WASHINGTON, Nov 7: US officials have told The Washington Post that Mullah Fazlullah, the mastermind behind attack on Malala Yousafzai, is hiding in eastern Afghanistan but is not their priority target.
The newspaper also cited that International Security Assistance Force advisors as believing that the Afghan army is giving refuge to Pakistani Taliban on its soil in reaction to militants getting a sanctuary on the Pakistani side.
The Pakistani Taliban leader sparked international outrage by ordering the attack on a Pakistani schoolgirl last month has escaped retribution by hiding in a section of eastern Afghanistan where U.S. forces are already spread thin and focused on other targets.
According to the Post, U.S. military and intelligence officials sayt Mullah Fazlullah, the mastermind of the attack on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, operates out a region adjoining Pakistan where several hundred U.S. troops are stationed.
“But they said finding Fazlullah is not a priority because he is not affiliated with al-Qaeda or with insurgents targeting U.S. and Afghan interests.
“Our guys just aren’t tracking him,” a senior Special Operations official said. “He is viewed as an ‘other-side-of-the-border’ problem.”
Asked if Fazlullah was a priority, a senior intelligence official responded, “Not with so many other potential targets” in Afghanistan.
Fazlullah’s relative safety reflects a larger trend in the difficult terrain along both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. In recent years, a lot of attention has been focused on militants attacking U.S. and Afghan troops from havens inside Pakistan. But officials said extremists from Pakistan also have managed to evade the Pakistani army and CIA drones by finding sanctuary in remote parts of Afghanistan.
“The FATA is difficult [for insurgents] because there are drone strikes,” said a congressional staffer, using the acronym for semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Pakistan side of the border. “It’s easier to be in eastern Afghanistan where there’s no real presence” of U.S. troops.
Tom Collins, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, said: “ISAF is maintaining steady pressure on insurgents throughout Afghanistan. Mullah Fazlullah, like many insurgents who are transitory, remains a person of interest. If we receive actionable intelligence that he is in Afghanistan, we will attempt to take him off the battlefield.”
The newspaper noted that collecting accurate intelligence is the most difficult step in locating and attacking enemy forces. In Konar and Nuristan, the two provinces where Fazlullah is believed to be hiding, the problem is tougher because ISAF advisers believe the Afghan army is allowing the Pakistani Taliban to operate in retribution for Pakistan not doing enough to stop cross-border rocket attacks and armed infiltrators using Pakistan as a haven.
However, the story points out that not all Pakistani militants escape attack inside Afghanistan. On Aug. 25, one of the group’s senior leaders was killed in a NATO air strike. ISAF said the leader, Mullah Dadullah, was helping fighters who had attacked Afghan and coalition forces and had close ties with al-Qaeda. Fazlullah, on the other hand, remains focused on Pakistan and he is not believed to have ties to al-Qaeda or attacks on coalition or Afghan forces.
Islamabad has criticized both the United States and Afghanistan for not trying harder to capture or kill Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan. Washington, for its part, has long accused Pakistan of refusing to take on the Haqqani network, which, it says, uses northwestern Pakistan as its base for attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The report said more aggressively targeting the Pakistan Taliban would divert military resources, particularly drones and other surveillance capacity, to the region at a time when personnel and assets are being reduced in anticipation of the end of combat operations in 2014.
But some experts say that reducing the threat to Pakistan’s stability from its homegrown extremists should be a vital goal.
“I think it is in the U.S. interest to go after the threats to Pakistan because our policy and long-term interests are to have a stable Pakistan,” said Wendy Chamberlin, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and now president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.
The existence of a haven for Pakistani militants inside Afghanistan feeds the distrust that has developed between the United States and Pakistan since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, said Moeed Yusuf, who heads the Pakistan program at the United States Institute of Peace.
“Both sides have really been caught up for a long time in the blame game,” he said.
The number of insurgents taking refuge in the border region has increased in recent years, particularly on the Afghan side, according to the congressional staffer, who follows the region closely.
Besides small numbers of al-Qaeda fighters, the militant population includes the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and a growing number of extremists from Punjab.
“It’s a jihadi soup,” said the congressional staffer.
Fazlullah, also known as Mullah Radio because he uses a mobile clandestine radio transmitter to broadcast didactic speeches denouncing girls’ education, music and all things Western, sought safety in Afghanistan sometime in 2009. He fled Paksitan after leading a gruesome campaign in Swat Valley, seeking to impose his extreme interpretation of Sharia law through beheadings, floggings, bombing girls’ schools and killing hundreds of civilians, Pakistani police and soldiers.
- U.S. confession belies Afghan stance on ‘most wanted’ Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah (indiavision.com)
- US lawmaker urges enduring US-Pakistan ties, despite current differences (myglobalcommunitytoday.wordpress.com)
- Afghanistan feels pressure in hunt for Swat Taliban chief (bbc.co.uk)
- Cleric who ordered attack on girl not a target (triblive.com)
- Malala targeted by Fazlullah-led Taliban – The News International (thenews.com.pk)
- Is This Man To Blame for the Attack on Pakistani Schoolgirl? (pbs.org)