The New York Timesleads with word from southern Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters have driven government troops out of a key strategic area within striking distance of Kandahar. The Washington Post leads with a bleak look at Iraq's energy infrastructure, which still fails to provide Iraqis with more than a few hours of electricity a day despite massive US investments. The LA Timeslooks ahead to the coming month's Congressional clashes over Iraq: Expect a rerun of July's battle, with Bush resisting major strategy changes while Democrats struggle to muster the votes to impose a timetable for withdrawal.
A year ago, Canadian and American troops drove hundreds of Taliban fighters out of the Panjwai and Zhare districts southwest of Kandahar. In the last six weeks, though, insurgents have reclaimed control of a broad tract of the region, highlighting a bloody stalemate that is emerging across the country: Insurgents are no match for NATO troops in a pitched battle but can easily overpower or intimidate local police forces once Western soldiers leave. Officials in southern provinces said the Taliban's successes came as the group gained broader support, evolving from a close-knit ideological movement into a looser alliance of tribes disenchanted with the central government.
Since the invasion of Iraq, the United States has poured more than $6 billion into repairing the country's creaking oil and electricity infrastructure, but according to GAO estimates, more than $50 billion more will be required in coming years—and even if the money can be found, it's unlikely that the Iraqi energy sector will be able to meet demand before 2015. Officials said Iraq was caught in a catch-22: More fuel is needed to boost electricity production, but without adequate electricity supplies, it's nearly impossible to run the country's pipelines and refineries.
The LAT argues that Congress is unlikely to make any substantial breakthroughs as it debates Iraq this month—"It's going to be Groundhog Day," predicts one Senate aide—but notes that the renewed focus on the conflict could lead to a reevaluation of America's post-surge strategy. The NYT reports that while the surge has led to some successes in Baghdad, levels of violence across the country as a whole have spiked in recent months. Meanwhile, the NYT magazine looks the surge's role in shaping unlikely new alliances between American troops and Sunni tribes in Anbar and Diyala provinces.
The NYT fronts a chilling look at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, where the Bush administration has slashed budgets and installed industry-friendly officials. "Buyer beware—that's all I have to say," says the agency's former chief poison expert, who resigned recently in protest.
The NYT fronts, and the Post reports inside, on Sen. Larry Craig's decision—following sustained pressure from GOP leaders—to step down after his arrest in a men's-room sting. Both the NYT and the Post note that the party's tough line contrasts with the more lenient approach it has taken toward politicians who erred with women; the NYT's op-ed contributors draw parallels with a previous same-sex scandal and argue that police should quit wasting their time on toe-tapping toiletgoers.
The Post notes that Craig's downfall leaves the GOP facing an uphill struggle in the 2008 Senate elections; the party has 22 seats to defend and little campaign cash to play with. The LAT fronts a look at independent voters, who appear to be tilting—slightly reluctantly—toward the Democrats: "If 2004 was the year of the red-meat message to the party base, 2008 is shaping up as a time for the soft sell to the middle."
In Gaza, a Palestinian teenager was killed and several others wounded yesterday as Hamas security forces opened fire while trying to disperse a rally near the Egyptian border; the NYT notes that the incident came amid growing tensions between Hamas and its rival, Fatah. The NYT also reports from the West Bank, where hundreds of Palestinian children scratch a living by scavenging for food and scrap metal in dumped garbage from nearby Jewish settlements.
John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton yesterday joined the other Democratic presidential hopefuls in pledging not to campaign in Florida, Michigan, or any other state that scheduled its primary vote before Feb. 5, the earliest date allowed under Democratic party rules. The NYT notes that the move reaffirms the importance of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, giving new hope to second-tier candidates who lack the funds to campaign more widely. Meanwhile, the NYT reviews The Argument, Matt Bai's book-length look at the Democrats: The NYT magazine writer bashes the party's billionaires and bloggers for failing to do the heavy thinking needed to transform American politics.
Eight years after the Elián González row, the NYT reports that Miami's Cuban-American community is squaring off for another custody fight: A Cuban farmer wants custody of his 4-year-old daughter following the death of her mother. The child is currently in the care of Joe Cubas, a real-estate mogul known for helping Cuban baseball stars defect to America during the 1980s.