The new leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, embraced Maulana Masood Azhar on the Kandahar airport tarmac as the hijacking of IC-814 ended with the release of the Jaish-e-Mohammed leader and two others, and was the man who drove him out of the airport in his white Land Cruiser.
Anand Arni, a former officer with the Research & Analysis Wing, who was part of the team that went to Kandahar to negotiate with the hijackers of the Indian Airlines plane, was on the tarmac as Azhar was released, along with Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, on December 31, 1991.
Mansour was then the civil aviation minister of Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
“Mansour was present at the Kandahar airport that day. He was wearing flashy dark glasses and sitting at the wheel of his Land Cruiser,” Arni, possibly among only a handful of Indians to have seen the new Taliban leader, recalled.
When Azhar, who was then affiliated with the Harkat ul-Ansar, came off the plane, Mansour hugged him “like a long lost friend”, Arni said. “Masood then got into into Mansour’s vehicle. It was clear that Masood was the VIP. He drove him off.”
Zargar and Sheikh, who were transported in the same plane as Azhar from India, escorted by then foreign minister Jaswant Singh, did not go in the vehicle, said Arni, who is now with the Bangalore-based think tank Takshashila Institute.
Azhar surfaced in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, days later, where he is thought to live to this day. He founded the Jaish-e-Mohammed after his release. He is wanted by India for the 2001 Parliament attack, but Pakistan denies any knowledge of his whereabouts.
Last year, he addressed a rally in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir via video-conferencing.
For India, the elevation of Mansour as Mullah Omar’s successor in the Taliban has resurrected dark memories of the hijacking. He is seen as close to Pakistan’s ISI. He was Mullah Omar’s deputy and led the Quetta shura, which ran the Taliban in Omar’s name out of the capital of the Pakistan province of Balochistan, where it was based.
The ascendance of Sirajuddin Haqqani as the deputy leader of the Taliban has also sent waves of concern across India’s intelligence community. The Haqqani network was held by the US to have been behind the Indian Embassy bombing at Kabul as well as attacks on US targets in Afghanistan. The US has for years wanted the Pakistani army to act against the Haqqani network sanctuary in North Waziristan. In 2104, the Pakistan military began operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, which they said was targeted at all militants including the Haqqani network.
But the Haqqani leaders and militants are said to have left the area before Zarb-e-Azb began. The inclusion of Sirajuddin in the new Taliban hierarchy, which is said to be supported by Pakistan, gives the Haqqani network added status and weight in the Afghanistan stakes.
The new Taliban leadership is expected to take forward the Pakistan- and China-backed talks with the Afghanistan government that began earlier this year. The US is also on board the Taliban-Afghan government talks. Its officials have been present at all the meetings.
The last round was held on July 7. The next round was scheduled for July 31 but was put off by the Taliban till a successor to Mullah Omar could be appointed.
Mansour’s anointment as the Taliban leader has been opposed by Mullah Omar’s son Yakub. Others opposed to Mansour, including a group in Doha that represented the Taliban in its negotiations with the US in 2011-12, have been noticeably silent.