Today's Papers

Operation Rescue?

Everybody leads with developments about Afghanistan. The Washington Postemphasizes that Pashtun leaders in the south are now rebelling and are attacking Kandahar, the last city held by the Taliban. The New York Timesand Los Angeles Timesfocus more generally on the Taliban’s continued collapse. As of yesterday, they controlled only about 10 percent of Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journaltops its worldwide newsbox with news that U.S. commandos picked up eight Western aid workers, including two Americans, who had been jailed by the Taliban for, supposedly, preaching Christianity. (The other papers off-lead with the aid workers.) USA Today’s lead focuses on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The paper says that some mid-level Taliban officials have offered to rat on him and disclose his whereabouts. It’s not known if they can deliver.

The situation in Kandahar is unclear. It seems that the Pashtun groups are attacking the Taliban on the outskirts of the city. But the city itself still holds plenty of Taliban, including, says the Post, as many as 4,000 foreign troops.

“It is not expected Kandahar will hang on for long,” said a Western diplomat monitoring developments closely tonight. “There seem to be large defections of the Taliban to the Pashtun commanders.”

One Taliban soldier, who had been captured in Kabul, says that his former coworkers aren’t engaging in a strategic retreat, they’re falling apart. “I think they have very low morale,” he said. “There will be more defections.”

The paper report that some Taliban fighters have been moving across the border into Pakistan, specifically into the somewhat law-free zone known as the “tribal lands.”

There are conflicting reports about the exact circumstances of the aid workers’ exit. President Bush described it as a “facilitated rescue.” But the papers, except for the LAT, say that the Taliban abandoned the Westerners in a field and that they were then picked up by U.S. helicopters. (The NYT, though, still takes the bait. The NYT’s jumpline for the story still reads: “Aid Workers Rescued by U.S.”) The LAT, meanwhile, acknowledges that’s one version, then says it’s got the real deal. Citing a Red Cross official, the paper reports that, “The aid workers were rescued from their Taliban jailers by an independent commander in the city of Ghazni. The commander contacted Red Cross personnel in Afghanistan, who then got in touch with U.S., German and Australian officials to arrange for their evacuation.”

USAT says “several hundred” U.S. commandos are operating in southern Afghanistan. (The other papers say the number is lower, about a hundred.) USAT says they’re using “high-tech surveillance traps, heat-seeking spy planes and suitcases full of cash” in an effort to nab Bin Laden. The papers each note that the commandos have been setting up roadblocks in the south. “They are letting the population know that everyone best be careful what they do, where they go, how they behave, and that there’s a presence in the south that had not been there previously,” said Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.

The papers also say that an unmanned U.S. aircraft attacked a building where al-Qaida leaders were believed to be hiding. The Pentagon thinks a bunch of people were killed in the attack, but it’s not sure.

The NYT says that the Pentagon, not surprisingly, is now shifting its tactics from a traditional air campaign to counterguerrilla operations, which could include allied troops on the ground doing everything from aid delivery to cave busting. “You’re going to see a lot more flying, but a lot less dropping,” said one defense official.

In an interview with the NYT, Rumsfeld echoed comments he made to USAT a few weeks ago and said it’s possible that Bin Laden might escape. “My guess is what he’d probably do is take a helicopter down one of those valleys that we couldn’t pick up and pop over to some part of the country where there is an airfield and have a plane waiting for him,” said Rumsfeld. He added, “We’re actively trying to make it hard for him to do anything.” 

The NYT reports that there is already some friction between different anti-Taliban groups. “They’re like old Chicago ward bosses,” said one observer. 

The papers report that the Red Cross, in response to criticism that it has misled donors, promised yesterday to use all the money from its Sept. 11 fund, nearly $550 million, to aid families affected by the attacks. The organization had planned to set aside $200 million of that money to deal with any future terrorist attacks.

The NYT stuffs an article about how cost has long been the key factor for airport security firms. But the story buries the lead: Citing an industry lobbyist, the Times mentions in the seventh graph that “even after Sept. 11, some airlines called on their screening companies to slash costs by 15 percent.” The LAT fronts word that the FBI believes it has identified the man who was supposed to be the 20th highjacker on Sept. 11—and it’s not Zacarias Moussaoui, the guy in Minnesota who supposedly told flight instructors that he was only concerned with learning how to control a plane in midflight. The FBI’s director said today that the darn media had gotten its facts backwards: Moussaoui wanted to learn only how to take-off and land.

Officials now believe that the 20th highjacker is Ramsi Binalshibh. Binalshibh couldn’t do his job on Sept. 11 because, says the FBI, he was suspected of being involved “with the bombing of the Cole,” and thus was denied entry to the United States. (Obvious question the papers should ask: How is it that the government knew enough about Binalshibh to deny him entry, but didn’t see fit to question or arrest him?) Binalshibh is still at-large.

The NYT’s William Safire offers a light critique of President Bush’s executive order to create military tribunals: “Non-citizens face an executive that is now investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and jailer or executioner. In an Orwellian twist, Bush’s order calls this Soviet-style abomination ‘a full and fair trial.’ ” But if not a military tribunal, what, Mr. Safire, should we do with Bin Laden? “Turn his cave into his crypt.” 

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