Today's Papers

Cold Mountain

Everybody leads with news that seven American soldiers were killed yesterday in fighting in eastern Afghanistan. Due to what the Pentagon says is “the fog of war,” the military itself has given slightly different accounts of what happened. Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the region, had the clearest account: A U.S. Chinook helicopter was dropping off soldiers in the war zone when it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (which may or may not have exploded). The helicopter then did avoidance maneuvers and in the course of that a crewmember fell out and was killed. A short while later another Chinook, which was looking for the missing crew member, was also hit by enemy fire and crashed landed. As soon as the soldiers got out of that chopper, they were immediately fired upon, and six of those soldiers were killed. In total, 40 Americans have been wounded since Saturday. 

Franks guessed that about 100 to 200 al-Qaida fighters have been killed in the battle.

Everybody says that the allied forces are trying to surround and trap the al-Qaida soldiers. But USA Today reports, “Afghans battling alongside the U.S. troops said hundreds of mostly Arab fighters have slipped away.” The paper adds, “Sympathetic civilians appear to be sheltering and supporting the U.S. adversaries.”

The New York Times spends a beat noting reports that al-Qaida troops have their families up there in the mountains with them. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld doesn’t appear inclined to give them preferential treatment. He said they were there “of their own free will, knowing who they’re with and who they’re supporting and who they’re encouraging and who they’re assisting.”

The papers all report that the high-altitude mountain battle means that U.S. helicopters have been flying at about 8,000 feet, near the limit at which they can operate. 

Everybody notes the Pentagon’s opinion that neither Bin Laden nor Mullah Omar is near the fighting.

USAT guesses why these al-Qaida troops are fighting so hard: It “might stem from the fact that hard-core al-Qaida fighters are finally battling their true enemy, the United States.”

The papers give a sense of the intensity of the allied bombing campaign by noting that about 350 bombs have been dropped since the operation began. Given how many different sizes and types of bombs there are in the U.S. arsenal, this isn’t really the most useful info. The Post, in a stuffed news analysis, gives a better point of reference by noting that more than 40 planes, including 10 long-range bombers, are covering the 70-square-mile battlefield, and then adding, “That is more than half the size of the air flotilla that the U.S. military used in its daily missions over the entire country in the early phase of the Afghan war.”

During his press briefing, Rumsfeld warned that there may be more of this to come: “I think we have to expect that there are other sizable pockets, that there will be other battles of this type.” Meanwhile, everybody notes that American intelligence officials believe they’ve uncovered an al-Qaida plot to launch a car-bombing campaign in Kabul. 

The papers note that Gen. Franks began his press conference yesterday by offering his condolences to the families of those killed “in our ongoing operations in Vietnam.” He later corrected himself.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Bush administration is “preparing legal procedures to hold suspected al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners as long as authorities consider them dangerous, permitting indefinite detention.” The paper adds that the administration is also considering “whether to classify membership in al-Qaida as a war crime, allowing prosecution of captives from Afghanistan even if they can’t be linked to a specific violent act or terrorist plot.”

As one administration official explained it, “Even identifying these guys is a problem. And when that’s the case, one option you have to think about is simple incapacitation for the foreseeable future.”

An earthquake yesterday in northeastern Afghanistan appears to have killed about 100 people.

Everybody goes high with the massive level of violence yesterday in the Middle East. Using airstrikes and incursions into refugee camps, Israeli forces killed at least 17 Palestinians, including a mother and her three children who died when an Israeli tank fired on their car. (According to the Post, Israel quickly expressed “deep regret” and said the tank had been aiming at a different car.)  Israeli planes also hit Yasser Arafat’s headquarters, although he wasn’t injured.

“The aim is to increase the number of losses on the other side,” said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.  “Only after they’ve been battered will we be able to conduct talks.”

Hours later after the incursions, a Palestinian opened fire on diners at a restaurant in Tel Aviv, killing three and injuring 30. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which, per usual, the papers describe as a group linked to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah militia.

The papers note that Secretary of State Powell expressed support for an Egyptian proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian summit.

The Washington Post fronts a scary, and riveting, account by reporter Peter Baker, who had a very busy Monday. He writes that he was sitting in a village near the fighting when his interpreter overheard three supposedly friendly Afghan gunmen complaining that U.S. troops had recently arrested their patron, a local warlord. “These [expletives] put our boss in jail,” said one of the men. “Why shouldn’t we keep them as hostages?”

Baker and a number of his fellow journalists booked out of there, only to be “pursued by gunmen.” The journalists escaped, but later that day they came under attack—twice. Although one reporter, a Canadian, was wounded, the journalists again escaped. After it got dark, Baker and his colleagues decided they should spend the night in the relative safety of a U.S. Special Forces base. But the soldiers told them to keep moving on, right past the point where they had been ambushed earlier in the evening. They declined to follow that suggestion, and instead, “The journalists decided to spend the night in their cars in the freezing desert temperatures outside the base, waiting for daybreak.”