Today's Papers

Making a Molehill Out of a Mountain

The New York Times leads with the Pentagon’s buildup of forces in eastern Afghanistan. Three hundred troops have been added to the battle, and the paper says an additional 21 helicopters are being sent to the scene. (The Washington Post, which fronts but doesn’t lead the battle, puts the chopper supplement at 17.) The Wall Street Journal’s top world-wide newsbox item reports, “Military officials [now] estimate that 600 to 700 fighters originally assembled to battle U.S. forces. U.S. commanders initially said the enemy force numbered only 150 to 200.” The NYT, meanwhile, says the force really did only number about 150 but that their ranks have now “been swollen by the arrival of up to 500 new fighters.” The Los Angeles Times’ top non-local story announces: U.S. FORCES GAIN GROUND IN AFGHAN MOUNTAIN BATTLE. The WP’s lead gloats, “President Bush’s once-high hopes for an economic stimulus plan dominated by tax cuts for U.S. corporations evaporated yesterday, as House Republican leaders agreed to legislation that will focus largely on new benefits for unemployed workers.” USA Today leads with word from the IRS that the average refund so far this tax season is up 12 percent from last year, to $2,091. The WSJ mentioned this yesterday.

The LAT and WP both emphasize a Pentagon spokesperson’s comments that yesterday’s airstrikes killed “several hundred” enemy troops. “We truly have the momentum at this point,” said Maj. Gen. Frank Hagenbeck, the commander of the overall operation. “We own the dominant terrain in the area.” (The LAT adds that only thee U.S. soldiers were injured yesterday, one with a sprained ankle and two with altitude sickness.)

Still, the general warned, “We have intelligence from a variety of sources that the local fundamentalists have called for a jihad against the Americans and their coalition partners.”

Maj. Gen. Hagenbeck also seems to be the source of the confusion about whether the increased number of al-Qaida troops is a result of: 1) reinforcements (NYT and USAT); 2) a revised estimate of how many enemy troops were originally there (LAT and WSJ); or 3) perhaps a combination of 1 and 2 (WP). Most of the papers cite Hagenbeck as the source of their respective conclusions. (Today’s Papers tried, quite unsuccessfully, to find a transcript of Hagenbeck’s comments.)

Citing a military spokesperson, the LAT says U.S. “AC-130 gunships were brought into the fray Wednesday.” The gunships, though, have been in the battle all week.  

“This is the last isolated base of terrorists in Afghanistan,” Afghan leader Hamid Karzai told reporters. “We are determined like hell to finish this.”

The NYT echoes that sentiment: “There is a growing sense that the battle could be the climactic moment of the conflict and may decide whether the Taliban and al-Qaida meet their end as a fighting force in Afghanistan.”

But General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seemed to disagree (or at least tried to downplay expectations of a grand finale). He told the WSJ, “There is a good probability we will see more of this type of activity in the spring.”

The LAT says that at least some al-Qaida troops have adapted to the airstrikes. As the fighters heard jets coming in, they ran inside their cave hideouts. As soon as the jets left, the al-Qaida troops “remerged to taunt their adversaries, grinning and flailing their arms over their heads as they threw stones at the Americans.”

The papers all note that Israel launched massive strikes yesterday, killing 11 Palestinians, including three policemen and three men who were trying to plant a bomb. Two Israeli soldiers were killed, one perhaps by “friendly fire.” Israeli missiles also struck Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s compound, landing just 50 feet from him, while he was meeting with a European Union envoy. Neither man was hurt.

Everybody mentions, and most cast a skeptical eye towards, Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon’s strategy of upping the military pressure.  

“There is no diplomatic horizon,” Sharon told reporters, “only a security horizon.”

As the papers note, Secretary of State Powell isn’t seeing eye-to-eye with Sharon: “If you declare war against the Palestinians thinking that you can solve the problem by seeing how many Palestinians can be killed, I don’t know that that leads us anywhere.”

The WSJ says, “Bush team’s more recent statements and gestures suggest that it is pondering a break from its previous policy of abstaining from active intervention in Israeli-Palestinian problems as long as the violence rages.”

The WP has a great idea: a profile of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which has claimed responsibility for nearly every terrorist attack in Israel recently. Here’s the short version of the frontpage piece:

The Brigades are an offspring of Fatah, the main group in Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. They are akin to the Tanzim, an armed wing of Fatah, but operate semi-independently. Many members once worked in the myriad security forces of Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.Two weeks ago, Fatah tried to disband the Brigades, saying members ought to be part and parcel of Fatah. The Brigades refused. The next day, Brigade members attacked an Israeli checkpoint. No one has talked about breaking up the Brigades since. Palestinian officials acknowledge that the Brigades now have a green light to attack Israeli soldiers and settlers.

The NYT’s letter to the editor section has a correspondence from another supporter of hard-hitting, independent-minded reporting:

“Nightline” is one of the most useful and serious news programs on television. American civil society would truly suffer a loss if “Nightline” were not to continue its tradition of excellence.Ted Koppel and his colleagues have created the model for in-depth news reporting. I have found that “Nightline” is in genuine pursuit of knowledge and truth. Instead of feeling rushed, “Nightline” has been willing to take the time to explore complex issues, giving its viewers insights and understanding that other programs fail to provide.   NEWT GINGRICH
Washington, D.C.