The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and New York Timeseach lead with al-Qaida's rout/retreat from its mountain lair. No one's exactly sure what's going on with the al-Qaida troops, but the papers say that hundreds of them, perhaps a few thousand, have fled into Pakistan. The NYT says that Afghan commanders estimated that 200 al-Qaida troops were killed yesterday. But the Post says there was only "sporadic fighting" yesterday and that "most of the force fled." The Post, also citing an Afghan commander, says about 700 al-Qaida soldiers were originally on the mountain, and about 500 or more have escaped. (The NYT says around 2,000 al-Qaida troops are on the lam.) The Wall Street Journaltops its worldwide newsbox with Yasser Arafat's televised speech yesterday in which he promised to "hunt down" Palestinian terrorists and demanded that Palestinians stop all attacks on Israel.
"They've escaped into the snowy mountains," lamented Hazrat Ali, a local militia head, who refused to be a pessimist. "They have nothing to eat, so how can they survive?"
The NYT's lead sentence announces, "American officials said today that al-Qaida had been effectively destroyed in Afghanistan." And Secretary of State Powell said just that. But a few graphs down, the paper notes that Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said, "this a pitched fight. We have Al Qaeda dug into the hillsides in the ridges, in bunkers and in cave complexes."
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld chimed in with his straight-talkin' shtick. "The question is, does that mean it's almost over in that area?" he asked. "I doubt it."
Phooey, said many Afghan fighters. "Al Qaeda is finished! Al Qaeda is finished!" they yelled.
Osama Bin Laden (OBL) still hasn't been found. Gen. Franks said that the United States "simply doesn't know" where he is.
Nor do Afghan commanders. "If you know, please show me," said one. "I'll chase him."
The governor of Afghanistan's eastern province wasn't surprised Bin Laden skedaddled. "He is not a child," said the governor. "For one month, he is understanding what situation was coming here. From one side, snow. From the other side, mujahedeen."
The papers note that many of the area's villages, on both sides of the border, have expressed support for al-Qaida and may help hide them.
The Post says that Pakistani soldiers have picked up 31 al-Qaida troops who were attempting to cross over in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Afghan militia also captured about 50 al-Qaida soldiers, including a commander.
The NYT, in the 27th graph, reports that "several hundred American and British Special Operations troops [have been] leading the attack." Does that mean they're overseeing the attacks, or really leading them, as in charging ahead bayonets fixed? Because if it's the latter, shouldn't it get higher play? (The Post, meanwhile, says, "it's unclear exactly what role the commandos played.")
The LAT reports, "Low-flying helicopter gunships, including heavily armed Apaches and Black Hawks, have been also been blasting the area with howitzers." It's interesting to know that attack helicopters are now being used in the area. But Today's Papers was surprised to learn that they're firing howitzers, since so far as TP knows, helicopters aren't equipped with them.
The NYT, in a news analysis, airs an important, if not surprising, point: "Though they will not say so publicly, some administration officials say that Pakistan may be where the next phase of the war must unfold."
Three U.S. Marines were wounded, one seriously, when one of them stepped on a mine yesterday at the Kandahar airport. The three men have been med-evaced out and are in stable condition, although one soldier may lose a leg. The Marines had been walking through an area that already been sweep for mines.
The LAT notes that some undefined number of al-Qaida soldiers remain in western Afghanistan and near Kandahar.
The WSJ mentions that the British-led peacekeeping force has been delayed because some Afghan leaders are "concerned about the purpose of foreign troops."
The Post goes above the fold with an analysis saying that Afghanistan's wartime tradition of "bartering of freedom for surrender" has had some negative implications: The Taliban's army chief of staff, intelligence chief, and defense and interior ministers are all MIA. Some of them are believed in to be Pakistan trying to get back together.
The Journal calls Arafat's speech his "most explicit appeal" yet to stop attacks on Israel.
The U.S. reacted skeptically. "They are constructive words, but what is important is that he now take concrete action," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Israel was even less impressed. "Prove it right now—in deeds," said a government spokesperson.
U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni couldn't have been very hopeful. He was called back to the U.S. yesterday for "consultations." Secretary of State Powell said it was unclear when Zinni will be back, if at all.
Hours after Arafat's speech—which included a call for Palestinians to stop launching mortars at Israeli settlements—Palestinians launched mortars at an Israeli settlement.
USAT fronts a remarkable in-depth report about the "misconduct in the upper echelons of the U.S. National Guard." In the past decade the commanding officers of nine states' National Guards have misbehaved—including stealing life insurance money meant for the widows of Guardsmen. Most of the transgressors have gotten off scot-free, because, says the paper, "the Guard exist in a gap between federal and state oversight."
Tomorrow USAT will unveil the second part of this series: Some National Guard units have inflated their troop strength reports by as much as 20 percent. Sheesh.
The papers note that India is considering responding to the attack on its Parliament building by bombing terrorist camps in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. The NYT says if that happens, "it could set off a war between the two nuclear-armed nations."
Yesterday's NYT "Week in Review" included an interview with departing columnist Anthony Lewis. Asked what conclusions he had reached after 50 years of reporting, Lewis took a final pop, "One is that certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama Bin Laden, and John Ashcroft."