The Los Angeles Times leads with word that a faction of the Taliban want to drop their guns and battle via the ballot box. The piece, which is sourced to "Taliban leaders" and others, says the renegade commanders are already in negotiations with Afghanistan's government. The Washington Postleads with a U.S.-funded poll in Iraq showing eroding faith in the interim government—from 62 percent two months ago to 43 percent now. Still, only a slight plurality of respondents (45 percent) said the country was heading in the wrong direction. The New York Timesleads with mostly unnamed intel officials offering their evolving understanding of the insurgency. For those following Iraqi press reports, there's little new here: The insurgency appears to be made up of dozens of groups, some of which have "unlimited" funding via Arab businessmen and charities. The vast majority of fighters, including terrorists who target civilians, are believed to be Iraqis. "It's a loose confederation of interests as well as marriages of convenience,'' said one Marine officer. USA Todayleads (at least online) with a few election-related lawsuits already filed in Florida.
The NYT's lead says the military estimates that 80 percent of Iraq's "violent attacks" (however that's defined) are caused by criminals with no political motivation. The Associated Press, which has a similar piece, quotes one official who said Iraqi security forces have been "heavily infiltrated" by insurgents.
"RELIGIOUS LEADERS AHEAD IN IRAQ POLL," says the Post's lead. "We're in a position now that the moderates would not win if an election were held today," an unnamed U.S. official says in the money quote. But the story doesn't mention until after the jump that a number of leading figures were left off the poll. What is more, the one who got the top support, Abdel Aziz Hakim, is from SCIRI, a Shiite group that is less than fundamentalist. The Boston Globe recently said SCIRI is "talking less and less about Islam" and instead "preaches secular democracy."
The NYT off-leads a top U.N. official saying preparations for the coming Iraqi elections are actually coming along fine. The official said the U.N. doesn't need more than the handful of international workers it has in Baghdad since Iraqis will be running the show. The Times doesn't have any independent analysts smell-test that.
The papers mention that gunmen attacked a bus carrying Iraqi airport workers, killing seven, including six women. Another dozen workers were "severely wounded." Two Iraqi national guardsmen were also killed by gunmen in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood. As usual, blogger Juan Cole has the most comprehensive wrap-up on the day in Iraq.
The LAT and Post both cite unnamed officials as saying a handful of detainees released from Gitmo have returned to fight in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The LAT says eight have done so. The Post says 10 have been killed or captured. One former detainee recently bragged to reporters via sat phone about how he fooled interrogators into thinking he was someone else. In total, about 200 detainees have been freed.
The Post makes the case (complete with CYA question mark) that Nader is a non-issue: "A FADING 'NADER FACTOR'?" Last week, the NYT had a slightly different perspective: "NADER EMERGING AS THE THREAT DEMOCRATS FEARED."
In one of this year's must reads, the Post's Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer offer a nearly 5,000 word, heavily reported assessment of President Bush's record against al-Qaida. The administration is still focused on trying to "decapitate the beast," as the current counter-terrorism chief put it, and on countering the threat of state-sponsorship. Here's a long summary of the story:
Going after the leaders had some success in the beginning. But al-Qaida has become more a movement than organization, a change that a "dozen of current and former officials" say the White House has been "slow to adapt" to. When appointed this summer, the current counter-terrorism chief said, "In many ways you're talking about a group with a command-and-control structure." Meanwhile, the number of "leaders" captured has been petering off. Eight were captured in 2002, and just one so far this year. Also, last year the administration said one third of known-leaders have been captured or killed, while the president has been saying on the stump that the figure is "three-quarters." The administration declined to explain the discrepancy.
The second part of the strategy, the focus on state sponsorship, led to Iraq. "Scores of career national security officials and political appointees" emphasized the opportunity costs of the invasion, which has become a "voracious consumer of time, money, personnel and diplomatic capital." The Atlantic Monthly's James Fallows wrote about those concerns. But Gellman and Linzer add significant detail:
The CIA closed forward bases in the cities of Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar. The agency put off an $80 million plan to train and equip a friendly intelligence service for the new U.S.-installed Afghan government. Replacements did not keep pace with departures as case officers finished six-week tours. And Task Force 5—a covert commando team that led the hunt for bin Laden and his lieutenants in the border region—lost more than two-thirds of its fighting strength.
"It's been extraordinary painful, very frustrating," said a member of one elite military unit who watched what he considered the main enemy slip away. Even now, with a modest resurgence in U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, the task force "is not getting as much attention from the home office as Iraq."
"Strong majorities of several dozen officers and officials interviewed" agreed that the fight against al-Qaida is more than an outright war. It is "a political struggle," said one former Bush counterterrorism chief. "The military has to be coordinated with the other elements of national power." The administration has recognized that, in fits. For instance, it proposed spending $300 million to replace Saudi funding of madrasas in Pakistan. The Post notes, "The plan did not survive the White House budget request."