Published December 15, 2003
KABUL, Afghanistan – The capture of Saddam Hussein (search) could make it easier to catch the world's other top fugitive — Al Qaeda mastermind Usama bin Laden (search) — and dampen support for the growing insurgency in Afghanistan, allied officials here said Sunday.
Bin Laden is believed to be hiding in the mountainous no man's land between Pakistan and Afghanistan, possibly feeding off the support of deeply conservative tribal villagers who share his hardline vision of Islam.
That support, and the mountainous conditions, have helped him elude one of the largest dragnets in history. The one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar (search) is also on the lam, as is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister who has joined the battle against U.S. troops and the Afghan government.
Saddam's capture "is obviously good news for the people of Iraq who suffered for so long under Saddam's tyrannical regime and it is a warning to all the other outlaws who are at large like bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who hopefully sooner or later will be brought to justice," Omar Samad, a spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, told The Associated Press.
Still, the minister in charge of internal security forces warned against comparing Iraq — where it took eight months to capture the ousted leader — with Afghanistan, where the top fugitives remain at large two years after the Taliban fell.
"It's totally different terrain, a different situation and a different social structure," Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said of the reasons bin Laden has not yet been caught. "In the tribal areas, control is very weak."
Still, he said, "I think eventually they will be caught. They will not wander forever."
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty insisted the arrest would be a help.
"The fate of Saddam Hussein will increase the human intelligence the people here are already giving us as they help in the fight against the enemies of Afghanistan," he told AP from Bagram Air Base, U.S. military headquarters.
Officials say Sunday's images of a captured Saddam, looking tired with a wild, unkempt beard, might give pause to potential militants thinking of taking on the U.S.-led coalition here.
"A lot of what we see [in Afghanistan] is irrational and misguided," said German Lt. Gen. Goetz Gliemeroth, commander of a 5,500-strong international peacekeeping force that patrols the Afghan capital. "Whoever tends toward extremism might now think twice about it."
Taliban rebels and their Al Qaeda allies have been waging an ever-fiercer campaign against U.S. troops, the Afghan government and aid workers seeking to rebuild the country. A cascade of bloodshed in recent months has forced the United Nations to pull international staff out of huge swaths of the southeast.
Security officials have said they saw signs that rebels in Afghanistan were feeding off tactics employed in Iraq, targeting U.N. workers and others seen as helping the United States.
Talat Masood, a Pakistani military analyst who closely follows Afghanistan, said news of Saddam's capture would echo loudly through Al Qaeda and the Taliban's mountain lairs.
"There is a psychological synergy between the resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, so if there is any setback in Iraq it will have a ripple effect in Afghanistan," he said. "Bin Laden and his group will be on the defensive and demoralization may set in."
News of the capture rippled through the enormous Kabul tent housing a historic Afghan constitutional council, or loya jirga, with many of the 500 delegates expressing solidarity with the Iraqi people, and passing along congratulations to the United States.
But on the streets of Kabul, there was a more ominous message from many ordinary Afghans.
"It's a black day," said Mohammed Sharif, a 20-year-old student from Kabul University. "Saddam was a great holy warrior in the Islamic world and a supporter of Islam."
Even some of Afghanistan's new Western-trained police said they were saddened to hear of the capture, despite the scenes of jubilant Iraqis celebrating Saddam's downfall.
"I don't want any Muslim to be captured by infidels," said Zulfiqar Jalali, a 27-year-old officer standing outside a police station on a traffic-congested Kabul street. "Saddam is an Iraqi and has the right to live freely in his country."