Iraq tactics may not aid bin Laden hunt
WASHINGTON -- The tactics that US troops used to track down Saddam Hussein are unlikely to help allied forces in Afghanistan find Osama bin Laden, according to military officials and national security specialists.
The US military probably will share the lessons learned from the hunt for the deposed Iraqi dictator, but the fanatical nature of bin Laden's supporters, the treacherous terrain along the Afghan-Pakistani border where the Al Qaeda leader is believed to be hiding, and the relatively small numbers of allied forces in the region make him a much more elusive quarry, the specialists said.
Finding Hussein was a major public relations coup for the Bush administration, but many national security specialists contend that in terms of protecting the United States domestically, bin Laden is a more critical target because he runs a terrorist network with global reach.
A key moment in the hunt for Hussein, according to US military leaders, occurred when they shifted their focus away from trying to nab Hussein directly and started pressuring those around him -- bodyguards, drivers, aides, and their families.
"What we realized early on in the summer is that we believe the people we had to get to were the midlevel individuals," Major General Ray Odierno of the Fourth Infantry Division said Sunday.
But bin Laden's support network is believed to be much harder to penetrate because of his popularity in the mountainous, lawless border area and the fanatical quality of his followers.
Hussein "has far fewer supporters than, say, the Taliban, and in some cases, in certain parts of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda. The level of support that Osama bin Laden gets is more fanatical," said Marine Major Pete Mitchell, a spokesman for the US Central Command that oversees military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That fanaticism makes it much harder to extract information.
"The Ba'ath's a secular group. Saddam is secular . . . It's much easier to penetrate that kind of group," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former counterterrorism specialist with the Central Intelligence Agency. "It's much harder to penetrate a religiously inspired group like Al Qaeda."
Mitchell also said the traditional cultures of Iraq and Afghanistan place great importance on safeguarding guests.
"In the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein certainly angered [Iraqis] and burned a lot of bridges . . . through his actions and the actions of his sons. So perhaps there was a little bit less willingness on behalf of people to take him in," he said.
Bin Laden also has the advantage of hiding in a much larger and more treacherous region. Hussein was found in a town near his ancestral home of Tikrit and was always suspected of being in that general area in central Iraq. Bin Laden is assumed to be in the remote mountains on the Afghan-Pakistani border, which stretches 1,500 miles.
And while the United States has roughly 130,000 soldiers in Iraq, there are only about 10,000 in Afghanistan, according to Lieutenant Colonel Brian Hilferty, spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force 180, which is handling Afghan operations. Nevertheless, US forces are trying to overcome the geographical and cultural issues. The latest effort is called Operation Avalanche: Working in conjunction with Pakistan's armed forces and tribal Afghan fighters, the United States is trying to cover six southeast Afghan provinces, "an area the size of California," said Hilferty, who is from Arlington. In comparison, most previous such operations covered two or three provinces.
While the United States and allied troops are trying to disrupt and destroy enemy forces, they are seeking to win the hearts and minds of the locals with the hopes that it will lead to greater trust and a crucial tip, he said. "The global war on terrorism is intelligence-driven. The best intelligence is human intelligence."
Robert Schlesinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.