IN the long fight against militancy, among the many counter-insurgency and counterterrorism gains Pakistan has made, there has been one area in which results have long been uneven: the capture of senior leaders of the banned TTP. From Fata to Swat, militant leaders have taken advantage of the porous border with Afghanistan and the difficulty in sealing off areas where military operations are being conducted to escape capture or elimination in battle. The most notorious militant leader who has long avoided capture or death is of course TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Hakeemullah Mehsud and Baitullah Mehsud, the current chief has even managed to avoid US drones. His presumed hideout in Afghanistan is either out of reach for Afghan forces or shielded for political reasons. Now, however, with DG ISPR Maj-Gen Asif Ghafoor having announced that another high-value target, Jamaatul Ahrar spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan, is in military custody, perhaps a new, more successful phase in the capture of Taliban leaders is opening. The DG ISPR did not share the circumstances of Ehsan’s capture or surrender, but given that the Jamaatul Ahrar is known to have found sanctuary in Afghanistan, his detention suggests that some new cross-border cooperation has taken place.
While Afghanistan and Pakistan have in recent times engaged in more verbal sparring publicly than demonstrated a resolve to find solutions to mutual problems of cross-border militancy, it has long been clear that the two need to work together if militancy is to be defeated. Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa has made a welcome effort to change the tone of bilateral ties in his recent comments comparing the suffering of Afghanistan from terrorism with that of Pakistan. If that effort has been complemented by fresh behind-the-scenes attempts to address the problem of Afghanistan-based TTP sanctuaries, then it can be hoped that more high-value targets hiding along the Pak-Afghan border will be captured soon. While the militants’ capacity to regenerate and replace senior leaders is well known, there is little doubt that capture or elimination of senior leaders is significantly disruptive to militant groups. Moreover, capture can provide vital information that may not otherwise be available. Ehsanullah Ehsan has claimed some of the most violent attacks inside Pakistan; Maulana Fazlullah is a long-surviving militant leader; and many more such names continue to elude justice. It is time for their freedom to end.
Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2017