Today's Papers

The Taliban Spreads Out

The New York Timesleads with a look at how members of the Taliban in Pakistan are forging alliances with militants in Punjab, the country’s most populous province. This alliance has already led to some high-profile attacks, such as the assault against the Sri Lankan cricket team in March, and authorities warn that unless swift action is taken, areas of Punjab could soon be overrun by Taliban insurgents. USA Todayleads with a report by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s inspector general that reveals the United Nations spent millions of dollars on poorly built infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. The U.N. diverted some money from a $25 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development for a “quick impact” infrastructure program to other countries and then refused to answer questions from U.S. investigators.

The Washington Postand Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsbox lead with the Obama administration announcing that it would lift restrictions on travel to Cuba by Americans with family on the island as well as limits on remittances. The White House also said U.S. telecommunications companies would be allowed to do business in Cuba. The broad trade embargo that was imposed in 1962 will largely stay in place, but White House officials say the change in rules toward the island would allow Cubans to become less dependent on the communist government. The Los Angeles Timesleads with news that Phil Spector was convicted of second-degree murder yesterday, six years after police found an actress shot to death in the legendary record producer’s mansion. Spector is now “the first celebrity found guilty of murder on Hollywood’s home turf in at least 40 years,” declares the paper. The 69-year-old faces a minimum of 18 years in prison before he is eligible for parole.

Pakistani insurgents with ties to al-Qaida and the Taliban are moving deeper into Pakistan, and officials see their growing alliance with local militant groups in Punjab as a critical step toward expanding their base beyond the country’s lawless tribal regions. Links between the Punjab militants and the Taliban have existed for years, but they have grown stronger. The NYT reports that “signs of creeping militancy abound” in a number of areas in Punjab, where sectarian attacks are growing. Government officials have chosen to largely ignore this development and have left it up to the police to deal with the growing presence of insurgents, but they’re vastly understaffed, particularly in rural areas. The situation on the outskirts of Punjab hasn’t quite reached the levels of the Swat Valley, where a controversial truce was declared in February, but “there are strong parallels,” declares the paper.

So, how bad are things in Swat Valley? The WSJ traveled to the region and fronts a look at how the valley that was once a popular tourist destination has quickly become “one of the main bases for Taliban fighters.” The fighters have quickly moved in, and officials estimate there are now somewhere between 6,000 to 8,000 militants in Swat, which is “nearly double the number at the end of last year.” The insurgents have set up a network of training camps and are recruiting young men, many of whom agree to join in order to secure the safety of their families. The paper talks to a Taliban spokesman who openly admits the militants want to use Swat as a base to expand into neighboring areas. “This is a rest stop for the Taliban, it’s nothing more,” an American official said.

In the USAID report that USAT obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the agency’s inspector general wrote that many questions relating to the U.N. infrastructure program in Afghanistan remain unanswered because the international organization refused to cooperate with the American investigation. The program was meant to demonstrate quick results in Afghan reconstruction efforts, but it seems that around 40 percent of USAID’s grant money was diverted to other countries. Meanwhile, several of the infrastructure projects that were supposedly complete were actually so poorly built that they were unusable.

The White House’s new policy on Cuba effectively allows Cuban-Americans to travel as often as they like and send as much money as they want to the Communist country. That change was largely expected, but news that telecommunications firms would be allowed to do business in Cuba was a surprise. The move is meant to open Cubans up to a vast array of information from the outside world, but it “may be mostly symbolic in the short term,” notes the WSJ. Telecommunications companies would need permission from the Cuban government to operate in the island, and there’s no reason to believe this permission would be granted.

The NYT specifies that yesterday’s announcement amounted to “the most significant shift in United States policy toward Cuba in decades,” but ultimately involved “modest” steps that reflect “the complicated domestic politics around Cuba and the unpredictability of the Cuban response.” People on both sides of the debate criticized the moves, some saying the administration went too far while others contend it didn’t go far enough. The LAT points out that the moves will also “blunt pressure” that Obama is likely to face when he meets with Latin American leaders this week at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

The NYT fronts word that the Obama administration is currently in discussions with European allies to change strategy toward Iran that would drop demands on the country to halt its nuclear programs before talks can take place. Nothing has been finalized, but the proposals currently under discussion would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium during at least the first phase of nuclear talks, and there would be a bigger focus on pressuring Tehran to open up its program to international inspections. The change would amount to a recognition that Iran would never accept a proposal to immediately shut down its nuclear facilities before talks can take place, which the Bush administration had demanded.

The WSJ hears word that Obama will select Fannie Mae’s chief executive, Herb Allison, to lead the $700 billion financial bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Allison, a Wall Street veteran who was an executive at Merrill Lynch for years, would replace Neel Kashkari, who got the posting during the Bush administration and, at the request of the treasury secretary, has stayed on until a replacement was found. If confirmed, the move would mean the White House would have to find new leaders for both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the Columbine massacre, USAT fronts a look at how many of the details that the public thinks it knows about the shooting rampage that killed 13 people are wrong. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren’t part of the “Trenchcoat Mafia,” and they hadn’t been bullied. The massacre made schools watch out for so-called “enemies lists,” but the truth is that the list that Harris and Klebold had written up was made up of students who had graduated a year earlier. And despite the reports at the time, the shooters weren’t on antidepressants and didn’t target any specific type of student. It is now widely accepted that the students wanted to kill everyone at the school, but their plot to carry out a huge bombing failed. 

The NYT and WP report on the auction of items from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch. The “yard sale of the century,” as the Post puts it, is open for public viewing until April 21 and will be followed by a four-day live auction. There are so many items that the auction house conducting the sale set up all the products in a former Robinsons-May department store. Jackson is trying to stop the sale, saying he never got a chance to remove his personal effects, but the auction house that is running the event is confident it will go forward. Among the items up for sale are dozens of bronze garden statues of young children, a red velvet throne, platinum albums, a 7-foot Lego model of Darth Vader, and, of course, gloves. In fact, there are 13 gloves, each covered in “iridescent Swarovski loch rosen crystals,” one of which is estimated at up to $15,000. “What he loved, he collected in mass quantity,” the auctioneer explained. “What is unusual, more so than any other celebrity memorabilia sale, is what a pack rat he was.”