Today's Papers

Not So Friendly Fire

The New York Times Washington Post, and USA Today  all lead with the latest on the Marines in Afghanistan. The troops immediately got busy. After just a day on the job, Marine helicopters and Navy planes attacked a convoy of Taliban armored vehicles.

The Wall Street Journal’s worldwide newsbox is topped with a summary of the war in Afghanistan. The Los Angeles Timesleads with word that the Taliban are close to surrendering a key area near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. The paper says a Taliban official denied the report, “Then he drove into Pakistan in what a friend said was a move to defect.”

The LAT quotes a Pashtun tribal chief claiming, “There were American troops near the main Kandahar airport, this is sure.” The WSJ, though, says that the Marines probably won’t be heading into Kandahar itself anytime soon. “I don’t think as a policy we want to get involved in battles inside cities,” said an anonymous Pentagon person. Meanwhile the troops’ commander, General James Mattis, applauded his unit’s entry into Afghanistan and practiced his oratory: “The New York School of ballet could not have orchestrated a more intricate movement more flawlessly.”

Everybody goes high with news that the prison revolt near Mazar-i Sharif is still going on and that five American commandos were seriously wounded after a U.S. plane dropped a bomb too close to their position. The NYT, citing a local commander, says that American and British commandos were “battling the Taliban inside the fort.” The WSJ, citing an anonymous defense official, says that a CIA agent is trapped in the fort and it’s unclear whether he’s alive or dead. Nobody’s sure, but it seems that, at least at the time the papers filed their stories, about 30 Taliban (out of an original cast of about 500) were still alive in the fort.

The papers say that the Northern Alliance consolidated its hold on the northern city of Kunduz. The WSJ, though, says the Pentagon is concerned because it can only account for the 1,000 of the 3,000 Taliban troops who it thought were holed up in town. The NYT quotes a local merchant who may have an explanation “Every day the Taliban soldiers came in trucks and went into the airport,” he said “The planes left, and the troops went with them.” (The Pentagon continues to insist that that didn’t happen. “The runway there isn’t usable,” said a top general.)

The NYT says most of the Taliban aren’t itching to fight. “Everybody is surrendering,” said one captured Taliban fighter. “It is finished. No one has the strength anymore to fight.”

The LAT echoed that sentiment. “There was a sense,” said the paper, “that the endgame had begun.” According to one Pashtun leader, “With the fall of Kunduz, the Taliban know it’s finished. Mullah Omar’s dreams are over.”

The WSJ adds new detail to previous reports that the United States and its allies, including Britain, disagree about what they think their troops should be doing in Afghanistan. The United States is focusing on smoking out Bin Laden, while Britain and others are pushing for more humanitarian operations and nation building. “There’s a reluctance by Americans to incorporate in U.S. strategy anything that smells too much of a nascent peacekeeping operation,” said one observer. About 6,000 British soldiers have been waiting for the United States to give them the go-ahead to go in. Yesterday, they were taken off 48-hour alert, meaning they’re not going anywhere soon.

While the Pentagon continues to say that it’d rather outsource cave-hunting work, some Afghans believe they’ve found just the right folks for the job. “People like Osama and the terrorists—there must be a big force to fight with them,” said a Pashtun tribal leader. “The presence of the Marines will solve that.”

Everybody fronts President Bush’s comments that Saddam Hussein should let weapons inspectors into Iraq. And what happens if Saddam balks? “He’ll find out,” said the President.  Bush also said that any country “that develops weapons of mass destruction that will be used to terrorize nations” will now be granted terrorist status. He has never mentioned this criterion before. Still, Bush said he wasn’t changing positions. “Have I expanded the definition?” he asked. “I’ve always had that definition, as far as I’m concerned.”

The papers front word that the National Bureau of Economic Research, America’s semi-official recession referee, announced that the U.S. economy has been in recession since March. But there’s a bit of silver lining: New car and home sales soared this past month, and consumers spent a whole bunch of money the day after Thanksgiving. Those are all, supposedly, signs that economic Armageddon is not upon us.

The WP’s lead editorial takes 492 words to reach its revelatory conclusion: “American soldiers may be just beginning one of their most important and difficult missions.”

A NYT editorial soothes itself with a bit of history. “It’s reassuring to know that most recent recessions have lasted a little less than a year,” says the Times, “which means that we’re well along in this one.” Now, Today’s Papers hasn’t taken an economics class since, well, ever. But couldn’t it be that since our recent boom was atypical (i.e. it lasted for a decade), the ensuing downside—especially with the added hit of Sept. 11—will also be out of whack?