The New York Timesleads with news that the Pentagon has nixed it a 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 the Pentagon has now decided it will only send in regular troops if the Afghans don't do the job. The top story in the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox takes the opposite approach: It waits until the 12th graph to mention the Marines' change of plans (by the way, the original "Marines are going in" story was broken by the NYT) and instead announces, "MORE SPECIAL-FORCES TROOPS MAY JOIN HUNT." The Pentagon is considering that idea; it's not a sure thing. The Los Angeles Times's lead says "clues are piling up" that Richard Reid, the bumbling bomber, is connected to al-Qaida: Some al-Qaida fighters say they saw Reid at one of their training camps in Afghanistan; 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 11 attacks; and finally, authorities have figured out that 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 two-thirds 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 head of Reid's former mosque, who had expelled Reid, theorized that Reid was sent as a "tester" to probe security and see if the shoe-bomb idea would work. The Washington Post leads with India's confirmation that it has moved ballistic missiles to its 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 missile movements to the 22nd paragraph of its India-Pakistan coverage and instead focuses on more positive news: India has, for a short time, delayed a decision to cut back 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 they shouldn't worry about that: "An all-out war between India and Pakistan would make the whole American military campaign seem like a schoolyard fight."
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 has totally different numbers: "The marines now hold 37 prisoners.")
Everybody goes high with the Bin Laden's latest caveside chat. The tape appears to have been made sometime in early December, but it's impossible to be sure at this point. Bin Laden does make a few time-based references, including mentioning that the Sept. 11 attacks 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 himself.
The papers focus on Bin Laden's physical appearance, which the NYT says has "badly deteriorated since the war began." The Times theorizes that "the stress of being the most wanted man in the world has taken a severe toll on him."
USAT, which reefers the tape, 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.
USAT front a side-by-side comparison of a still of Bin Laden in this video versus an earlier shot of him. The difference is striking.
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.
The NYT mentions news that the Marines' prisoners could be on their way to a less than fun-filled cruise to the Caribbean. The paper, which credits 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, result of exporting the troublemakers."
Federalize bouncers ... "Since Sept. 11, I have flown out of airports in Albany, Cincinnati, Madison, and Los Angeles," says one letter-writer to the NYT. "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."