Today's Papers

To Cobble Kabul

On the first day of Ramadan, the national papers are again filled with news from Afghanistan, almost all of it good, at least from an American perspective. The southern city of Kandahar, “one of the Taliban’s last major holdouts,” according to the New York Times, is about to be ceded to the Pashtuns, the predominant ethnic group in that area. The papers also report that Mohammed Atef, al-Qaida’s top military strategist, was apparently killed during U.S. airstrikes in or near Kabul this week. Atef was one of the “masterminds” behind both the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998, according to the Washington Post.

U.S. officials stressed that the “conflict is far from over,” the good news notwithstanding, the Post reports. Heavy fighting continues in Kunduz, “the Taliban’s last major patch of turf in northern Afghanistan.” The Taliban there consists mostly of highly trained Pakistanis and other non-Afghans who are likely to fight to the death. “Were they Afghans, they could melt into the scenery. They could switch sides,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says in the Los Angeles Times.

Rumsfeld showed reporters photos of U.S. special forces riding on horseback alongside the Northern Alliance. (“You won’t believe this,” he says in the LAT.) He called it the “Rumsfeld transformation,” referring in jest to his attempts to modernize the military. He added that the Pentagon has received requisitions for saddles, bridles, and horse feed.

He also speculated on the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. “There’s every reason to believe he’s in Afghanistan,” he says in the Post. But perhaps not for long. He could probably still get out of the country by helicopter. “It’s also possible to climb on a donkey or a mule and just walk across the border,” Rumsfeld says.

The victories in Afghanistan have not come without complications, most notably in Kabul. As the Post reported last week, the United States hoped that the Northern Alliance would overtake the capital and then, in a sense, give it up, leaving it, in the words of Colin Powell, “an open city.” That’s not what’s happening, according to today’s WP fronter. Indeed, the alliance appears to be assuming control, having taken up residence at the radio station and in the key government ministries. The “broad-based, multi-ethnic government,” favored by the United States and Pakistan is to this point a fiction. Without such a ruling mosaic, there is the danger, according to unnamed sources in the Post, that Kabul will look much as it did in 1990, “when warring militia groups laid siege to the capital.” If it came down to it, then, would the United States (or someone else) take on the Northern Alliance for control of Kabul? Or would the United States, once the Taliban is no more, abandon the country as many believe it did in 1989? It seems the obvious and interesting question, but the Post fails to raise it.

Back to familiar domestic news, as everybody fronts yet another anthrax letter, this one found in a barrel of quarantined congressional mail in Virginia. It was addressed to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and, like the letter to Tom Daschle, it was mailed from Trenton, N.J., on Oct. 9. It also had that seemingly innocuous return address: “4th Grade, Greendale School, Franklin Park, NJ.” Will this new letter be helpful to FBI? The NYT says it reinforces the bureau’s belief that the anthrax attacks are the work of a domestic terrorist. “No disrespect to Senator Leahy,” an FBI official says, “but I don’t know how many foreign terrorists would want to single out the chairman of a Congressional committee. They would have other targets.”

A man writes in to the NYT with this suggestion for de-anthraxing: “I put my mail in an airtight cooking pouch every night and boil it for 15 minutes at 212 degrees, hoping that hot mail is safe mail.”

The LAT fronts the elaborate precautions taken to prevent terrorist attacks from the air during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The U.S. was prepared to “intercept” any suspicious aircraft that got too close to Olympic venues, and the FBI monitored all crop-duster flights within hundreds of miles of Atlanta. Needless to say, such precautions never became the norm. “In hindsight,” says a retired agent, “it’s probably one of those things you think about at the time and then you move on to the next operation.” In spite of these measures, of course, an attack still occurred: One person was killed and 100 injured when a bomb was detonated at an Olympic concert.

The NYT and the LAT front the challenges of implementing the new airport security legislation that President Bush is expected to sign into law on Monday. Under the bill, the federal government will have one year to hire, train, and deploy 28,000 people. “We will throw out the net as far and as wide as we can to come up with a work force,” says Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta in the NYT. The push will no doubt be helped by the sour economy. The job pays between $30,000 and $35,000. (Screeners with private firms make about $15,000.) Applicants should be detail-oriented, but no experience is necessary.

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