“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.
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.
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.
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.