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The Rediff Special/ Professor Brahma Chellaney

The hijack crisis bares India's political diffidence and diplomatic credulity

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After being held to ransom for more than a week by a bunch of hostage-takers who commandeered an Indian jetliner to Kandahar, India has caved in to terrorist demands in a manner reminiscent of the infamous Rubaiya Sayeed case a decade ago that helped trigger the bloody resurgence of Islamic militancy in the Kashmir valley. The very leaders who took the lead to condemn the release of some terrorists in return for freedom for the then Indian home minister's abducted daughter, have now yielded to the hijackers in what clearly is a victory for international terrorism.

Equally strange is the way External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh personally delivered three hardcore Kashmiri terrorists to the hijackers in Kandahar, the lair of international terrorists. This is the first instance since hijackings began in the late 1960s that a government minister has flown to terrorist territory to hand over terrorists to terrorists.

Admission of defeat does not have to take the form of grovelling. But Jaswant Singh's flight to Kandahar with the three terrorists amounted to that.

While the public aspects of the Kandahar deal are known, its other elements may never be identified. New Delhi publicised the shifting demands of the hostage-takers, but not the demands of the Taleban. By turning to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for help, Jaswant Singh, however, implicitly acknowledged the Taleban pressure on India.

The hijack crisis unambiguously exposed India's political diffidence and diplomatic gullibility under a government that came to power on a fiercely nationalistic agenda. This was supposed to be a government with a difference. The crisis, however, provided evidence that it is a government with no difference.

The Kandahar deal, the government's new-millennium gift to the nation, has been officially justified on grounds that India had no other option. But that begs the question as to how India got pushed against the wall. India's humiliation over the hijacking was largely self-made: A series of blunders compelled it to negotiate on bended knees.

Even in negotiations with the terrorists, India did not fully employ the negotiating card. The Indian negotiating team was sent to Kandahar not to psychologically wear down the hijackers' resolve, but to cut a deal. Capitulation was writ large the moment the negotiators left for Kandahar on December 27.

New Delhi could have tried to prolong the negotiations further to focus greater international attention on the terror at Kandahar and to expose the hijackers' backers. But Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted to begin the new millennium on a clean slate. Arguments of several senior Cabinet ministers who baulked at the terrorists' release were overruled.

The New Year Eve cave-in culminated several slip-ups starting from Kathmandu. As India shares a long open border with Nepal, its security perimeter should naturally extend up to the northern Nepalese frontier. If India cannot fight terrorism in Nepal, the battle is lost. Alternatively, if Nepal doesn't fully co-operate, India will have to redraw its security perimeter by sealing the Indo-Nepalese border.

Any successful hijack comes with credible threats to the lives of cockpit crew and passengers. One or two hijackers can be on a suicide mission, not multiple hijackers. Yet the officially released transcripts of the conversation between the Amritsar air traffic controllers and the pilot of the hijacked jetliner after it landed in the Sikh holy city show that a lily-livered India neither understands the psychology of terrorists nor is prepared to swing into immediate action.

The only way India can effectively fight the scourge of terrorism is not by sinking more and more of its scarce resources in anti-terrorist operations at home, but by taking the battle to the terrorists' springboards and delivering a strong deterrent blow whenever the militants strike. No counter-terrorism action can be risk-free. A golden opportunity for India that the hijackers had not bargained for -- the aircraft being forced to land in Amritsar because of low fuel -- was allowed to slip by.

Even if Indian commandoes had not initially stormed the airliner, the hijackers would have been brought under excruciating psychological pressure had the plane been detained in Amritsar. In a period shorter than the ordeal underway in Kandahar, the hostage-takers would have wilted or created conditions ripe for a swift end through commando intervention. By letting the hijackers slip away, India significantly increased its diplomatic costs and political risks.

While no nation, however focussed and determined, can completely free itself of terrorist infiltration and hijacking, the level of threat from such acts to a State is determined by the manner in which it responds to them when they occur. A laidback, uncoordinated or slipshod response only exposes a country as a soft target, emboldening extremists to commit further acts of terror against it.

Lamentably, twice this year, first in Kargil and now on the hijacking, India has failed to deliver a clear-cut, effective deterrent message against further acts of clandestine or terrorist warfare. Instead, a wrong message has unwittingly got conveyed: That a negligent, reactive India is content to take on invaders and hijackers on their terms. Both in Kargil and Amritsar, India faltered in responding quickly and methodically to a crisis, thereby allowing the emergency to become more critical.

When the Kargil invasion first came to light, India took a number of days to assess the level of aggression and improvise a policy set-up to pursue war, allowing the encroachers to entrench themselves and widen their operation. In the absence of an integrated military force and command structure, the Cabinet first rejected the idea of airstrikes and then reversed its decision exactly a week later. Without an institutional structure in peacetime, India can never be fully ready for war. It still does not have an integrated military force, with the three services kept divided and competing among themselves for budgetary resources.

The hostage crisis brought out Indian diplomacy in poor light, with Jaswant Singh focusing more on media spin rather than on longer-term ramifications. Before he left for Kandahar, he publicly declared that the government strategy was both to protect the passengers and crew on board the hijacked jetliner and protect national interests. After he delivered the terrorists, his public comments emphasised only the first goal and were tellingly silent on the second.

Until the hijack happened, India had circumspectly stayed away from the two hostile regimes lacking legitimacy - the military junta in Islamabad and the thuggish, Pakistan-backed Taleban in Afghanistan. Within 24 hours of the hijack, India's diplomatic aloofness towards both regimes melted so quickly that Jaswant Singh beseeched them for their co-operation.

Even as the Pakistan military spokesman was announcing on CNN International that the commandeered jetliner at Lahore Airport was being refuelled to make the hijackers leave Pakistan, Jaswant Singh called up the Pakistani junta's foreign minister, Abdul Sattar, and pleaded for co-operation. Until that point, India had refrained from any diplomatic contact with the Pakistani military regime to the extent that when the father of its self-appointed chief executive died, Vajpayee addressed his condolence simply to "General Pervez Musharraf, Islamabad, Pakistan", declining to call him 'chief executive'. A peeved Musharraf did not acknowledge the condolence message.

Jaswant Singh also has played havoc with the carefully calibrated Afghanistan policy New Delhi had crafted in the aftermath of the Kargil war. The policy recognises that the Pak-Taleban terrorism nexus, the single biggest threat to India's internal security, has to be effectively countered through a multi-pronged strategy.

Jaswant Singh has already sowed seeds of suspicion about India in at least one key constituent of that policy -- Afghanistan's Northern Alliance commanders, such as Ahmad Shah Masood, the 'Lion of Panjshir.'

In an echo of his famous statement earlier claiming a "paradigm shift" in America's approach towards India, Jaswant Singh briefed newspaper editors on December 27 about what he called a new positive shift in the Taleban's policy. From being a terrorist organisation no different than the Harkat-ul-Ansar, the Taleban overnight got portrayed in the Indian press as an ally of India against the hostage-takers.

The diplomatic credulity displayed was remarkable. In dressing up a foe as a new-found buddy, the assumption made was that others change their beliefs and policies as rapidly and abstractedly as India does. It is obvious that if anyone has changed, it is India, not the Taleban. The hijackers first revealed their demands through the Taleban, and it was the Taleban again that said it had made them drop two of four demands. Equally significant was the Taleban's decisions to militarily block any foreign commando rescue mission and to set a deadline for India.

Before the relief plane with Indian negotiators, doctors and engineers was sent to Kandahar on December 27, Jaswant Singh had reposed such confidence in securing the Taleban's co-operation and freedom for the hostages that he told the media the previous day to expect "a significant development" within 24 hours. When no significant event occurred, the relief plane took off for Kandahar.

Pathetically, India put itself at the Taleban's mercy. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE came to its assistance. The Saudi cabinet discussed the hijack issue on December 29 but did not issue a customary statement after the meeting. Saudi Arabia stayed mum on the crisis. The UAE denied the Indian ambassador even access to the air base while the hijacked aircraft was parked there.

The hijacking also bared the naiveté of the diplomatic assessments from Indian missions in Riyadh and Kathmandu that questioned home ministry and intelligence appraisals about Saudi funding activities and the use of Nepal as a terrorist springboard. The mission in Riyadh had even reported Saudi interest in building a special relationship with India.

It is time Indian diplomacy distinguished real friends from fair-weather friends. The only countries that have come out clearly on India's side in the hostage crisis were Russia and France. Moscow, an important component in India's Afghanistan policy, went to extra length to extend co-operation in this crisis.

In contrast, the United States, despite currently being on a heightened alert against terrorist attacks, took four full days to openly condemn the hijack. President Bill Clinton's statement that "the Kashmir issue is perhaps the most dangerous one in the world" only shows that whenever he publicly refers to India, he casts it in negative light on its two most vital concerns -- Kashmir and nuclear defence.

For US officials, the hijack is an opportunity to refocus attention on Kashmir, "the root cause", and link it with nuclear dangers so as to build pressure on New Delhi to discuss Kashmir with Pakistan and sign the nuclear test-ban treaty. If Washington really wants to combat international terrorism and desires a strategic understanding with India, it should have clearly come out on India's side during the hijack crisis.

US co-operation with New Delhi on counter-terrorism is also warranted by the fact that India has been paying the biggest price for the unintended consequences of America's past covert actions in Afghanistan, where the CIA alone funnelled more than $ 5 billion worth of arms through the ISI. There is a link between those actions and the rise of J&K terrorist violence through the flow of sophisticated arms and militants.

India's Afghan policy since after Kargil was designed to counter the rising terrorist dangers. As long as the Taleban, propped up by the Pakistan military and fattened by the heroin trade, remains in control of large parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan will enjoy the strategic depth and resources to bring India's internal security under pressure. India cannot tackle Pakistan effectively without taking on the Taleban, which behind its religious mask is an organisation of tribal thugs, pillaging mercenaries, and drug and arms traffickers.

One of the blunders that should be probed is the astonishingly inconsistent messages that were sent to Pakistan, the UAE and the Taleban regarding the further movement of the hijacked airliner. Most odd was Jaswant Singh's expressed desire that the Taleban not allow the hijacked airliner to take off from Kandahar, a terrorist's paradise.

India was too quick to declare victory in Kargil. No victory can be described as decisive if it is immediately followed by a qualitative escalation in the enemy's sponsorship of proxy and terrorist actions, as India has witnessed in the spate of militant attacks on army and paramilitary camps in Jammu and Kashmir. Nor should a clear victory impose the enormous, long-term costs that Kargil did by making it mandatory for the Indian military to forward-deploy troops along the long line of control in that sector even during the harsh winter months. That the militants and their backers can still bring India under further pressure has been shown by the professionally executed hijacking.

The Kargil war has not ended because the main foe has only been wounded, not vanquished. The war is still being waged against India by different means. The Christmas Eve hijacking, and New Delhi's New Year Eve capitulation, is a forewarning of other major terrorists acts to come.

Brahma Chellaney, a well-known columnist and commentator on strategic affairs, is professor of security studies at the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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