U.S. unhelpful in hijack probe

New Delhi Nov. 13. Yesterday's India-Russia joint declaration condemning "double standards" in the United States' war against terrorism may have been provoked by the recent developments in the ongoing investigation of the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC-814. CBI officials and their counterparts in the Indian intelligence services are increasingly worried about what they see as United States protection for Taliban and Pakistani intelligence officials responsible for the outrage.

Earlier this month, CBI officials leaked news that they hoped to interrogate the former Taliban Corps Commander, Akhtar Muhammad Usmani. Usmani commanded Taliban forces in Kandahar at the time of the hijacking, was later nominated heir-apparent to the organisation's head, Mullah Mohammad Omar. What the media missed was that no one in or outside Afghanistan actually claimed to have captured Usmani. He was last heard of in March, when the Taliban claimed credit for a major ambush in southern Afghanistan. Since then, the United States has maintained a stoic silence on a person one would expect to be high on their list of targets in Afghanistan.

That, Indian intelligence officials insist, is because Usmani has been in the quasi-custody of the United States for several weeks, possibly months. While he has never been arrested or jailed, India believes he operates under the protective umbrella of the United States military. "Like a lot of other top Taliban officials," says a senior intelligence official in New Delhi told The Hindu today, "you could describe his relationship with the United States as the kind a kite has with the hand that holds the string". The fact there has been no Afghan or United States reaction to Indian media reports on Usmani, he suggested, was a tacit admission of his position.

CBI officials who visited Afghanistan earlier this year to interrogate the former Taliban Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil, came back with the same impression. The interrogation came after months of effort, and a blunt Indian warning that it would have to issue an Interpol request for arrest if custodial access to Mutawakil was not granted. Mutawakil said little, but did affirm that arrangements to ship the IC-814 hijackers and the three prisoners released in return for the lives on board the aircraft, were made by Usmani in cooperation with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. The CBI has now put up a formal proposal to the Union Government to request Afghanistan to permit Usmani's interrogation.

Much of what Mutawakil said was already known. Indian communications intelligence experts travelling in the aircraft which flew in the then External Affairs Joint Secretary, Vivek Katju, to negotiate with the hijackers picked up dozens of wireless conversations they had with Urdu-speaking handlers on the ground in Kandahar. Interestingly, Mr. Katju and his fellow-negotiators, the Research and Analysis Wing's C.D. Sahay and the Intelligence Bureau's Ajit K. Doval, were put up in a guesthouse just yards away from where their ISI counterparts were housed. Doval is quoted in a recent book by French philosopher and journalist, Bernard-Henri Levy as saying the released prisoners, Maulana Masood Azhar, Syed Omar Sheikh, and Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar, were welcomed warmly by ISI personnel on the tarmac in Kandahar. Levy's book Who killed Daniel Pearl examines the connection among the ISI, Masood Azhar and Sheikh.

CBI investigators hope Usmani will provide key clues to just what the ISI's role in the hijacking was, and who asked the Taliban to ship hijackers and prisoners across the border into Pakistan.

India has been trying, without success, to access logbooks and wireless records of Kandahar Air Traffic Control and the records of the Taliban Consultative Council meeting on the hijacking on December 29, 1999.

These documents may be among several tonnes of documents seized by United States intelligence officials during their post-September 11, 2001, war on the Taliban. But so far repeated requests for access to this material have been stonewalled.

Indian officials believe the United States is reluctant to share information because of its short-term political objectives in Afghanistan. Stretched to the edge by its military commitments in Iraq, the United States hopes to reduce its troop commitments in Afghanistan through a deal with what some policy-makers in Washington D.C. describe as "moderate Taliban".

Pakistan's military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, the author of the term, would also be happy with such a deal, for it would place figures close to the ISI in positions of authority in Afghanistan.

The United States also hopes that a repackaged Taliban political component from southern Afghanistan would help limit Russian, Iranian and Indian influence in the region.