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December 30, 1999


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Pakistan 'Very Nervous' About Emerging Taleban-India Ties: Afghan Expert

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Arthur J Pais in New York

Pakistan never thought India would be in Kandahar, and with the help of the Taleban, be talking to the hijackers of Indian Airlines Airbus. Given the past history of Indo-Afghanistan relations, the contact that has emerged between the Taleban and the Indian government makes Pakistan "undoubtedly very nervous," Barnett R Rubin, Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Preventive Action, and Director, Peace and Conflict Studies, says.

Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan, and a fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, told that the Taleban is speaking the truth when it says it wished the hijackers had not forced the plane into their country.

He also believes the Taleban's concern for the hostages is real and a reflection of Afghan culture. The crisis has given the Taleban an opportunity to project an image far different than the one perceived in the media, Rubin says. The Taleban would not have wanted the crisis on its hand, since it costs it a lot financially, he adds.

The interview was conducted on Wednesday noon. Rubin, who was director of the Center for the Study of Central Asia, Columbia University (1990 to 1996) and assistant professor of political science, Yale University. (1982 to 1989), is a consultant to the United Nations on Afghanistan. Last year, he testified on the situation in Afghanistan before the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

"I am sure India was not only uneasy about dealing with the Taleban, but also did not have ready-made channels to do so." Rubin adds. "Pakistan would do everything it could to prevent the Taleban from having dealings with India."

"The lack of direct contact between India and the Taleban delayed the start of negotiations," Rubin adds. "But that problem seems to have been solved."

Taleban leaders in New York have insisted they knew nothing of the plot to hijack the plane.

"I have no idea whether the Taleban or anyone within the Taleban knew of the plan, but I doubt it," Rubin adds. "The organization whose members appear to have carried out this operation, the Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen, formerly the Harkat-ul Ansar, has training facilities in Afghanistan, though the organization that actually trains them is the Pakistani ISI, not the Taleban. "

"The Taleban supports their struggle for an Islamic government in Kashmir. But the main international goal of the Taleban now is to be recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. They appear to be trying to respond to this crisis in such a way as to improve their credentials with India and with the international community broadly."

"Because of the presence of Osama bin Laden under their protection, they have been tarred with support for terrorism, though no international terrorist acts have been linked to the Taleban themselves. I am sure they are trying to use this event to improve their image on that score," he added.

He recalled how historically Afghanistan had allied with India against Pakistan, till the fall of the Najibullah government. As one diplomat said, Rubin continued, once the Taleban consolidates its power and shakes off its dependency on Pakistan, it could be in New Delhi in six months.

It is not going to happen now or very soon, he said, but it is a strong possibility.

"Pakistan would not have liked to see India in Kandahar at all, but there they are."

Rubin sees no evidence that bin Laden, the millionaire Saudi militant who now lives in Afghanistan, "has played or will play any role" in the hijacking and concomitant developments.

Hakim Mujahid, the Taleban representative in New York, told this week that the Taleban did not want the hijacked Flight 814 to land in his country, and they wanted it off their territory.

"The Taleban do not have any of the training or equipment for dealing with a hostage crisis," Rubin, who is working on a book about conflict resolution, says.

"They have no special commandos, sophisticated communications equipment, or trained hostage negotiators (though they are the only ones so far to have succeeded in winning any concessions). They have enough problems without this."

Taleban leaders have said they would do anything to save the passengers, and storm the plane if passengers are harmed. Does Rubin think this is a public relations ploy? Perhaps the Taleban is trying to project a new image? Or perhaps the Taleban is changing?

"The Taleban have never shown any interest in supporting the massacre of innocent foreigners," Rubin asserts. "According to Afghan culture, the plane's passengers are now their guests, and they are fully responsible for them. Any harm that befalls the hostages is their responsibility and is a shame for the Taleban."

"Curiously enough, this same cultural value also applies to bin Laden, though there are other factors as well affecting the Taleban's relations with him."

The Taleban has done something important to stop the crisis from escalating. "They convinced the hijackers to postpone their deadline for starting to kill the passengers and to drop two of their demands, for $ 200 million and the exhumation of Sajjad Afghani."

About the Indian government accusing Pakistan of facilitating the hijackers, and Pakistan accusing India of staging the hijacking in order to discredit its military regime, Rubin asks: "What else is new?"

"So far I have not seen any evidence supporting either claim. I wish these two governments could behave like adults with each other instead of trading charges with no evidence, especially when many innocent lives are at stake."

Rubin also spoke about the Taleban's attitude towards Kashmir. "The Taleban back the Kashmiri militants for ideological reasons," he says. "The Kargil operation was planned by the Pakistani government (including then prime minister Nawaz Sharief) and the military and was not led by any Afghan mujahiddin, though some Afghans or militants trained in Afghanistan may have taken part."

"The Pakistani policy has been to back the Taleban and Islamicize and escalate the struggle in Kashmir, using Afghan territory as a base."

"The military regime cannot achieve its domestic goals of public order and reform while continuing to arm jihadi groups for Kashmir and Afghanistan," he says. "The Taleban are not going to get involved directly in fighting in Kashmir. They have enough problems in Afghanistan."

Several US-based Kashmiri groups, who back the Kashmiri militants, have said the hijacking does not help their cause, and that it gets them bad publicity.

"Obviously they are right. The Harkat-ul-mujahedeen is fighting in Kashmir, but most of them are not Kashmiri but other Pakistanis fighting for Islamist ideological reasons. They are opposed to Kashmiriyat which is dear to most Kashmiris. In general the Pakistani policy of Islamicizing and escalating the struggle of the Kashmiris has done harm to the international legitimacy of the Kashmiri cause, and such high-profile acts of terrorism do even more damage."

What are some of the lessons for India from the crisis, apart from the need to beef up its security?

"India cannot hold Kashmir by force and it cannot keep Pakistan totally out of Kashmir," he asserts. "It has to reach an agreement with the Kashmiri people and allow Pakistan some role there. Defining the Kashmir problem as a terrorism problem will lead to more, not less terrorism. No solution based on a zero-sum concept of the problem -- either India or Pakistan must win -- can work.

"And even though India recognizes the Rabbani government, it should pursue the opening this event has created for dialogue with the Taleban," Professor Rubin felt.


The Barnett Rubin Chat

Next: Professor Barnett Rubin on the Taleban regime in Afghanistan

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