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Failure of diplomacy

Print edition : Jan 08, 2000 T+T-

Lapses on the diplomatic front force India to make concessions to the terrorists and repose misplaced trust in the Taliban.

JOHN CHERIAN

THE longest hijacking episode in South Asian aviation history has ended and the post-mortem of the Indian Government's handling of the eight-day-old drama has begun. The general opinion seems to be that the Government blundered its way through the crisis and suffered a significant defeat in its fight against terrorism. It failed on the diplomatic front too. Very few governments in the world are buying the theory that India is the target of an international terrorist conspiracy.

The cardinal mistake of letting the hijacked plane leave Amritsar airport (incidentally, it is also a military airport) left the Indian Government with few options. From the outset, there were serious lapses in its response. The Crisis Management Group ( CMG), set up in 1996 to deal with such emergencies, failed dismally. As the crisis continued, fissures in the government and the bureaucracy showed up. The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and Indian Foreign Service (IFS) lobbies were soon at loggerhe ads. The armed forces made known their opposition to granting any concessions to the hijackers.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and several of his senior Cabinet colleagues initially adopted a tough stance and issued statements rejecting the hijackers' initial demand, which incidentally was the release of Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar and Ahmed Umar Syed Sheikh, who were eventually swapped for the hostages. A senior diplomat based in New Delhi said that he was surprised at External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's statements, made at a press conference on the second day of the crisis, al leging Islamabad's complicity in the hijack. "In grave situations such as these, there is no need to make more enemies," the diplomat said. It is well-known that Islamabad wields considerable influence over the Taliban, which rules Afghanistan.

Such statements also have the potential to endanger the lives of innocent passengers. A senior Indian official, with experience in dealing with similar crises, said that it would have been wiser to use spokespersons with a low profile. "There was absolut ely no need for the External Affairs Minister to meet the media and relay the demands of the hijackers." Besides, any statement made by a Foreign Minister to the media would be interpreted as official policy.

Another senior official said that it was strange that the Prime Minister was not immediately told about the hijack. He said that the nearest Air Traffic Control (ATC) would have automatically monitored the distress call made by the pilot and relayed it t o the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) control room. The pilot of the Prime Minister's plane, which was over Lucknow at that time and a few hundred nautical miles away from the hijacked plane, would have no doubt heard the SOS. Reaching the Prime Minister woul d not have been a problem. Only somebody had to make the effort. "It was rather strange that he was not immediately informed. Even cricket scores are relayed on planes," the official said.

He is of the view that the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) has to shoulder most of the blame for the fiasco. The JIC is nominally headed by the chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) but, according to senior officials, it has been virtually tak en over by the IFS. The Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Brajesh Mishra, in his capacity as National Security Adviser, is a special invitee to the meetings, and he should have known immediately about the crisis and duly informed the Prime Minis ter.

ONCE the plane landed in Kandahar, New Delhi's options narrowed further. The choice of Kandahar was ominous. The seat of the Afghan head of state, Mullah Muhammad Omar, is in Kandahar, which is the power base of the Taliban. Mullah Omar and all but one m ember of the Supreme Shura are Kandahari Pashtuns. The Taliban's core leaders are not simply mullahs but preachers belonging to a common political network, the "deobandi madrasas" in the Pashtun tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With the civilian plane forced to land in Kandahar, the Indian Government was assured that the Taliban will not allow any harm to come to the hostages, but along with it was the realisation that if the plane was allowed to leave Kandahar the consequences could be grim. The unstated fear was that the hijackers may divert the plane to Indian airspace and do something foolhardy.

It was soon evident that the Taliban and the hijackers held most of the cards. A veteran diplomat said that the hijacking was politically beneficial to more than one party. He is, however, of the opinion that the Pakistan Government was not directly invo lved in the incident as such involvement would have invited the displeasure of the United States. General Pervez Musharraf has been busy trying to convince the U.S. that the whole purpose of the military coup in Pakistan was to forestall a fundamentalist takeover.

The Taliban government has been facing severe problems owing to the United Nations-sanctioned international embargo, which has been in force since October 1999. The hijacking refocussed international attention on the country. The U.S. and India were amon g the strongest proponents of the move to impose sanctions. Both countries have in fact demanded more stringent economic and diplomatic blockade against the Taliban. The Foreign Office spokesman said at that time that both India and the U.S had an overla pping interest in Afghanistan. India was openly critical of the Taliban's "increasing political excesses and religious extremism" and its brutalisation of women and religious minorities. The Foreign Office spokesman described the Taliban's policies as "m edieval malevolence". The Kargil conflict was described as an "Afghan spillover syndrome".

New Delhi also echoed Washington's concerns about terrorism being sponsored by the Taliban and about the activities of the Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden once worked in collaboration with Saudi and U.S. intelligence agencies during the "jihad" against the secular government in Kabul. He turned against his erstwhile sponsors during the Gulf war and went to Sudan. His return to Afghanistan, according to U.S. intelligence, was facilitated by Pakistani intelligence agencies, in return for his agr eement to help train Kashmiri militants. His base in Jalalabad was attacked with cruise missiles in 1998, following the terrorist bombing of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam. Osama is now reportedly in Kandahar, under the protection of the Taliban leadership.

IN the last week of December, New Delhi's attitude towards the Taliban mellowed considerably. Jaswant Singh started lauding the role played by the Taliban in the negotiations leading to the resolution of the crisis. Actually, the Indian government was ru nning out of options. More important, it had evidently got the green signal from Washington to start talking to the Taliban and the hijackers. Indian officials claim that the level of cooperation and interaction between New Delhi and Washington was high throughout the duration of crisis, but the fact remains that it took the Clinton administration four days to issue a statement condemning the hijacking, despite an American and a Canadian being on board.

There was also no offer of logistical support from Washington, although the two countries have pledged to fight the scourge of terrorism jointly. India had recently given permission to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to open an office in New De lhi. Jaswant Singh, it is reliably learnt, remained in constant touch with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.

Surprisingly, even the U.N. chose to adopt a low profile during the whole episode. There was no statement from Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemning the terrorist act.

The Canadian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, was of the view that once the plane landed in Kandahar, India had no option but to agree to the demands of the hijackers. A diplomat with considerable experience in the region says that the Clinton administration saw an opportunity in the crisis to engage the Taliban leadership once again. The diplomat said that it should not be forgotten that the Taliban was the creation of the U.S. and Pakistan. The U.S., according to him, needs the Taliban to support its stra tegy for Central Asia and give it additional leverage against India. Osama bin Laden, he feels, is only a temporary aberration, and what the Taliban yearns for at this juncture is international legitimacy.

Most Arab states are angry with the hijacking and its consequences. Arab countries themselves have been targets of terrorist acts by "Afghan Arabs" (Arabs such as Bin Laden, who fought against Russian forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.)

The lukewarm international response to the crisis despite the presence of nationals of 11 countries on board is another reason why India was forced to make concessions to the terrorists and repose trust in the Taliban.

WITH the hijack drama over, the Taliban has acquired some legitimacy at least as far as New Delhi is concerned. It is no longer a bad word in official circles. Jaswant Singh, after returning to New Delhi with the freed hostages, once again praised the Ta liban for handling the crisis well, despite considerable evidence to show that the Taliban was actually helping the hijackers in achieving their goal. Alternately playing the role of "good cop, bad cop", the Taliban virtually choreographed the whole dram a at Kandahar. In spite of all this, it has received a pat on the back from Jaswant Singh. Further, to everybody's consternation, the three freed militants travelled on board the same plane carrying the Foreign Minister.

Jaswant Singh's visit to Kandahar has raised uncomfortable questions, especially as the Taliban in Kandahar was virtually playing the role of judge and jury. The Minister justified his visit by emphasising that his presence was necessary to sort out last -minute complications. He denied that his presence was requested by the Taliban authorities and that "any deal or concessions to the Taliban" were involved. He said that the "fundamentals of our Afghan policy remain unchanged".

On the other hand, he directed his criticism at Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, at Nepal. He said that all the hijackers were Pakistani nationals and that the majority of the militants whose release was demanded were Pakistanis. Jaswant Singh also said that Taliban Information Minister Abdul Hai told him that the three "terrorists" released by India, along with the five hijackers, had headed for Quetta in Pakistan. He said that the hijacking had "many strands" and that the hijackers on board IC-814 we re in constant touch with their handlers in a neighbouring country. He said that the Government was forced to give in to the hijackers' demands as it received credible information that the plane was wired to be blown up. Jaswant Singh denied reports that additional weapons and explosives were supplied to the hijackers at Kandahar. He said that the hijackers had demanded and obtained access to the plane. The Minister was suggesting that the additional weaponry was obtained from the checked-in luggage. Bu t he also said that only one of the five hijackers had checked in his baggage.