For years, Pakistani officials touted apparent successes against the country’s ultra-radical Islamist Taliban militants as evidence of their counterterrorism achievements.
But the recent escape of a former Taliban spokesman while in detention by the Pakistani intelligence services has raised new questions about Islamabad’s covert ties with the militants. It even challenges the notion that Pakistan’s powerful military only supports the Afghan Taliban insurgency but has successfully eradicated various domestic factions.
Critics cite the escape as an instance of Islamabad’s keenness to bring violent extremists into the mainstream while cracking down on unarmed protesters who question the military’s conduct in its domestic war on terrorism. More than 70,000 people, predominantly members of the ethnic Pashtun minority, were killed while another 6 million were displaced by nearly 15 years of Taliban attacks and military operations since 2003.
Officials remain tellingly silent since Ehsanullah Ehsan, nom de guerre for Sajjid Mohmand or Liaqaut Ali, claimed to have escaped official detention in a purported audio message on February 6. He claimed to have fled to Turkey from nearly three years of detention on January 11.
“Surely, this official silence will create misgivings and is unacceptable. It is time for a full disclosure,” noted a February 8 editorial in Pakistan’s English-language daily Dawn. “The people have a right to know if his ‘escape’ was a massive security failure or part of an immunity deal negotiated before his surrender.”
The country’s defense and interior ministers, the spokesman for the armed forces, and other senior officials have either refused to comment on Ehsan’s escape or have simply said they knew nothing more than what the media had reported.
But the government apparently tried to build an alternative narrative about his escape by telling newspapers, journalists, and television stations that he fled during an operation targeting terrorists affiliated with the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jamaatul Ahrar (JUA). Ehsan regularly claimed responsibility for TPP attacks from 2011 to 2013 that killed civilians. Later that year, he joined JUA, a splinter of TTP. He ultimately surrendered to the Pakistani spy services in February 2017.
“Ehsan provided highly sensitive, valuable, and accurate information which led to the busting of several hardcore terrorists’ networks and capture and targeting of TTP and JUA terrorists both inside as well as outside the country,” said one of the insights attributed to the unnamed sources. “The sources added that Ehsan had to be tried for his crimes but before the trial, maximum information had to be extracted from him to conclude the operations. They said it was during one such operation that he was able to flee,” daily Dawn reported.
But there is no evidence Ehsan was in a proper prison or even being closely guarded. Officials have also provided no evidence of his purported role in busting terrorist rings.
According to the New York Times, Ehsan was living with his family in an upscale neighborhood of the northwestern city of Peshawar. He fathered a child there and had phone and Internet access. A February 7 article in the newspaper said Ehsan was promised a hefty sum for surrendering to the authorities, but the money was never paid, which prompted him to flee. “Pakistani security forces are now offering Mr. Mohmand [Ehsan] more money to turn himself back in, but he has refused the offer, officials say,” the paper reported.
Such obvious differences between the government's claimed treatment of Ehsan and the reported reality of his handling has led many to question Islamabad’s ties with the Pakistani Taliban. Since Ehsan surrendered in 2017, activists have called for a trial.
Fazal Khan, a lawyer who lost his son in an alleged Taliban massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar in December 2014, launched a court case against Ehsan’s potential release. In December 2017, the Peshawar High Court, the apex court in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, ruled that the authorities should not release Ehsan.
Khan has now launched another court case against Pakistan’s powerful army chief, the head of the Inter Services Intelligence spy service, and some senior civilian bureaucrats for failing to implement the court’s ruling by preventing Ehsan from escaping.
“The petitioner has been informed through reliable sources that clemency was in order of Ehsanullah Ehsan for his ‘full and frank disclosure,’ which is not only highly deplorable but also outrightly illegal and unconstitutional,” Khan wrote in his application for lodging the case in Peshawar High Court on February 7. He now heads an association of parents of some of the nearly 150 children killed at Peshawar’s Army Public School.
“Despite clear-cut directions of this honorable court … now it has come to light that [a] luxurious home [was provided to Ehsan] from which the terrorist has made his escape: a fact not denied by the respondents,” the application added.
Some prominent opposition figures have taken up the issue.
“One of the two explanations [are] possible; complicity or sheer incompetence,” former lawmaker Farhatullah Babar, a senior leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, wrote on Twitter. “Jailing human rights defenders and freeing self-confessed terrorists. Demand explanation.”
Lawmaker Mohsin Dawar, a leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a civil rights movement, says Ehsan’s escape supports their claims that Pakistan’s war against terrorism was only geared toward garnering funds from the United States by ostensibly allying in its war on terrorism. “All the false operations against the terrorists were conducted toward this end,” he told Voice of America.
Mohsin says that during the past two years, numerous members of the PTM have faced sedition, rioting, and terrorism charges for campaigning for rights and demanding accountability in Islamabad’s war on terrorism in their homeland. “The state is extending special treatment to people like Ehsanullah Ehsan, who killed our children and engaged in the mass killings of our people,” he said.
Islamabad claims to have defeated TTP in more than a dozen military operations in the seven districts of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the northwestern alpine Swat Valley.
But most senior Taliban leaders in these regions, which are part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, have been killed in suspected U.S. drone strikes. Mullah Fazlullah, one of the most prominent TTP leaders, was killed in eastern Afghanistan by a U.S. drone strike in June 2018.
For more than a quarter-century Islamabad has supported the hard-line Taliban movement in Afghanistan. Senior Pakistani officials have admitted housing the Taliban and retaining influence over its leaders. Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur was killed by the U.S. in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan after returning from Iran. Islamabad now says it supports an agreement between the Taliban and the United States to end the war in Afghanistan.
The aftermath of Ehsan’s escape, however, appears to have revived questions about Islamabad’s opaque ties with the various Taliban factions.