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Analysis: Conundrum posed by returning militants

Analysis: Conundrum posed by returning militants

PESHAWAR: When the then Taliban spokesperson, Ehsanullah Ehsan, made initial contact in spring last year to suggest the terms of his surrender to Pakistani authorities, the offer — though significant given that it was coming from a senior militant figure — nonetheless triggered a long, animated discussion within Pakistan’s security apparatus on whether it had the mandate to accept those conditions.

The discussions took nearly a year, with back and forth communications initially through three different channels: an Islamabad-based television anchor, a retired intelligence officer and a key leader of a religious party — and later, through a militant commander affiliated with the now-defunct Punjabi Taliban. The parleys eventually led to Ehsan’s surrender.




Dawn spoke with two of Ehsan’s initial contacts to confirm the nature of the terms he had set for his surrender; while both declined to serve as guarantors to any surrender agreement, they did however pass on the militants’ spokesperson’s entreaties to the authorities concerned.

Liaqat Ali, as Ehsan was named by his family, left college in 2008 to become a militant. He rose to become the central spokesperson of the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) before switching sides to join his original organisation, the TTP Mohmand — which by then had become the Jamaatul Ahrar. According to sources Dawn spoke to, he had a long wish list.

Amongst the demands Ehsan made was a house in Rawalpindi to settle down with his wife and child, as well as a huge sum to start off a business. He also sought permission at some point to relocate to the Gulf or some other Middle Eastern country. This, he argued at the time, was necessary for his safety and that of his family, who feared reprisal attacks from their former mentors.

His surrender, the first from amongst the front-row senior militant leadership, was seen as a major coup, coming with a treasure trove of inside information on the operations of Pakistani militant groups and their association with the Afghan intelligence, the National Directorate of Security.

But in the absence of clear answers on what he might have been offered in return, his dramatic switch-over did cause concern. The military, however, has continued to maintain that nothing was offered in return for his surrender.

None of those demands were accepted, according to a senior military official. “He was a terrorist and remains a terrorist,” the official said. “He will have to face the due process of law and will be treated as per the law of the land.”

But Ehsan’s surrender did set off a debate within the military and security apparatus on how to deal with those militants who were willing to lay down arms. Already, close to 2,300 militants, mostly foot soldiers and low-level commanders, dejected by the circumstances in Afghanistan, have returned and surrendered to the authorities. Most of them, Mehsud by tribe, are being held in guarded camps. The militants are screened and their antecedents checked against a database. They are segregated and categorised, and treated accordingly. Some are processed through the now well-established de-radicalisation programme.

Under the existing policy, captured militants are interrogated, debriefed and categorised according to a ‘black’, ‘grey’ and ‘white’ scale. The ‘blacks’ are sent to internment centres and ‘grey’ are put through the de-radicalisation programme, while those declared ‘white’ are set free. The de-radicalisation programme, according to the senior military official, is running so successfully that of the 2,813 militants put through it since the end of 2008, only six have returned to the battlefields.

“There are many [militants] waiting on the other side of the border, keen to surrender,” two senior military officials confirmed with Dawn. “But they want assurances as to be given a fair trial.” “Morale is down and they are clueless,” said one of the officers Dawn spoke to.

Ehsan, in his interview with a television anchor, echoed what many in the security apparatus believe to be true. “There are many people who raised their voice [against their militant leaders]. Some were killed; others were forced to go underground. They have realised, particularly those at the lower level, that they are fed up,” Ehsan said.

Military officials maintain that while there can be no clemency and no pardon for the top militant leadership, the state would have to devise a policy for those willing to lay down arms and surrender to the state authority.

“Ours is a state institution. We follow state policy,” one of the senior military officials said. “And therefore, there has to be a state policy that can lay down the ground rules to deal with such elements.”

Officials say a draft policy has been in the works incorporating input from state agencies and other state institutions. The draft policy, they say, is aimed at spelling out rules for handling militants willing to surrender. The draft policy, the senior military official says, is almost complete and will be presented to the federal government for consideration and approval.

What will be the nature and broad contours of the draft policy and when will it be ready is not immediately clear but it will definitely set a new national debate on its need and utility.

“I think this should have been done a long time ago to encourage those willing to surrender,” said Khalid Aziz, head of the Regional Institute of Policy Research & Training. “But it will be good if we follow time-tested tribal traditions.”

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2017

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