Today's Papers

Not So Fast

All the papers lead with Bush administration comments urging the Northern Alliance not to try to establish a new Afghan government unilaterally. The Washington Post  and the Los Angeles Times  stress that the comments were spurred by the return to Kabul of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Afghan president ousted by the Taliban in 1996. The New York Times  puts Rabbani in the background and focuses on a roundup of recent developments, including evidence that the Taliban might not be fleeing the city of Kandahar, and Taliban statements confirming the death of a senior al-Qaida lieutenant and claiming that Osama Bin Laden is no longer in Afghanistan.

The WP and the LAT point out that the appearance of Afghanistan’s former president, days after statements that he would not appear in Kabul for weeks, has the Bush administration, its allies, and the United Nations anxious about the strength of the Northern Alliance’s commitment to a broad-based Afghan government. Other alliance officials have caused alarm by requesting that they be consulted before large number of foreign troops enter the country. While Rabbani said that he and his followers would respect the decisions of a loya jirga—the traditional Afghan “tribal council”—he did not say when he thought such a council might be held. The WP also reminds the reader why Rabbani split in the first place: His 1992-96 regime was marred by violent power struggles that killed around 30,000 people and destroyed large parts of the capital. The LAT points out that Rabbani’s government still controls the Afghan seat at the U.N., and  the WP notes that the U.N. has returned to Afghanistan after a two-month exile: Two planeloads of U.N. officials arrived yesterday in Kabul to push for a conference on a new Afghan government.

The WP and the NYT both front stories about the city of Kunduz, which they peg as the war’s next major battleground. The NYT story focuses on the accounts of refugees fleeing the city, who say that the Taliban stronghold is now completely controlled by the Arab and Pakistani soldiers who have been crossing into Afghanistan by the thousands to aid the Taliban. These soldiers, reputed to be among the Taliban’s fiercest, have been looting shops for food and stringing up the bodies of Northern Alliance soldiers in the town’s bazaars. The WP focuses on the strength and size of the opposing forces: Estimates of the number of Taliban soldiers in the 100,000-person town range from 3,000 to 40,000.

The NYT front finds uplifting economic news in a very unlikely place: Russia. Rising demand for computer equipment, declining flight of capital, and record-high optimism have some observers convinced that the Russian economy is finally turning a corner. Many credit Vladimir Putin’s push for financial reform for the apparent turnaround. It also appears that the country’s oligarchs are beginning to streamline and modernize the former state-run enterprises they’ve snatched up, instead of simply plundering them.

The WP fronts a report detailing the CIA’s “hidden war” in Afghanistan. Six-man teams of operatives from the agency’s “Special Activities Division” were among the first American forces on the ground. The division is made up mostly of non-uniformed ex-military types who gather intelligence about bombing targets, meet with opposition leaders, and even investigate the logistics of various humanitarian aid efforts. The agency has even been conducting its own airstrikes—a first—using armed, unmanned surveillance drones known as “Predators.” Some of the article’s unnamed sources say the CIA’s efforts have been crucial to the recent advances made by the Northern Alliance.

On the same front page, another story has Air Force officials complaining that cumbersome protocols for clearing bombing targets have cost them shots at top Taliban and al-Qaida officials at least 10 times since bombing began. They say the main problem is confusion at Central Command, but the situation is worsened by friction resulting from the CIA’s covert “parallel war”—the Air Force is often as surprised by a “Predator” attack as the targets themselves.