Today's Papers

The Fog of War

Dispatches from the various Afghanistan fronts again dominate the papers. The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal (in its worldwide news box) all lead with the advance of the Northern Alliance on Kunduz, considered the Taliban’s last stronghold in the north. The New York Times includes the attack in its lead, but focuses on the south, where the U.S. military continues its “systematic hunt” for Osama Bin Laden.

The papers—and the combatants, for that matter—had a tough time sorting out exactly what went on in and around Kunduz on Thursday.  According to the WSJ, two alliance commanders said that the Taliban had agreed to surrender the city. A third, however, believed that negotiations had failed, and he “launched an offensive to capture the besieged city by the weekend.” The WSJ blames the attack on “poor communications, a split between rival warlords or a collapse of the surrender agreement.” What the paper fails to report, oddly, is that even while some Taliban soldiers were indeed deserting, others were digging in for what turned out to be a fierce battle. The problem, as the NYT neatly instructs, is that “the Taliban leaders who struck the deal might not speak for all the rank-and-file soldiers, or even for other commanders.” It seems likely that the negotiators were representing only the Afghan Taliban, as those who stayed behind to defend the city were believed to be foreigners—”Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and others,” according to the LAT. Those from outside Afghanistan “are more likely to resist surrender because they fear for their lives at the hands of alliance troops,” the Post observes.

As if to further illustrate how confusing war coverage can be, the NYT fronts another complicated battle scenario, this one in Maidan Shahr, just a “half-hour’s drive” west of Kabul. There the Northern Alliance “scrambled away in sudden retreat after launching a misbegotten attack” on a surprisingly able group of Taliban soldiers. From the perspective of the Times writer, who seemed to be right alongside the alliance troops, the defeat was due to the their ill-conceived battle plan. But the Los Angeles Times’ reporter came away from the same battle with a completely different story. “Northern Alliance troops felt the sting of a Taliban double-cross Thursday in the hills outside Kabul,” his lead-in reads, “when soldiers who had promised to surrender fought a pitched battle instead.”  The LAT’s source is an alliance general, in a “roadside interview.” Apparently the NYT reporter took a different path.

Meanwhile, in areas south of Kandahar, the largest Taliban stronghold, the U.S. is attacking a “target list of cave networks where Osama bin Laden is suspected to be hiding,” according to the NYT lead. The paper takes unusual care in describing one U.S. weapon in particular, a “15,000-pound bomb effective for killing and terrifying troops.” The bomb “is designed to explode three feet above the ground, sending a devastating wave of fire and blast several hundred yards to kill troops, flatten trees, knock over structures and demoralize those beyond the immediate impact zone.” Hundreds of thousands of leaflets advertising the $25 million reward for Bin Laden are also being dropped, presumably not at the same time.

The NYT and the Post front an explosion in the Gaza Strip that killed four (the NYT and the WSJ say five) Palestinian boys who were climbing a sand dune on their way to school. The cause of the blast was unknown, but both sides advanced theories. A Palestinian official said it was an unexploded Israeli tank shell, which one of the boys may have kicked. Israel authorities could not investigate the explosion because it occurred in Palestinian territory, but they believed it may have been caused by a Palestinian device.  The Times includes the observations of a few Palestinians who said the explosive may have been planted by Palestinians aiming for Israeli tanks. “But most angrily rejected that explanation,” the NYT reports. The papers run some grim numbers from the region: 164 Palestinians under the age of 18 have died in the Middle East conflict thus far, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (as cited in the Times); and since Sept. 11, 160 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have been killed (according to the Post).

“Is it safe to eat hamburgers made from cloned cattle?” So goes the WSJ hook on a story the WP and LAT also front. The answer is, according to a study sponsored by a big cattle cloning company, yes. Not only were the cows free of physical defects, but two of them gave birth to healthy calves. But let’s not fire up the grill just yet, says the FDA, which is also considering fast-growing salmon, allergen-free house cats, malaria-free mosquitoes, and so on. “There are a number of things we don’t fully understand,” says a University of Florida scientist. The paper’s lead author doesn’t help matters much when he says, “Except for the animals that we lost in the beginning, they appear normal.” He’s referring to the 110 pregnancies it took to produce the 30 cows in the study; 80 died in utero. Of the supposedly good 30, six died shortly after birth from organ problems associated with cloning.