DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor revealed during a media briefing regarding Operation Raddul Fasaad on April 17 that Ehsanullah Ehsan, the erstwhile spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and one of the top founding leaders of the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a breakaway, brutal group that at one point aligned itself with Islamic State (IS) but then returned to TTP’s fold while retaining its independent identity, had surrendered to the security forces.
He did not, however, say when and in what circumstances Ehsan had turned himself in, confining himself to the statement that more would be revealed once investigations were complete. One set of speculations suggests Ehsan has been in military custody since February this year when the army responded to a string of terrorist attacks claimed by JuA by shelling militant hideouts along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where Ehsan was believed to have been hiding. CoAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa had hinted recently while visiting troops in Fata that a high value target was in custody.
The other set of speculations centre around the reported surrender of eight JuA commanders in April. This was revealed by ISPR on April 3 but only three names were revealed, none of which was Ehsan. Whether he was amongst that eight, believed to have surrendered after differences with the JuA leadership, or came in from the cold later is not known. Whatever the circumstances of Ehsan’s surrender, there is little doubt that it is indeed a high profile success.
The JuA has proved to be one of the most brutal terrorist groups. Since its formation three years ago, it has carried out 120 terrorist attacks. The fact that eight commanders of the outfit, plus arguably their spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, have surrendered is encouraging. However, this success cannot hide the uneven results in efforts to capture or eliminate senior terrorist leaders. Obviously the porous nature of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has not helped.
The TTP and its leader Mullah Fazlullah are ensconced in safe havens on the other side of the border, out of reach of the Afghan forces and under the protection of the Haqqani network. Mullah Fazlullah has managed so far to escape the fate of his predecessors, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakeemullah Mehsud, both of whom were killed in drone strikes. Now, given the reality of Operation Zarb-e-Azb having forced the terrorists to retreat from their longstanding safe havens and bases in Fata into Afghan territory, there is no escape from Pakistan and Afghanistan eschewing their perennial blame game regarding their separate hostile groups being based in the other’s territory and learning to cooperate if terrorism in both countries is to be eliminated.
Historically, Pakistan has more to answer for, starting from the Mujahideen enterprise, through the early Taliban to the present Taliban reportedly based on Pakistani soil. Although this and the use of such forces as proxies has been denied by CoAS General Bajwa in a meeting with the visiting US National Security Adviser McMaster, this denial has few takers in the region or beyond. Since the TTP relocated to Afghanistan, Pakistan has been crying itself hoarse about the threat from these elements based just across the border. It has been blaming Kabul for not doing something against them that it may not be in a position to do.
This zero-sum blame game is not helping either country. Instead, it would be far wiser to continue efforts to nudge the Afghan Taliban based on our soil to the negotiating table with Kabul while co-ordinating ‘hammer and anvil’ operations with the Afghan forces to take on all terrorist groups on both sides of the border.