The New York Timesleads with news that the Pentagon has nixed it plan to send hundreds of marines into Tora Bora. Instead, the U.S. is pushing Afghan forces to do the checking, and is helping to convince them by "offering incentives like weapons, money and winter clothing." The Times says that only the Pentagon has now decided it will only send in regular troops if the U.S. can't convince the Afghans to do the job. "We've not moved any marines into Tora Bora, but that remains an option," said Col. Rick Thomas, a Central Command spokesman. " The Wall Street Journalworld-wide newsbox lead takes the opposite approach. It waits until the 12th graph to mention the Marines (a story, by the way, originally broken by the NYT) and instead announces, "MORE SPECIAL-FORCES TROOPS MAY JOIN HUNT." Apparently, while the Pentagon is holding off the Marines, it is still considering sending in a large contingent of Special Forces guys to search with the Afghans. The Los Angeles Times's lead says "clues are piling up" that Richard Reid, the bumbling bomber, had some sort of al-Qaida connection: He was known as a disciple of an extremist cleric; he attended the same mosque as Zacarias Moussaoui, the man currently charged with conspiring in the Sept 11th attacks; and some al-Qaida fighters say they saw Reid at one of their training camps in Afghanistan. Finally, authorities has figured out the explosive compound in his shoes is PETN, which is 1) difficult for civilians to get and 2) has been used by terrorists in the past. USA Todaydevotes the top 2/3 of its page to a look back at the images of 2001, while the top (make that the only) front-page news article is about Reid's links to al-Qaida. The Washington Postleads with India's confirmation that it has moved ballistic missiles to the border with Pakistan. India said it was merely responding to similar moves by Pakistan.
Nobody is sure whether either country's missiles are armed with nukes, but then, as one expert put it, "if Indian radar picks up a missile, what do you think would happen?"
The LAT leaves the missiles movements to the 22nd paragraph of its India-Pakistan coverage and instead focuses on more positive news: India has put off an impending decision to cutback diplomatic and economic relations with Pakistan.
The Post says, as has been noted before, "Some Indian officials say the military buildup is less a prelude to armed conflict and more an effort to force Musharraf to crack down on the militant groups."
But then the paper quotes an Indian politics expert, "If people in the West think this is all just for show, they're making a grave mistake."
Meanwhile, some U.S. officials voiced concern that the escalating tensions could interfere with the search for Bin Laden. But one diplomat said that's ridiculous: "An all-out war between India and Pakistan would not just disrupt the hunt for bin Laden, it would make the whole American military campaign seem like a schoolyard fight."
"If we can convince Ali to start working the caves in a more aggressive manner, we might not have to go in," the American official said. "We are talking about things that matter to him like weapons and money. He is thinking about it."
Besides the fact that Tora Bora is a dangerous place—filled with mines, unexploded ordinance, and perhaps booby-traps—the NYT says another issue holding back the Marines back is that TB happens to be located in a fundamentalist province of Afghanistan. Thus the U.S. is keen on keeping a low presence there.
The WSJ mentions that the Marines took another prisoner into custody yesterday, perhaps the Taliban's former chief of staff. U.S. forces in Afghanistan now have "25 detainees." (The NYT, by the way, has totally different numbers: "The marines now hold 37 prisoners…")
Everybody goes high with the Bin Laden's latest cave-side chat. The tape appears to have been made sometime in early December, but it's impossible at this point to be sure. Bin Laden does make a few time-based references, including mentioning that the Sept. 11 happened "three months ago." It's also hard to figure out where the tape was made, especially since it seems that Bin Laden has gotten savvy and put up a sheet behind him to lower the possibility of his locale being recognized.
Instead papers focus on Bin Laden's physical appearance, which the NYT says has "badly deteriorated since the war began." The paper theorizes that "the stress of being the most wanted man in the world has taken a severe toll on him."
USAT reefers the tape, but does front a side-by-side comparison of a still of Bin Laden from this tape and an image of him from an earlier tape. The difference is striking.
USAT offers a somewhat different explanation for Bin Laden's pasty looks: he hasn't had much time to work on his tan because, duh, he's been staying in a cave.
Afghanistan's new foreign minister, Abdullah (who you might know from such roles as, foreign minister of the Northern Alliance) said yesterday that it may take up to two years to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaida's presence.
The NYT mentions news that the prisoners could be on their way to a less than fun-filled cruise to the Caribbean. The paper, crediting NBC with breaking the news, says the military is preparing to send some of the prisoners to the U.S. base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The NYT fronts a long article arguing that Saudi Arabia let many of its disaffected youth go abroad to fight foreign wars as a sort of safety valve. "The Saudis' policies made the world safer for Saudi Arabia and the Saudi regime," said one U.S. diplomatic. "And I don't think it was their intention to make it unsafe for the United States. But that was the actual, if unintended of exporting the troublemakers."
One letter-writer to the NYT says all the talk about airport security is bunk: "Since Sept. 11, I have flown out of airports in Albany, Cincinnati, Madison, and Los Angeles," he writes. "And I have yet to go through a security check as thorough as the one at the hip-hop show I attended at a New York City nightclub last week."