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Malala Yousafzai

Veronique de Viguerie, Getty Images

Pakastani cleric who ordered attack on teen hiding out in Afghanistan

  • Article by: DANA PRIEST
  • Washington Post.
  • November 7, 2012 - 10:27 PM

The Taliban leader who 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 U.S. officials.

U.S. military and intelligence officials said that Mullah Fazlullah, the mastermind of the attack on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, operates out of 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-Qaida 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."

Fazlullah's relative safety reflects a larger trend in the difficult terrain along both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Plenty 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.

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."

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.

The Pakistan government 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 uses northwestern Pakistan as its base for attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan.

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.

A senior intelligence official said U.S. offers of additional training and intelligence support have been turned down by Islamabad, where suspicions of U.S. motives run deep.

"We could share more," the official said. "They actually aren't opening up as much as we would like them to."

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 Pakistan 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.

In June, about 100 of Fazlullah's fighters crossed the border into Pakistan and beheaded 17 soldiers. A year earlier, they had captured 16 Pakistani policemen and executed them by firing squad.

But it was the attempt to assassinate 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai on Oct. 9 that pushed Fazlullah into the limelight.

Since she was 11, Malala had been an outspoken champion of the right of girls to attend school. Last month, she was on her school van when gunmen boarded the bus and shot her twice at close range. Two classmates were also wounded. All three survived and Malala is recuperating in Britain.

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