There's bad news today from both Iraq and Afghanistan, where it seems that recent military successes aren't translating into political progress. The New York Timesleads with word that U.S. officials are lowering their expectations in Iraq, dropping plans for an oil-sharing deal and regional elections in favor of less ambitious goals. The Washington Postleads on news that despite a string of combat successes by US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, the White House's major strategic goals for 2007 have not been met. The LA Timesreports on a 4,700-acre wildfire near Malibu; the blaze—the city's worst for almost 15 years—destroyed 49 homes and prompted the evacuation of thousands of residents.
The Bush administration is lowering the bar in Baghdad, pushing for limited but achievable goals in a bid to convince Iraqis and Americans that the military surge is working. Among the new targets: the passage of a $48 billion Iraqi budget, a renewed U.N. mandate for America's presence in Iraq and legislation to permit former Baathists to rejoin the government. The administration's shift comes as the U.S. begins its first major drawdown of troops—and as Democrats seek to strike a balance between acknowledging military successes and blasting political failures. "The purpose of the surge was to create space for political reconciliation and that has not happened," says Hillary Clinton. "We need to stop refereeing their civil war and start getting out of it."
A new National Security Council report on Afghanistan tells a similar story: While troops are winning tactical victories on the battlefield, officials fear a looming strategic failure. Despite military defeats, the Taliban has regained control of formerly secure areas and wrought havoc with suicide-bombing methods imported from Iraq. Meanwhile the economy remains stagnant, poppy cultivation is booming, and Hamid Karzai's government is widely seen as too weak to effect change. "There doesn't seem to be a lot of progress being made," admits one intelligence official.
Across the border in Pakistan, two suicide car bombers attacked military targets yesterday, killing at least 15 people. The NYT reads the blasts as a response to escalating military action against insurgents in the northwest of the country; the LAT warns that failure to contain the militants could presage wider conflict along the border, and reports morale problems in the paramilitary units set up to tackle the insurgency. The Post notes that the attacks came as opposition leader Nawaz Sharif prepared to return from exile, evoking comparisons to the more deadly attack on Benazir Bhutto's supporters last month.
Meanwhile, the NYT reports, President Pervez Musharraf is rapidly losing the support of Pakistan's urban middle-class citizens, who consider his emergency rule illegal and worry that it will cripple the economy. The Post eyes opposition efforts to keep press freedom alive: The hosts of banned TV talk shows have taken to the streets, interviewing politicians and pundits on sidewalk stages in front of raucous crowds.
Everyone covers Australian Prime Minister John Howard's humiliating defeat in yesterday's general election; he lost his own seat as voters backed Kevin Rudd's Labor party. The Post predicts a move away from the policies that made Howard one of George Bush's closest allies: Top of Rudd's to-do list are the ratification of the Kyoto treaty and the withdrawal of Australian combat troops from Iraq.
A Moscow court jailed Garry Kasparov for five days yesterday, reports the Post, after the chess-champion-turned-opposition-leader tried to lead a protest march to the offices of the federal election authorities. City officials said they had given Kasparov's Other Russia coalition permission to hold a rally, but not a march. The NYT says Kasparov called the arrest "a choreographed farce from beginning to end".
Palestinian and Israeli leaders meet tomorrow in Annapolis for U.S.-sponsored peace talks. The LAT notes that Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas have developed a good working relationship, while the Post questions whether that will be enough. "There's never been less skepticism about the peaceful intentions of the leadership of the other side," one analyst tells the NYT. "But there's never been more skepticism about their capabilities to deliver."
The Post gives space above the fold to a startling profile of an Israeli pediatrician who treats Palestinian children by day—and pilots an air force attack helicopter by night. "It's not a dichotomy—it's us," says one of his co-workers. "It's our life as Israelis."
The White House is to modify a crackdown on illegal employment that would have forced companies to fire employees whose Social Security details didn't tally with government records. The NYT reports that the administration effectively conceded the first round of a legal battle over the rules, asking a court to delay further hearings until the new strategy is finalized.