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December 30, 1999
The Rediff Special Sreedhar
'The Taleban views the hijack as an opportunity to distance itself from Pakistan'
The hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 can be examined from three different angles. The landing of the hijacked plane at Kandahar was initially viewed by everyone as a foregone conclusion. However, after its landing, the way the Taleban is responding to events surprised everybody. Initially, the Taleban sent confusing signals giving an impression that they were caught unawares by this event.
From the second day onwards their behavioural pattern had a method. At one level they are not able to condone this act of hijacking by their fellow "Islamic brethren" in this month of holy Ramzan. During this period every good Muslim is expected to demonstrate love, compassion and mercy in their actions. Therefore, any leniency towards the hijackers would be against the high moral pedestal on which Taleban places itself.
Equally important is when the hijackers made their initial demands known to the Indian negotiating team, that they want a ransom money of $ 200 million along with the release of their comrades from Indian prisons. According to reports from Kandahar, the Taleban were shocked by the demand for ransom and refused to believe it at the first instance. When they confirmed the information from the hijackers they lost whatever sympathy they had for the hijackers's bravado. Though the hijackers dropped this demand subsequently at the Taleban's instance, the latter seems to have made up their mind about the hijacking incident.
At a different level, the Taleban is also viewing this hijacking as an opportunity to distance itself from Pakistan. Since the end of the Kargil war in July 1999, the Taleban realised that Pakistan's profile has undergone a dramatic change. Pakistan is no longer a welcome guest anywhere, is a rogue army, and is using the Taleban as a part of its security agenda. This gets clearly reflected in the tough stand taken by the Taleban against the then prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharief's accusation that the Taleban is training Pakistani terrorists.
Second, the hijacking incident is an indication of poor planning by the planners of the operation. Whether it is Pakistani agencies or the Harkat ul Ansar, they took it for granted that the Taleban's leadership would be with them. That is one of the reasons why the hijackers had the audacity to fly to Kandahar in spite of the refusal of permission by the Taleban authorities in Kabul.
While Taleban supreme leader Mullah Umar allowed the hijacked aircraft to land in Kandahar the senior counsel from the Shura went into a session quickly and took control of the whole drama. The developments of the past few days clearly indicate that the Indian negotiating team is talking to the Taleban and the hijackers almost equally. By the seventh day it is beaming increasingly clear that the Taleban have succeeded in keeping the initiative of negotiations under their control than with the hijackers.
With the result, the pressure that is being mounted by Pakistan on the Taleban to make India accede to the hijackers's demand, is being handled by the Taleban themselves without bringing the hijackers into the picture. The information coming from Kandahar clearly shows that the Taleban have succeeded to a large extent. How far Pakistan will take this snub from moderates in the Shura is to be seen in the coming weeks.
Lastly, from the Indian perspective, it is being seen as extension of the Kargil conflict by Pakistan. Since Islamabad failed to achieve the desired result by an armed conflict, it is adopting other means to achieve its objectives. The Government of India was surprised at the statements coming from Islamabad. From day one of the hijack drama Islamabad started saying they are not involved.
General Pervez Musharraf's statement on day 5 of the hijack drama to an international television network that the incident was planned by India to discredit Pakistan on the issue of terrorism is being viewed with concern; and as irresponsible behaviour by the CEO of Pakistan. The actions of Pakistani agencies in snapping our embassy's telephone lines for a while on day two of the hijack drama is being viewed as an unfriendly act.
To neutralise this Pakistani offensive on the Taleban, India solicited help from Saudi Arabia and the UAE on day six of the hijack drama. At another level, India has made some quick moves by agreeing to acknowledge the Taleban's authority in Afghanistan. Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh referring to the Taleban from day four of the hijack drama and not just Afghan authorities has to be viewed as a subtle shift in India's policy. Equally important: India seems to have agreed in principle to engage the Taleban in the months to come to work out a combined strategy to bring them into the mainstream international order.
The two other countries have recognised the Taleban government in Afghanistan. The question that is being asked is what are the prospects of the Taleban withdrawing their stand on the hijacking? Any hasty action on the part of the Taleban leadership would have serious repercussion on the movement itself. Pakistan can be really nasty, say by closing down the Afghan trade and transit routes on the entire Pak-Afghan border. Similarly, Pakistan can organise a revolt against the Taleban leadership as they control the entire administration. That may result in another round of civil war in Afghanistan.
Between day five and day six of the hijack drama, the only subtle shift one notices in the Taleban's attitude is they are brining pressure on both India and the hijackers to resolve the issue quickly. The Taleban know if they make the aircraft leave Kandahar without resolving the issue, they will be damned by India and the rest of the international community for quite sometime to come.
The writer is a senior research associate at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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