The U.S. plays a dangerous sanctuary game

by Alec Metz on 11/7/2012 · 4 comments

Maulana Fazlullah

The Washington Post reported yesterday that not only does the U.S. know Maulana Fazlullah (“Radio Mullah”), the Pakistani Taliban allied TNSM leader accused of killing Pakistani government forces and figures (including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto), overrunning Swat in 2007, and ordering the execution of Malala Yousufzai, is hiding in Eastern Afghanistan, but that ISAF doesn’t plan on doing much about it. Pakistan has been asking Afghanistan to turn him over for weeks, to little effect. According to Pakistani news reports, Fazlullah is currently just across the border from Swat in Kunar, a horribly difficult if target rich area for Afghan forces and ISAF . That may be part of the problem; with the end of the surge in Afghanistan, manhunts in Eastern Afghanistan with winter setting in are only getting more difficult. An ISAF spokesman 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.”

Which would be understandable, but that according to one unnamed-but-senior-official:

“Our guys just aren’t tracking him,” a senior Special Operations official said. “He is viewed as an ‘other-side-of-the-border’ problem.”

Pakistan has long been suspected/accused/found to be playing games in sheltering fugitives from Afghanistan and ISAF, from Osama to the Haqqanis. ISAF has tried various measures to circumvent what has been described as Pakistani reticence to tackle those militants hiding in Pakistan, from direct raids to drone strikes to sanctions. This may mark a new strategy; playing the game Pakistan is accused of playing. And it’s a bad idea.

Border Sanctuaries

One issue the U.S. faces in the AfPak region is that it is often seen as omniscient, and it is not. In this case, the possible lack of ability  to locate Fazlullah is taken to mean a lack of interest; and that can only harm ISAF/Afghan-Pak cooperation. Another issue is that the U.S. is apparently dismissive of Fazlullah because he’s not an actor in Afghanistan. This is a logic that has resonance in Pakistan: one commentator in Pakistan posted the following comment on the Pakistani Express Tribune webpage:

Dear America

We are not targeting the Haqqani network because it is not affiliated with the TTP or with insurgents attacking Pakistani interests

With Love

Pakistan Army

First, the list of crimes Fazlullah stands accused of is long, and his most recent, the attempt on a 14 year-old girl’s life, is particularly heinous and condemning, according to both domestic and international public opinion. He has not targeted ISAF or Afghan forces nearly as much as other terrorists such as the Haqqanis, but that’s not out of respect; he simply considers his stomping ground the other side of the border. Like his peer the late Baitullah Mehsud, he has the potential to become much more of a thorn in ISAF, Afghan, and Pakistani security situations, and if ISAF and the U.S. truly want to approach terrorism and militantism in the region from a regional perspective, Fazlullah will be one of their main opponents.

Second, by not pursuing him, ISAF runs the risk of further harming ISAF/Pakistan relations. Pakistan, through its tribal territories, madrassah networks, and militant depth, has the ability to hurt Afghanistan and the international forces operating there much more than Pakistan will be hurt by the sheltering of Fazlullah in Kunar. The Haqqani network is only one example of that; there are many others.

Ratcheting up the pain border sanctuaries can cause a neighbor is a dangerous game.  The U.S. should look at alternate courses of action. And make an effort to bring a bad actor to justice.


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– author of 18 posts on Registan.net.

Alec Metz is an independent policy analyst focusing on security and development in South and Central Asia.

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{ 4 comments }

Afghan November 8, 2012 at 9:10 am

Thank you for the analysis. The problem isn’t these “little” players. The big problem is Pakistan playing games with the international community and specifically with Afghanistan. Asking from the international community to chase Fazlullah doesn’t solve the problem; Osama Bin Laden their big gun was eliminated, and it hardly made a difference. The United States should become serious about handling Pakistan and the rest of the cards should come to order. Since Pakistan has been harboring and supporting terrorism and doing it for decades it is time for sanctions and other measures where it will hurt them militarily and moneteraily. Otherwise, going after the small fish is just going to take resources and man power that could be better utilized elsewhere.

In a nutshell, you want to stop terrorism in the region and the world: Stop the Pakistani military and ISI.

anan November 10, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Afghan, the US has little influence over Pakistan. If the US really wanted a shot across the bow towards the deep state, the US could commit itself long term to the ANSF training commands and strengthening the ANSF. Invite India, Russia and Iran to help the ANSF as well. And use America’s international leverage to convince other countries such as Turkey, Europe, Japan and South Korea to do more to help the ANSF long term.

This “MESSAGE” would be heard load and clear inside Pakistan, transform the regional balance of power and change everything. Short of a strong ANSF strategy, it is hard to see how the US could influence Pakistan.

For his own reasons in 2010 President Obama decided against a strong ANSF strategy. I hope that what President Obama got in return from the Gulf and Pakistani Army was worth it.

anan November 10, 2012 at 1:32 pm

Alec Metz, maybe we can talk offline about Kunar province. Up to you.

Much of Kunar is now ANSF lead. The fight is very kinetic (with the ANA absorbing and inflicting enormous casualties). And at least in Kunar there appear to be a record number of foreign fighters, many linked closely to the deep state. Fazlullah is a major threat to the ANSF and ISAF, but what are they suppose to go after him with? That 2-201 ANA bde is doing as much as it is is remarkable.

A fundamental problem in Kunar is that there are not enough ANSF. Nor can there be unless the MoD/MoI training command budgets are increased. This is the result of President Obama’s decision in 2010 to overrule the MChrystal/Caldwell/Petraeus ANSF build up strategy. Obama’s decision has consequences, including the surging number of international militants operating inside Afghanistan and their growing sanctuaries.

Afghan November 11, 2012 at 10:35 am

Dear Anan, there is plenty the US can do to stop Pakistan. The question is, is the US ready to take action. Supporting ANA is one solution, but curtailing the billions to Pakistan, restricting its ability to acquire Western military hardware, and designating it as a state sponsor of terrorism will provide results.

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