Defeat at Kandahar

Published : Jan 08, 2000 00:00 IST

THE terrorists-for-hostages deal that went through, under Taliban auspices, to end the eight-day ordeal of 155 passengers and crew members of Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 might have brought relief and a dose of pseudo-euphoria to a nation in a state of anxiety and understandable confusion. Frontline shares India's, and the civilised world's, happiness over the safe return of the hostages and the widely felt grief over the hijackers' brutal killing of young Rupin Katyal. But the deal must be hone stly recognised as a humiliating and deeply damaging defeat for the Indian state, its 'pro-active' anti-terrorism stance, and its vital interests in Kashmir. "My government will not bend before such a show of terrorism," Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpay ee proclaimed to the world a day after the hijacking. A week later, he was trying to present capitulation to the Pakistani-sponsored, Taliban-aided show of naked terrorism as a substantial victory for his government - which, "guided by two concerns: the safety of the passengers and the crew, and the long-term, overall interests of our country," was able to "substantially scale down their demand." This was an attempt to stand the truth on its head: even the most resourceful apologists for the BJP-led gov ernment have not tried to explain how the long-term, overall interests of India could have possibly been served by this deal.

What is now abundantly clear is that the hijacking, carried out by five professionally trained desperadoes, almost all of them Pakistani nationals, was a Harkat-ul-Mujahideen operation in which the Pakistani state, or powerful politico-military elements within it, had a collusive hand. Such a feat of terrorism seemed designed to serve several objectives. The first, and largely symbolic, objective was to humiliate the Indian state, demonstrate its softness and helplessness in the face of low-intensity te rrorism in the 'guerilla' mode. The second was to raise the level of Indian and international concern over the Kashmir issue and also to raise the cost to India of holding on to its part of Jammu and Kashmir in the face of internal alienation and Pakista n-aided extremism and terrorism. The third objective was to wrest from India prize security catches such as Harkat-ul-Ansar general secretary Maulana Masood Azhar, a Pakistani national and Taliban collaborator whose release would be a morale-booster for secessionist and terrorist forces in Kashmir and operationally, also, would be important.

The maximum demand of the hijackers, and their not-very-remote controllers, was the release of Maulana Azhar and 35 other noted terrorists (almost all of them Pakistani nationals), the return of the remains of a dead terrorist, Sajjad Afghani, and the pa yment of $200 million as ransom money. The 'scaling down' of India's losses in the terrorists-for-hostages deal is hardly a matter for celebration. The freeing of Maulana Azhar, the fundamentalist ring-leader, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, the serial-murderer an d Al-Umar military organiser, and Ahmed Omar Sheikh, a British national who graduated in the arts of extremist militancy from Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, is in any objective assessment a serious blow to the ongoing combined effort of India's securit y and secular-democratic political forces to counter foreign-aided secessionism and terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. Coming at a time when armed extremism in the troubled State is determinedly trying to move into higher gear, this development hardly squar es with the 'pro-active, hard state' stance against cross-border terrorism taken by Union Home Minister L.K. Advani and other top BJP leaders.

The Vajpayee government's response to the crisis was as technically inept as it was politically compromising. The Crisis Management Group (CMG) turned in a performance that ought to go into international anti-terrorism manuals as a turn-of-the-century le sson in how not to manage a hijacking crisis. The CMG reacted with pathetic slowness and confusion in the first couple of hours of the crisis. Once the opportunity to stall and stop the hijacked aircraft at Amritsar and send in commandos to rescue the ho stages was lost through a failure of nerve, everything else in the Pakistan-scripted plot followed - the refuelling halt at Lahore, the landing in Dubai, the end-game in the Taliban's den, Kandahar, in which it became clear that the Indian negotiators ha d run out of "we shall not bend before terrorism" options. The failure at the political level, where the Prime Minister and the External Affairs Minister seemed to be the key players, was shocking. The Opposition parties were not taken into confidence ab out the nature and contours of the deal taking shape at Kandahar. If there were any efforts to get the international community and the United Nations to bring pressure on the Taliban and Pakistan, they seemed to have drawn a blank. There is as yet no cre dible official explanation for why the United Arab Emirates could not be persuaded, with the help of international and United States pressure if necessary, to stall and detain the hijacked aircraft at the military base in Dubai and permit a rescue operat ion by commandos. Finally, too much reliance was placed on the Taliban regime to find a way out of the crisis and undeserved official certificates were provided to that pro-terrorist and fundamentalist regime, especially by External Affairs Minister Jasw ant Singh, for what it was willing to do to end the crisis.

Official India must expose the duplicitous role played by the Taliban regime in the end-game as objectively and truthfully as it goes about substantiating charges against Pakistan in this benighted affair. There are credible reports that it was in Kandah ar that the hijackers gained access to more deadly arms, however they managed to get them. The Taliban pretended to oppose hijacking, in principle, as both illegal and unIslamic. The plain fact, however, is that it refused, over several tortuous days, to allow India to field commandos to attempt a rescue operation; nor was it willing to undertake its own storming operation. While coming out against the hijackers' cruel deadlines, the Taliban hinted at deadlines of its own, threatening to compel the hija cked aircraft to leave Afghanistan if a solution was not quickly found. Thus it worked against India by exerting indirect pressure to give in to the hijackers' core demands, above all, the release of Maulana Azhar. By getting India's External Affairs Min ister to announce at a Kandahar press conference, in the presence of the Taliban Foreign Minister, that "His Excellency has assured me that the criminals will not receive any asylum in Afghanistan and they have ten hours within which to go wherever they have to go," the Taliban sought to win a stamp of bilateral approval for the sordidness and illegality of allowing the five hijackers, along with the three released terrorists, to go scot-free. In fact, instead of doing the right thing by apprehending th e hijackers and the released terrorists as soon as the hostages were set free and handing them over to India, the Taliban regime has clearly facilitated the re-entry of this fundamentalist terrorist gang into Pakistan to pursue their objectives further. What is passing strange is that External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, suffering perhaps from a variant of the 'Stockholm syndrome' (an attitude of trust or affection reportedly felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim towards a c aptor), has continued to maintain that "we received cooperation from the Taliban throughout the episode."

A comprehensive inquiry is needed into all aspects of this unedifying affair, including the Vajpayee government's handling of the crisis in its various stages, the real options available to it, and the roles played by Pakistan, the government of the UAE, and of course the extremism- and terrorism-exporting Taliban. If the government is unwilling to conduct such an inquiry, independent investigative efforts by the media, professional groups and Opposition political parties can go some way towards establi shing the truth and learning lessons from India's costly defeat at Kandahar.

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