The Los Angeles Timesand the Washington Postlead with, and the New York Timesfronts, what appears to be a major victory in Afghanistan, as the Northern Alliance, backed by U.S. airstrikes, seizes Mazar-i-Sharif, a key strategic city 200 miles northwest of Kabul. From there, the alliance expects to gain control of "the entire north-central stretch of the country," according to the WP, including an important land bridge to neighboring Uzbekistan. The NYT leads with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who's asking for "gestures" of support from the U.S., mostly in the form of F-16s.
Mazar-i-Sharif fell with "unexpected swiftness," according to the Post; the NYT says it took just half an hour for the opposition troops to move in. "My neighbor got his gun and went to fight against the Taliban and he's already at home," remarks a civilian, in the Post. The more protracted battles outside the city may have demoralized Taliban soldiers, who were said to be "fleeing in droves" (in the words of a U.S. official quoted in the WP) to the east and west. It's possible, but unconfirmed, that many Taliban fighters simply switched sides as the battle turned against them, according to the NYT, while the Post speculates that a deal may have been struck among "local warlords." "Commanders in that area, including Dostum, have been known to switch sides regularly," the WP reports, referring to Northern Alliance Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, whose free-floating allegiances—he actually fought against the Alliance once—earn him a separate profile in the NYT.
Next stop, then, is Kabul, according to the papers. Now that Mazar-i-Sharif appears to be in friendly—or at least not Taliban—hands, an attack on the capital "could be imminent," according to the Post. Troops backed by tanks and artillery have been seen moving south. Although the alliance is expected to do the dirty work in Kabul, Colin Powell said yesterday that the capital should be an "open city" after it's taken, run by the U.N. and not the alliance, the WP reports.
Back to the NYT lead on Musharraf: He's in New York for the U.N. General Assembly and he'll meet with Bush on Saturday. He's looking for war planes (F-16s) purchased from the U.S. in the 1980s, but never delivered because of American objections to the development of nuclear weapons in Pakistan. "The opinion of the people of Pakistan has to be molded," Musharraf says in the Times, "and it can be done through gestures," i.e., planes. No word in the piece on how Bush might respond. Before Sept 11, Musharraf had been "kept at an icy distance by Washington," as both Clinton and Bush seemed to favor India, Pakinstan's neighbor and nuclear rival. Now, as a key member in the coalition against the Taliban and al-Qaida, Pakistan finds itself with some leverage and Musharraf finds he has an audience.
The FBI believes a "loner" is behind the anthrax attacks, according to an LAT fronter. After puzzling over "case studies, handwriting and linguistic analysis, forensic data and other evidence," the bureau figures the culprit is an adult male with "at least limited scientific expertise who was able to use laboratory equipment easily obtained for as little as $2,500 to produce high-quality anthrax." This person is not believed to have any ties to Osama Bin Laden, or anyone else for that matter. The news comes after several recent stories, most notably in the NYT, detailing the befuddled bureau's lack of progress on the case.
The New York Times runs a bristling editorial on the erosion of civil rights in the United States in the aftermath of Sept 11. The paper takes John Ashcroft to task for "in effect suspending the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel" by allowing conversations between prison inmates and their lawyers to be monitored. "He has also refused to provide basic information about the 11,000-plus people who have been arrested and detained in the course of the government's terrorism investigation." The editorial comes on the heels of a new anti-terrorism measure detailed on the paper's front page. Visa applicants who are Arab—specifically, males between the ages of 16 and 45, from 26 nations, many of them U.S. allies—will now have to fill out background questionnaires that will be fed through an FBI database, thereby delaying the visa process by about 20 days. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy says he's "deeply troubled by what appears to be an executive effort to exercise new powers without judicial scrutiny or statutory authorization."