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 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.”
When 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. 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.
“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.
All three people spoke on condition they not be named because they were not authorized to speak for attribution.