September 3, 2008— -- ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistani troops in the country's tribal areas recently discovered the location of Al Qaeda's number two but "missed" a chance to capture him, according to the politician who oversees Pakistan's Frontier Corps.
Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior ministry chief, told a group of foreign journalists that the military obtained evidence Ayman al-Zawahiri's wife was in the Mohmand agency, near the border with Afghanistan.
"We did raids and traces there," said Malik, who manages the underfunded front-line forces fighting militants in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. "Certainly we had traced him in one place, but we missed him. Certainly he is moving in Mohmand Agency and Kunar, mostly in Kunar and Paktika," referring to two areas across the border in Afghanistan. He did not give specific details of when the raids took place.
Publicly, U.S. officials will not comment on Malik's claims, but privately senior officials tell ABC News they are skeptical and have seen no evidence that Zawahiri was narrowly missed.
Malik claimed that that "50-60" foreign al Qaeda leaders were currently hiding in Pakistan, and admitted to some frustration over Pakistan's inability to capture the most wanted terrorists in the world. "Whoever's it is, his strategy is obviously better than ours," he said.
Malik's assertions come despite criticism by the Untied States and some in Pakistan that the military is not doing enough to combat militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This week the army announced it would temporarily and provisionally halt two campaigns against militants for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Historically, Ramadan has been peaceful, and Malik said the Pakistani military would be judged negatively by Pakistanis if it had not stopped the attacks.
If the operations continued, he said, "we will have a bad image as a Muslim state."
But he insisted that the military will respond to any offensive by the Taliban. "If there is one shot fired, we will fire back at them nine times," he said. "If there is any movement – any killing of a civilian, or an army person -- no mercy. There is no ambiguity here."
Malik has overseen one of the more aggressive campaigns against the Pakistani Taliban in the last year. For almost four full weeks the Frontier Corps, which is led by army commanders but overseen by the civilian Interior Ministry, had used helicopter gunships, artillery and mortars to kill more than 550 militants in Bajour, along the Afghanistan border, according to military spokesmen.
Malik also "banned" the Taliban in Pakistan, which he called "one and the same with al Qaeda," freezing their bank accounts and establishing a sentence of 10 years for anyone who funds them.
"Either we hand over Pakistan to these Talibans, or we fight back. And our policy is to fight back," he said.
But Taliban spokesmen joked how they don't use bank accounts, and many military analysts who have followed the Taliban since its inception argue the current military campaigns are not effective.
"All the reports coming from Southern Afghanistan, from Eastern Afghanistan, is that there's been a huge step up of foreign fighters coming into Afghanistan… and the majority are Pakistanis," says Ahmed Rashid, the author of "Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia." "So it means the Pakistani Taliban are really on a roll. I mean that they have the capacity now to launch offensives in two separate countries. And are doing it quite well."
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, the top American commander in eastern Afghanistan, told The New York Times last week that the operation in Bajour has had no impact on the number of foreign fighters launching attacks against U.S. forces. "We've yet to see a lessening of the movement," he said.
Rashid says neither the government nor the military has a coherent strategy for fighting the militants, and the politicians have been deeply distracted during a season that has included an election, the resignation of former President Pervez Musharraf, and the dissolution of a coalition government.
"They've made their statements on terrorism almost an after thought, when the main issues for them have been these domestic political issues," Rashid told ABC News. "And that's been very tragic. Because obviously the Taliban have taken enormous advantage of this in the last six months. We've seen the advances on the ground that they've made. They've made it because there's been a vacuum in the government."
Another problem is with the force fighting the militants. The Frontier Corps is often outmanned, outgunned, and outmotivated by a Taliban that has never been stronger. The F.C., as it is known here, is recruited from ethnic groups who live along the border, and many of them have historically fled instead of fight militants who have often infiltrated in their villages.
Pictures in local Pakistani newspapers of the corps show young men holding old guns and dressed in sandals and salwar kameez, a traditional Pakistani dress that more resembles pajamas than uniforms.
The Pentagon has supplied the corps with American helmets and vests, according to Defense Department spokesmen. But it's not clear whether money and training has actually reached the corps.
Asked about their dress, Malik quipped, "If you see the Taliban, they're also in salwar kameez."
He insisted the frontier corps does have proper uniforms, but admitted they the entire force needs to be bolstered.
"We would like to equip them with modern arms, because what is coming across the border is mindboggling," he said, referring to Taliban weapons coming in from Afghanistan.
He insisted the government's goal was to wipe the militants out for good. "We're trying to convert it into a tourist resort," he said of the tribal areas.
Rashid says reaching that goal is nowhere in sight.
"I see the Pakistani Taliban at this stage being fairly unstoppable. They have a terror campaign going on, they have terrorized much of the Northwest Frontier Province, they have control of the tribal areas," he said. "And there does not seem to be a coherent strategy by the government or the army of how to deal with this."