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