Today's Papers

Guerrillas in the Midst

Everybody leads with what the Washington Post describes as the “largest U.S. ground assault of the war” in Afghanistan. The papers note that the Pentagon hasn’t released many details about the battle. But the gist, which everybody picks up, is that rather than a direct assault, which seemed to go so poorly on Saturday, allied forces (including contingents from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Norway) have decided to simply surround the al-Qaida guerrillas and let warplanes bomb them.

As everybody reports, unlike most previous operations in Afghanistan, conventional U.S. ground troops have been used directly in combat. According to both the New York Times and WP, 34 American soldiers have been wounded, none with life-threatening injuries. (The Wall Street Journal puts that number at only 14, but Today’s Papers bets that that’s a mistake, since the Post reported that a Pentagon official said that of the 34 injured, “14 had already returned to the battlefield.”) Meanwhile USA Today reports that an Afghan commander says he saw another American soldier killed, in addition to the one that’s already been reported. The paper says the Pentagon “couldn’t confirm” the death.  Everybody also reports that a number of U.S. helicopters were hit by enemy gunfire, though none were shot down. 

The papers note that the Pentagon disputed claims that there are 5,000 al-Qaida and Taliban troops in the battle. Instead, the military said there are hundreds of them.

A Los Angeles Times news analysis gives the operation its nod of approval, saying the Pentagon has addressed the problems that plagued last year’s campaign in Tora Bora, namely that so many al-Qaida fighters escaped: “This time, defense officials and military analysts say, the Pentagon is doing it differently.” That may be, but as the Post emphasizes, this operation’s initial attack, at least, hasn’t gone too smoothly. According to the paper, U.S.-led forces were on their way to attack a group of al-Qaida remnants, when the al-Qaida forces opened up with a withering mortar and machine gun attack. According to the Post, “The al-Qaida shelling kept the U.S.-led forces off balance and [the allied troops] eventually retreated about six miles.”

Everybody notes comments, from what appears to be the same “senior defense official,” that the Pentagon  had been preparing this assault for weeks. The Post adds that the planning for it “went all the way up to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.” The NYT adds that it went all the way up to the president.

The WP quotes a number of Afghan soldiers and commanders who were incredulous at what they saw as the sloppiness of the U.S. plan. “The American command was really bad,” said one wounded Afghan fighter. Added another,  “They went ahead without making trenches, without reinforcing their positions. And then they were cut off. They retreated really badly.”

The NYT interviews some residents in the area who say that no top-ranking al-Qaida or Taliban figures have been, or are in, the neighborhood.

Trying to explain why so few details are known about the operation, the NYT says, “Faced with the intensity of the bombing, Western reporters were unable to move closer to the center of the fighting than Zormat, a district town that appears to have acted as a rallying point for Taliban and al-Qaida fugitives.” Bombs, though, may not be the only things stopping reporters from getting to the scene. Yesterday’s NYT reported that the Pentagon “barred” Western reporters from reaching the area. Today’s Times doesn’t mention if that policy has changed.

The NYT gives a good sense of what kind of environment this battle is taking place in: on a mountain range with nearly 12,000-foot peaks. 

Yesterday, the papers quoted a Pentagon spokesperson suggesting that some U.S. troops were in trouble: “As of right now we’ve got some of our people who need help.” What happened to them?

The LAT mentions that an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale struck Afghanistan yesterday. It’s not yet known how many people died.

Everybody fronts violence in Israel. Yesterday, a Palestinian sniper opened fire on an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank, killing 10 people, seven of them soldiers. Twenty-one Israelis have been killed in the past 24 hours.

The papers say that responsibility for the attack was claimed by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which the LAT describes as, “a militia linked to Arafat’s Fatah movement.” Once again (and for the last time), Today’s Papers suggests that somebody do an article describing what’s known about those connections. 

The papers report that Israel—which declared that it would put “continuous military pressure” on Arafat—retaliated with airstrikes against Palestinian Authority targets, killing four Palestinian police officers. Israeli troops also entered a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and in subsequent clashes killed three Palestinians, including one gunman and two civilians. 

The Post says that of the nine people killed in Saturday’s suicide bombing in an Orthodox neighborhood, seven were from the same family.

Everybody notes that the much-discussed Saudi peace plan might already be dead. An aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed it out of hand, while Libya and Syria dissed it as well.

Following on reports from NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof and others, the WP stuffs a news dispatch from the Philippines questioning the U.S.’s choice of targets in that country: “Concentrating on the small group of Abu Sayyaf rebels, the U.S. effort sidesteps bigger and potentially more dangerous groups with stronger connections to Bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network.” (By the way, this WP story was bybusy guy Doug Struck, who just a few  weeks ago was in eastern Afghanistan—having a gun pointed at him by U.S. commandos.)

The NYT does a front-page piece reporting, “With the Senate likely to approve landmark restrictions on political fund-raising, Republicans and Democrats are mounting an aggressive, last-ditch drive to collect unrestricted checks from wealthy donors before such donations are banned.” According to last week’s WP, “As legislation to overhaul campaign finance laws nears final passage, leaders of both parties have launched all-out, last-chance drives to raise millions of dollars in ‘soft money’ donations, which may become illegal by year’s end.”