ally make a maximum contribution to the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism essential, according to lawmaker Kenshiro Matsunami, who is well-versed in Afghan affairs.

Kenshiro Matsunami

Matsunami, 54, who has visited Afghanistan frequently over the past 25 years, describes as natural the U.S.-led campaign against Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaeda group and the Taliban regime that harbors it. Bin Laden has been identified as a key suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States.

“Some people say Japan should remain neutral and act as a mediator between the U.S. and the Taliban,” he said. “But what we are facing now is a good-against-evil situation, and there’s no position like neutral here.”

Matsunami sees the government’s move to seek Diet approval for legislation that would allow Japan to lend logistic and other noncombatant military support to the U.S.-led force as “a matter of course.” At the same time, however, he laments the ongoing Diet debate on the matter, which he said could again hinder the nation from fully contributing to an international campaign.

The House of Representatives member said the Saudi-born militant “is a thorn in the throat of Afghanistan, and local people by themselves cannot extract that thorn.” He said many ordinary people in Afghanistan cannot speak out under the Taliban regime.

Matsunami, a former amateur wrestling champion both in Japan and in the U.S., went to Afghanistan in 1975 and spent three years at Kabul University teaching wrestling and physical education.

“Around the time I first went there, the country was so beautiful, pastoral and peaceful,” said the New Conservative Party lawmaker. “But things changed totally after the Soviet invasion” in 1979.

He said the Taliban was welcomed by many when it emerged in 1994, for the “peace and stability” the new rulers brought to a country devastated by years of war with the former Soviet Union and the domestic conflicts that followed.

“But human desire grows,” he said, “and they found themselves unable to watch TV, go to school or play soccer. They began to lose faith in the Taliban regime. What was left was only a reign of terror.”

His most recent visit to Afghanistan was in March as a government representative on a mission to dissuade Taliban leaders from destroying the Buddhist relics of Bamiyan — an attempt that failed.

Matsunami has written five books on Afghanistan. He has personal contacts with Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah and former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was ousted by the Taliban in 1996. Matsunami met with the former king in Rome three days before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The lawmaker claims that Japan failed to capitalize on its past peacemaking efforts in Afghanistan during the current crisis.

“During the days leading up to Prime Minister (Junichiro) Koizumi’s announcement of Tokyo’s full support for the U.S., Japan did not do anything (diplomatically). Neither Prime Minister Koizumi nor Foreign Minister (Makiko) Tanaka were well aware of what kinds of efforts Japan have made in the Middle East,” he said.

The Foreign Ministry has invited leaders of both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance to Tokyo on an almost yearly basis since 1997 to try to end the country’s civil war, according to the ministry.

Matsunami believes Japan should have urged the Taliban to hand over bin Laden before clearly announcing its position to side with the U.S.

“Tokyo could have taken the diplomatic initiative by, for example, sending its own envoy to the Taliban, even though it may have looked certain they would not accept such a request (to turn bin Laden over),” he said.