Today's Papers

To Plea or Not To Plea

The first item in the Wall Street Journal’s worldwide news box is a report that U.S.-backed Afghans are negotiating for the surrender of Baghran, a last major Taliban stronghold and the likely location of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and 1,500 of his minions. The Washington Postleads with the results of the Marines’ search of an abandoned al-Qaida compound. USA Todayreefers and the New York Timesand Los Angeles Timesfront these developments in Afghanistan.

The lead at the NYT says that the transition to euro notes in the EU has been orderly, contrary to speculation that the bank notes’ arrival might provoke chaos. The euro was generally available yesterday, and in some countries people withdrew cash at four times the normal rate as Europeans checked out their new currency. According to analysts, the euro’s easy introduction into circulation spurred its 1.4 percent rise against the dollar.

The LAT lead reports that for the first time since 1997, Congress will need to raise the federal debt ceiling so that the government can function. The Treasury secretary, who blamed the recession and Sept. 11 for the need for more money, warned Congress that the government will need to up the cap from $5.95 trillion to $6.7 trillion. Though Congress must go along with Treasury’s request—or be responsible for an unprecedented default on payments to government bond holders—the paper predicts that the vote will invigorate debate on President Bush’s future budgets and tax cuts.

USAT’s lead reveals that economic conditions for factories, the sector whose year-and-a-half-old slump signaled the current recession, are improving, and so economic recovery may be on the way. Specifically, the “factory gauge,” a monthly survey done by a group which the paper identifies simply as the Institute for Supply Management, rose to 48.2 in December. When the factory gauge hits 50, it signals a turnaround in the factories’ economic outlook. What do these numbers mean? You don’t find out until one of the story’s last paragraphs, when the paper explains that when the factory gauge goes over 50, it means that more than half of manufacturers are expanding instead of contracting. USAT attributes the improvement to a marked increase in new orders.

The NYT reports that negotiations for the surrender of Baghran are going well but slowly. Taliban fighters favor a lengthy surrender process to allow Omar and other leaders time to escape, Afghan officials told the Times. The United States fears Omar will slip out of Baghran like he escaped from Kandahar, and according to the Pentagon, U.S. Special Forces are helping in the hunt for him. A Pentagon spokeswoman said that leaders of the interim Afghan government support the plan to not let Omar get away a second time. 

The WP has the most information on what the Marines found at the abandoned al-Qaida camp: no enemy resistance and little of any intelligence value. The camp, which was untouched by U.S. bombs, had an obstacle course, a shooting range, and manuals on the operation of guns.

The WP cites Pentagon sources to report that intelligence “strongly indicates” that the Taliban intelligence chief was killed by an airstrike. The WSJ downplays the development, saying that Pentagon officials have some intelligence to suggest he died, but not enough to confirm the report. In other developments, the United States now has about 200 enemy soldiers in custody.

The papers report that Western countries want Indian and Pakistani officials to meet in Nepal during an upcoming South Asian regional conference, an interstate grouping that, the WSJ notes, largely exists so that India and Pakistan can hold talks without having to suffer an official bilateral summit. The foreign ministers of the two countries shook hands during preliminary conference activities. USAT believes the handshake may open the door to discussions that could ease Indo-Pak tensions. Other papers don’t read much into the cordialities. The WP front, meanwhile, says that the two countries may be moving closer to war, as Kashmiri rebels are warning of new attacks. Terrorists struck Srinagar in Indian-controlled Kashmir yesterday, killing one or two and injuring many.

India’s defense minister, who the NYT describes as more of a hawk than many of his colleagues, told the paper that he wasn’t buying Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf’s recent assertion that he ordered Pakistan’s intelligence agency to stop helping Islamic militant groups. Furthermore, he said, Musharraf’s arrest of some militants wasn’t so much a good faith effort to end violence as it was an attempt to dupe the United States, which has urged Pakistan to get the militants under control. Leaders of some Pakistani political parties aren’t convinced Musharraf is trying his best either, the WP reports inside. They note Pakistani militant groups aren’t fussing about being put on a leash, so therefore, their activities probably aren’t being overly restricted.

Everyone reefers signs that Argentina’s newest president plans to officially de-peg the peso from the U.S. dollar. The country’s central bank has ended its requirement that banks honor the one-for-one peso-dollar exchange rate. Devaluing the peso could make Argentina’s goods more competitive abroad and lead it out of recession.

The papers report that Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in connection with Sept. 11, announced at his arraignment yesterday in Northern Virginia that he had nothing to plead and therefore would enter no plea. The federal judge interpreted this to mean that Moussaoui was pleading not guilty. Moussaoui may face trial for conspiracy charges as soon as October. The WP reports that the judge expressed confidence that an impartial jury could be found to try Moussaoui. However, the story doesn’t delve into the question of how easy it will be to find American jurors who could be considered truly impartial in a trial for charges stemming from Sept. 11.