Today's Papers

En Gardez

All the papers lead with the battle at Gardez, the hottest fight in Afghanistan since Tora Bora last December. A sizeable Afghan-American force (different numbers for different papers) launched a midnight raid early Saturday on “perhaps 500 heavily armed Al Qaeda fighters” who have been gathering in a “snowy mountainous area” about 60 miles south of Kabul. In other news, the New York Times has a package of articles on the “Saudi Peace Idea” in advance of next week’s White House visit by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Mideast tour by Vice President Dick Cheney. The Washington Post fronts a package of articles on “Nuclear Anxieties,” including a Pakistani nuclear scientist’s failed lie-detector tests. And the Los Angeles Times fronts a rich investigative report on the personalities and “al-Qaida traits” of Southeast Asian Terror.

The fighting in Afghanistan was initiated around 2 a.m. Saturday by the Afghans/Americans and is ongoing. NYT reports involvement by “several hundred soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division” (out of 2,000 stationed in Kandahar) and relays the Pentagon estimate of 1,500 Afghan troops. The same article later quotes an Afghan commander’s estimate of 600 Afghans and “50 or 60 American advisers.” The WP says “at least 400 Afghan soldiers.” One American soldier is confirmed dead, but the LAT quotes an Afghan commander who claims another American was killed Friday night before the operation—he “was in a Datsun pickup when he was fired upon by an Al Qaeda sniper.” The NYT has the Pentagon referring to the Gardez group as “the last major pocket of Al Qaeda resistance.”

Each article mentions the use of “two experimental 2,000-pound bombs,” of the thermobaric variety. (The “BLU-118B,” says LAT.) Thermobarics—which disperse and then ignite a massive cloud of flammable fuel—have been used before. (The 15,000-pound “daisy cutter,” for example.) The 118B is apparently a bit smarter than the previous thermobarics and is currently being used out of concern that al-Qaida complexes might contain nuclear, biological, or chemical paraphernalia, which might be harmfully dispersed into the environment if hit by conventional ordnance. And who said the Bush administration wasn’t environmentally conscious?

The papers all report on another devastating suicide bombing in Jerusalem that left nine dead. “The bomber detonated his device while standing near a group of women waiting with baby carriages for their husbands to finish their prayers,” reports WP. NYT: “Two uninjured babies were taken to one hospital, officials said, the whereabouts of their parents unknown.” Before the night is over, AP and Reuters wires arrive with more: five Israeli missiles fired at a Palestinian police station in Bethlehem and eight more Israelis killed after Palestinian gunmen opened fire at an army roadblock in the West Bank Sunday morning.

Perhaps not coincidentally, NYT has several articles alternately analyzing and advocating attention for Saudi Prince Abdullah’s proposal that an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories could mean full normalization of relations with the Arab League. The NYT lead reports on the jolt the proposal has given to the Israeli left and Arab moderates (especially the more business-minded). One Israeli analyst dreams about normalization for NYT: “economic and cultural cooperation; falafel in Damascus and stalls in the international market of Dubai; an Israeli flag in Riyadh, programming engineers in Bahrain and gas from Qatar.” But NYT’s Elaine Sciolino voices some of the skepticism of Saudi proposal that is coming from many angles: “It is not entirely clear what prompted Prince Abdullah to make his proposal now … [but] suddenly, with this one gesture, [the prince] has achieved an extraordinary public relations coup.”

NYT’s “Week in Review” section also includes an interesting article on Saudi public opinion polls, perhaps an oblique response to a recent Gallup poll in which a majority of Muslims doubted that Arabs were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. In a survey of Saudi “elites,” “when [they] were asked if their attitudes toward the United States were mostly based on its policies or on its values, 86 percent answered politics. Only 6 percent said values. … [And] 43 percent said that their frustrations with the United States would be completely removed … if America brokered a just and lasting peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

The WP, which has broken the news on Bush’s “Continuity of Operations Plan” or “shadow government” over the last few days, today explains precisely what has the administration so spooked: the threat of a nuclear attack on the capital. A CIA briefing last fall “sent the president through the roof,” and elicited “considerable emotion.” The full Bush response, reports the WP, has included the deployment of sophisticated sensors (including, oh yes, “neutron flux detectors”) around major Washington access points and at high-profile events like the Olympics. Bush has also placed the ultra-elite Delta Force commando unit on “a new standby alert” status, ready to move in on suspected domestic nuclear threats.

And for a chilling nuclear story from the other side of the planet, the WP reports on Pakistani nuclear scientist Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, a “38-year veteran of Pakistan’s nuclear program … [and former] chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission,” who was taken into custody last fall after it was discovered he had met several times with Osama Bin Laden. He claims he was just hitting up Osama for a donation to his Islamic charity, but this claim has apparently failed no less than “six or seven” lie-detector tests, his son tells the WP. Mahmood, it turns out, is an aspiring visionary thinker and an author. His best seller, from 1987: Mechanics of the Doomsday and Life After Death.

An NYT “Week in Review” piece notes “last week was an eventful one for Nixonians”: First, 500 hours of tapes were released by the National Archives, followed by 41 documents related to Nixon’s historic trip to China released by the private National Security Archive days later. The latter, however, is more focused on then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, who laid the groundwork for the 1972 diplomatic coup. In his memoirs, Kissinger has characterized this groundwork, much of it the result of a key meeting in July, 1971 with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, as “giving shape to intangibles.” A bit more than that, it turns out. The NYT article includes choice bits of transcript in which Kissinger makes explicit promises to downgrade U.S. military support for Taiwan political support for Taiwanese independence and to step away from the ill-fated government of South Vietnam, among other things. Talking to the Times, Kissinger admits “it’s possible I didn’t give a full account of everything” [in the memoirs]. Out of nowhere, he adds: “I try to lead an honorable life.”

More controversy is blooming out of the famous newsmagazine photo of three firefighters raising an American flag at Ground Zero. (The first occurred when a memorial statue commission said it intended to “expand” the ethnicity of the three white firefighters into a more inclusive white-black-Hispanic trio.) Now, NYT reports, “Shirley B. Dreifus and her husband, Spiros E. Kopelakis, are asking the firefighters to sign affidavits stating that yes, they did remove the flag from [the couple’s] charter yacht, the Star of America.” Why the affidavit? Of course, Shirley and Spiros aren’t asking for the flag back—how rude even to suggest such a thing. No, they want to establish legal ownership and subsequently donate it to the city. They also want a tax deduction in the amount of the auction value of the flag. But that’s really beside the point. … “We just want to make sure the flag is used appropriately, and not as a crass marketing tool,” Ms. Dreifus tells the Times.