The Kandahar plot

Print edition : December 05, 2003

Taliban fighters near the hijacked Indian Airlines jet at Kandahar airport on December 27, 1999. - MUZAMMIL PASHA/REUTERS

The Central Bureau of Investigation's latest mission to Afghanistan to try and unravel the Kandahar hijack case is pitted against heavy odds - the U.S. has found as its ally a new `moderate' Taliban, with whose help it hopes to stabilise the country's nascent polity and gain an early exit for its troops.

"YOU should lose some weight, Maulvi Sahib," joked a prison guard at Jammu's Kot Bhalwal jail, "maybe you should spend some more time digging tunnels."

On June 14, 1999, a group of Pakistani terrorists in the city's high-security Kot Bhalwal jail had made their way into a tunnel burrowed underneath the prison's walls and barbed wire. The man for whom the jailbreak was organised, Maulana Masood Azhar, now commander of the Mujahideen Jaish-e-Mohammad, soon found that he had a serious problem in hand. The tunnel was simply too narrow to allow the portly terrorist through. Azhar made his way back into the prison. His best friend, Sajjad Afghani, emerged from the tunnel only to be shot dead by Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel. Still grieving for his old friend, Azhar did not flinch at the prison guard's taunt about his weight. "I don't need to dig tunnels," he told the guard, "because one day very soon you will escort me out of these gates." He was right.

Some time in the coming weeks, a team of officials from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is hoping to leave for Kandahar in Afghanistan to unravel the mechanics behind the December 25, 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814. The CBI team hopes to interrogate Mohammad Akhtar Usmani, the designated successor to Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Umar, who was then commander of its forces in Kandahar. A welter of new evidence, and the CBI's earlier interrogation of Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil, suggest that Usmani was the central conduit between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen members who carried out the hijacking on its behalf. Given that the United States of America is engaged in a war on terrorism, and given that an American national was on board IC-814, it would seem reasonable to expect that the U.S. would be only too happy to cooperate with the CBI. The sad truth, however, is that the U.S. will not even admit that it has Usmani in custody, an assertion rubbished with increasing candour by Indian and Afghan intelligence officials.

No public news has emerged of Usmani since March, when he was credited with several military actions in southern Afghanistan. Since then, neither the Taliban nor the U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan have issued word about him. Indian intelligence officials say that Usmani, like several other key Taliban commanders, is now being held under the protective umbrella of the U.S. military. Although it is unclear if the Taliban leader has actually been arrested, Indian intelligence officials believe that he has been cooperating with the U.S. in its efforts to stitch together some political entity out of the remnants of the far-Right Islamist organisation. Increasingly desperate to pull troops out of Afghanistan, the U.S. hopes to use what some Washington policy-makers and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf describe as "moderate Taliban" to do their work for them. The last thing the U.S. needs right now is a request from India seeking the extradition of one of its new-found potential allies - or embarrassing disclosures about the linkages between the "moderate Taliban", global terrorism and Pakistan's intelligence establishment.

Maulana Masood Azhar is surrounded by supporters in Islamabad after he was freed by India in return for the safety of the passengers in the hijacked plane.-AZIZ HAIDARI/REUTERS

After months of increasingly impatient prodding, officials of the CBI were allowed access only to Mutawakil, a small player in the IC-814 outrage. Informed sources say that U.S. officials were profoundly disinclined to grant access to the high-profile politician; at one point, India even considered issuing an Interpol alert that would have compelled Afghanistan to arrest the Taliban leader. In the event, Mutawakil said little that was not already known. Usmani, Mutawakil said, had handed over the IC-814 hijackers and the prisoners released by India to ISI personnel who were already stationed in Kandahar. Personnel from the ISI had played a key role in aiding the hijackers during their negotiations with Indian officials in Kandahar, and subsequently arranged for the group to be ferried across the border into Pakistan. Mutawakil who has now been reinvented as one of the "moderate" members of the Taliban, whom the U.S. and Pakistan would like to see sharing power in Kabul, also said that airport records in Kandahar, which would have established who was present and when, had been destroyed.

Indian intelligence officials say that for long they have had a fair idea about what might have been in the records. Indian officials, led by Vivek Katju, then Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, arrived in Kandahar at 6-25 p.m. Indian time on December 27. Along with him were two other key negotiators, Ajit Doval from the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and C.D. Sahay from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), besides a large team of doctors, engineers and emergency support staff. There were also some people who did not advertise what they exactly did for a living. Intelligence personnel who had served in Pakistan, familiar with the names, faces and voices of their ISI counterparts were on board, and so was a strong contingent of signals intelligence personnel. The plane bore a sophisticated frequency scanner, which helped experts sitting inside listen in to anything said on the airwaves for miles around, perched as they were on the top of the Kandahar plateau.

Early on, officials present at Kandahar say, it became evident that the ISI was playing a key role, guiding the hijackers with the demands to be made at each stage. Katju, Doval and Sahay were put up in a guest house, a short drive from the airport. The adjoining buildings were shared by guests who spoke Urdu, drove to the airport and back around the same time they did, and were treated with considerable respect by the Taliban. Two of these men were on the tarmac when the Indian aircraft arrived; others, recognised as ISI personnel from its special operations wing in Quetta, soon joined them. At 9-30 p.m. that evening, Katju made first contact with the hijackers on the aircraft's own wireless communication system. Shortly afterwards it became clear that they were talking on hand-held walkie-talkie sets to their ISI handlers, a crude and easily intercepted communication system, but the only one available in Kandahar at that time.

IN retrospect, there was little doubt about the Taliban's own position on the affair. Although Mutawakil expressed great public embarrassment over the presence of IC-814 on Afghan soil, a line bought happily by the United Nations Coordinator on Afghanistan, Eric de Mul, the reality was different. Usmani arrived with commandos at Kandahar airport only after the arrival of the Indian team, a clear sign that he did not seem overly concerned with the prospect of the hijackers escaping or blowing up the plane. Soon afterwards, rocket launchers and tanks surrounded the aircraft. Since such weapons are not used in hostage-rescue operations, the effort was clearly to ward off any covert Indian rescue attempt. Asked by journalists about the presence of these weapons at Kandahar airport, Mutawakil himself said the deployment was "for security". "We are not planning any operations," the Taliban Foreign Minister admitted candidly. Some insight on just what was going on may be present in the records of the Taliban Council meeting of December 29, but these have not been made over to the CBI.

Former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil. He had expressed great embarrassment over the presence of the Indian plane on Afghan soil, but now it is known that the reality was different.-MIA KHURSHEED/REUTERS

Within the Indian team, a clear division of opinion emerged on how to proceed. Katju, a 1955-batch veteran of the Indian Foreign Service with long experience of Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan affairs, seemed to believe that the Taliban was genuinely interested in a quick settlement. He argued that the Taliban was desperate for international recognition, and would do its best to ensure an early end to the crisis. Doval and Sahay, insiders say, were more sceptical. While Mutawakil's public pronouncements seemed reasonable, they suggested, his emphasis on an early end to the hostage crisis was in fact intended to secure unilateral Indian concessions. In fact, they suggested, the Taliban had considerable leverage with the hijackers, which it had chosen not to use. In the event, Katju's assessment, supported by diplomatic assessments of the U.S., won out. Then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh personally escorted to Kandahar the prisoners the hijackers demanded - a controversial move intended, in the event of an aircraft crash or unforeseen calamity, to ward of suggestions that India had killed them.

Finally, once Azhar and his fellow-prisoners Syed Omer Sheikh and Mushtaq `Latram' Zargar were handed over to the hijackers, one last, very revealing wireless exchange took place. One hijacker, in tapes available with the Indian government, asked Katju to "come and take charge of the aircraft". Even as Indian officials moved forward, a voice in Urdu advised the hijackers not to "release the aircraft before you retrieve your baggage from the cargo hold". The hijacker then promptly told the Indian negotiators that he could not release the aircraft. The negotiator drew out the hijacker on the baggage issue and pointed out that it would "take time to clear the cargo hold and segregate your baggage". He offered a guarantee that the authorities would "take the designated luggage of the passengers and return yours." The Urdu-speaking ghost voice again insisted that separating the hijackers' baggage was "very necessary". When the hijacker told his adviser that the Indians were being very insistent, he was asked to tell the negotiators that the bags were full of explosives.

In retrospect, it is clear that Katju's assessment was wrong. Azhar, for one, was in little doubt about what was going on. In memoirs written after the hijacking, he described his feelings on landing in Kandahar. "The land where the plane had touched down and everything belonging to it," Azhar recorded, "was intensely dear to me. Mullah Omar, the person whose deep love filled my heart, lived here in Kandahar. When I was in prison, I desperately yearned to behold this city and kiss the hand of Mullah Omar." "Taliban officials greeted us at the foot of the stairs," he continued. "Maulvi Muhammad Akhtar Usmani, the Kandahar Corps Commander, was among them and after a warm embrace he showed me into a car. A few feet away stood the Indian plane that had been hijacked a week ago. Our car came to a halt. The Corps Commander walked to the plane and said something to the hijackers above. As I watched mesmerised, two masked men came down with the use of a rope ladder and ran towards our car and hugged me in a warm embrace. A storm of emotions washed over us, and tears welled in our eyes. Both my hands were free and I was sitting in a Taliban car heading towards freedom."

The masked man Azhar hugged, it is now widely known, was his brother Ibrahim Akhtar Alvi; the man who had spent years in an Indian jail for attempting to get Azhar released, Syed Omar Sheikh, also received a warm hug. Doval, one of the most highly respected operational officers in the Indian covert establishment, recently broke with I.B. tradition to go on record with his memories of Kandahar in an interview with the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy for his book, Who Killed Daniel Pearl. When Azhar, Sheikh and Zargar landed at the airport, he noted, the hijackers did not bother to check their identities; that task was left to the ISI. Then, Doval said, he witnessed "one of the ISI men, who seems to be their leader, kiss Omar Sheikh, call him by his first name and say, `So, back to Kandahar. I'm so happy to see you'."

In 1999, the Taliban held all the spades. Even if Katju had been more pessimistic about the Taliban, it is far from clear whether India had any real policy options. Today, the Taliban has fallen, but given the thrust of the U.S. policy in the region, justice remains a distant deal for the victims of the Kandahar hijacking and their relatives. In New Delhi, anger is mounting over what seems like a duplicitous and unprincipled war against terror. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who has been thoroughly briefed on the CBI's efforts, recently in Moscow called for an end to "double standards" in the war against terrorism and asserted that a "consistent and uncompromising" position needed to be taken. As things stand, the U.S. seems to be in no position to do any such thing. Desperately stretched in Iraq, south and central Asia have been consigned to the fringes of Washington's consciousness. The Taliban, we have been told, is dead and buried. And yet, oddly enough, it lives, with the aid of the same people who claim to have killed it.

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