Taliban military chief Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor, long sought by India for questioning on his alleged role in providing explosives and assault weapons to the hijackers of an Indian Airlines flight to Kandahar, has emerged as the leader of a secret diplomatic initiative to open talks between the Afghan government and the terrorist group, highly placed government sources in Kabul and New Delhi have told The Indian Express.
Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor, met with Mansoor and the head of the Taliban’s interior affairs committee, during an unannounced visit to Doha, Qatar’s capital, early this month, the sources said.
The involvement of a Kandahar hijacking suspect in the Afghanistan peace talks is likely to underline New Delhi’s mounting concerns over what it sees as the pro-Pakistan tilt of President Ashraf Ghani’s new government. “We have not forgotten the culprits and accessories of IC-814,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs said.
In recent weeks, President Ghani has sought to win Pakistan’s support for the peace process with the Taliban by sending Afghan military officers for training in that country, and putting on ice a request for Indian weapons aid made by his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
Mansoor, as the Taliban’s Civil Aviation Minister, handled the 1999 hijacking of IC-814 for the regime, along with its Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, and Kandahar corps commander Akhtar Muhammad Usmani. Indian officials believe Mansoor may be able to answer key questions, including the possible role of the ISI station in Kandahar in supplying explosives and assault rifles to the hijackers.
“The hijackers were smuggled pistols, and perhaps a grenade, on board the flight inside a sweet box they smuggled through security in Kathmandu,” recalled former R&AW chief C D Sahai, who was in Kandahar as the hijacking unfolded.
“But in Kandahar, we found they had automatic weapons, and had rigged the aircraft with explosives. It stands to reason that someone there provided them with these things after the plane landed,” he said.
In 2002, following the fall of the Taliban, the CBI was allowed to question Muttawakil, who had surrendered to the US. Mulinja Narayanan, the CBI officer in the case, recalled that “he was not forthcoming”. “He flatly denied he had any knowledge of what had transpired, and blamed everything on the others in the Taliban,” he said.
Usmani, who the CBI also hoped to question, was killed in a 2006 airstrike targetting Taliban forces in Helmand province.
Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive and second-in-command to the President, said on Tuesday that “peace talks will, god willing, start in the next few days”. “The people of Afghanistan will be informed of the start of these talks, of developments and of when they end,” he said in a message that seemed addressed to critics concerned that a peace deal with the Taliban could set off ethnic-religious faultlines within the country.
For its part, the Taliban has denied that it is prepared to engage in talks — but reports say a team from its Doha office, led by Qari Din Muhammad, is currently in Islamabad for negotiations.
The ongoing initiative has the support of Pakistan’s intelligence services, who are seeking a deal that would accommodate their jihadist allies — and also block space for more radical groups opposed to Islamabad. The deal, diplomatic sources said, is intended to lead to a ceasefire, followed by a power-sharing deal underwritten by Pakistan and China. Taliban officials have also met Chinese diplomats for consultations.
Former Afghan intelligence czar Amrullah Saleh has been leading opposition to a peace deal with the Taliban, saying it will undermine the country’s fragile democracy. “I have no problem if the Taliban give up their arms and contest elections, like everyone else,” he said. “The effort to give the Taliban power through the back door, though, has already demoralised Afghan forces giving their lives in the battle against them, and will divide the nation.”
Experts also fear a deal will power Taliban without bringing about peace, because of the growing power of new jihadist groups hostile to dialogue. These include the al-Fath Mahaz, the Tora Bora Mahaz, and the Fidayano Mahaz — the last led by the brother of top Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah Akhund. The Tora Bora front, similarly, is led by the son of Yunus Khalis, the Islamist warlord who first welcomed Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan. The al-Fath, again, is run by affiliates of former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
In addition, drug money has fuelled internecine feuds and vested interests in violence. Said Ahmed Shahidkhel, the Taliban chief in Laghman Province who was shot at the end of 2013, survived an assassination attempt linked to these disputes. Taliban founding ideologue Maulvi Abdullah Zakeri was assassinated in January, after criticising commanders who profited from “the presence of the infidels.”
Efforts to open talks with the Taliban have pushed forward fitfully for years. In 2013, talks collapsed after Karzai rejected the Taliban’s move to fly their flag at the Doha office. However, the ISI later brokered meetings between Karzai’s representatives and the Taliban’s ailing second-in-command, Abdul Gani Baradar.
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