All three papers lead with Afghanistan's first presidential election yesterday, in which hundreds of thousands of Afghans turned out to vote despite long lines, inclement weather, and the threat of violence from Taliban militants. But though the election remained largely peaceful, its legitimacy was immediately questioned by 15 candidates opposed to incumbent president—and expected winner—Hamid Karzai. The complaints centered on the official method for preventing repeat voting, where each voter has his or her thumb marked with indelible ink after the ballot is cast. The problem: "Many voters found they could erase [the ink] minutes after voting simply with water, and, if they had an extra card, vote again."
After brief consideration, United Nations and Afghan monitors decided not to suspend the voting, claiming that most of the problems had already been corrected. They did, however, pledge to fully investigate the complaints. The results could take weeks to tabulate anyway, since many of the polling places are in remote areas and, notably, most of the election workers are not fully trained—a condition which, according to an overseer quoted in the NYT, is "likely to buttress the case of critics who say the election was rushed to provide a foreign policy success to the Bush administration in advance of November's elections."
The papers note other reported shortcomings in Saturday's electoral process. There were, for instance, only 230 international monitors present at the polls, compared with 16,000 Afghan observers, "75 percent of whom were partisan political operatives" who may have attempted to influence voters (LAT). And only one-fifth of registered voters were given any instruction on what to do with their ballots. The NYT reports that at one mosque in Kabul, "poor, illiterate women, many with deeply damaged eyesight, struggled to understand how to mark their ballots, or even to discern among the candidate photos."
On the brighter side, the lead articles and a couple of supporting pieces do portray the excitement and optimism of an Afghan electorate determined to rid itself of warlord rule and economic instability.
The NYT fronts, the LAT reefers, and the WP stuffs the newly planned cease-fire in Sadr City. Insurgency leader Muqtada Sadr has reportedly reached an agreement with U.S. forces whereby, in that city only, his Mahdi Army would hand over its heavy weapons in return for cash. The papers speculate that Sadr's hand was forced both by the weakening of his militias after weeks of bombardment and eroding support among Sadr City's demoralized residents.
The WP fronts another war dispatch from reporter Steve Fainaru, who's been riding along with various U.S. military outfits getting to know the soldiers. This time he interviews dozens of Marines and finds that many of them are "frustrat[ed] with the way the war is being conducted and, in some cases, [have] doubts about why it is being waged." The article is an excellent close-up and gives a rare (if not totally representative) voice to the troops themselves, a group whose welfare is too often co-opted for use as a rhetorical wedge.
Tempering the Sadr cease-fire news, the LAT runs a front-pager on the increasingly sophisticated efforts by some Iraqi extremist groups to produce chemical and biological weapons. This is according to a "little-noticed" section of the now-famous Duelfer Report (see Slate's coverage), which states that "the risk of a 'devastating' attack [on U.S. troops] with unconventional weapons has grown since the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq last year." A group being called 'the Al Abud network'—which may have been aligned with insurgent leader and al-Qaida sympathizer Abu Musab Zarqawi—"sought to prepare poisons over seven months before it was dismantled in June."
The LAT fronts a sobering and in-depth feature on the 30-year downtrend in the average American's economic stability. It argues that because so many federal "safety net" programs have been scaled back or eliminated—"workers' compensation, welfare, unemployment benefits, Social Security, Medicare, workplace rules, environmental regulations, product liability laws and more"—today's families are at a greater risk of being bankrupted by illness, layoffs, divorce, and other crises.
The WP runs the first in a two-part series on Justice Clarence Thomas, which presents him as a warm, "real" person who likes to have hourslong conversations with friends in his chambers, and who—though very private and perhaps still bitter about his difficult confirmation—is a man of deep principle who routinely goes to bat for causes and people he believes in.
The Sunday Question: Should the U.S. government be funding research on the healing effects of intercessory prayer? The NYT reports that since 2000, at least 10 such studies have been performed with $2.4 million worth of taxpayer help. Some results have been positive. In a 1999 study of heart disease sufferers, for instance, "patients who were prayed for by religious strangers did significantly better than the others on a measure of coronary health that included more than 30 factors." But other doctors have raised questions about data collection and analysis in the studies. Regarding the above trials, critics contend that "the authors measured so many variables that some were likely to come up positive by chance. In effect ... this method is like asking the same question over and over until you get the answer you want."