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The hands that fed them

Khalid Khawaja,a former air force officer and known sympathiser of the Taliban,was killed by a group of Punjabi sectarian terrorists on April 30.

Written by Ejaz Haider |
May 12, 2010 11:23:51 pm

Khalid Khawaja,a former air force officer and known sympathiser of the Taliban,was killed by a group of Punjabi sectarian terrorists on April 30. His body was dumped near the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan. The fate of his two other companions,Brigadier Amir Sultan Tarar (retd),a former Special Services Group and ISI officer,better known by the nom de guerre Colonel Imam,and Assad Qureshi,a Pakistani-British documentary-maker,still hangs in the balance.

Why would the militants kill Khawaja,whose sympathies for the ultra-right were known and documented? Even more,why would they capture Colonel Imam who has had,and retains,deep linkages with the Taliban? Imam,an infantry-SSG officer helped organise the emerging Taliban in the ’90s. Unlike Khawaja,who was more a braggart,Imam has known personally,and had access to,the top Taliban leadership,including Mullah Omar.

The episode reveals some interesting facts about how these groups are configured,what the allegiance pattern is,and whether they can be talked to and trusted.

Khawaja was a mediocre officer and was suspended from flying at the pre-solo stage while at the PAF Academy. He subsequently served as an air traffic control officer. It doesn’t seem like he showed much talent there either,and as squadron leader was sent to the ISI. That was in the mid-’80s. While there,he was never involved with the Afghan theatre but had developed a religious streak. That made him write a letter to then-President and army chief General Zia-ul-Haq,asking Zia to enforce true Islam in the country. That got him reverted to the air force from where he was relieved.

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After that Khawaja kept travelling to Afghanistan and developed some links with groups there through charity work. But he liked to present himself as a big actor. He was questioned and arrested for having met with Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl after the latter went missing in Karachi. Khawaja also told some journalists that he was instrumental in trying to get then-CIA Director James Woolsey to talk to the Taliban. At one point he said that he had arranged for Nawaz Sharif to meet with Osama bin Laden and that bin Laden had funded Sharif’s campaign against Benazir Bhutto.

In 2007 it was reported that he was acting as an interlocutor between the government and the Lal Masjid clerics. Ironically,the militants killed him primarily for having played a double game then,and for having linkages with the ISI and the CIA.

Khawaja’s family told me he was on a “peace mission” and wanted to dissuade the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its various affiliate groups from their violent activities within Pakistan. He had made an earlier trip to North Waziristan carrying a list of militants that,he told the TTP leadership,were working for India’s Research and Analysis Wing. At the time the TTP leadership was on the run and relocating after its strongholds in South Waziristan were captured by the army.

In the murky world where intelligence agencies interact with the “bad guys”,playing this kind of role can always be dangerous. But Khawaja’s credentials gave him confidence.

It seems that his eagerness to play a mediator’s role,which might have more to do with his desire to pull off something big rather than any double game that he was playing,also made the TTP and its affiliate groups suspicious of him.

What Khawaja wasn’t counting on was the fact that the groups,now led by very brash 20- and 30-somethings,have no regard for the older leaders,most of whom are either under arrest,have gone underground or stay at a safe distance from the war zone.

The younger fighter-leaders also have no previous linkages with any of the intelligence agencies. They have been burnished in the crucible of a war in which intelligence agencies like the ISI are seen as siding with the enemy — that is,the United States. The ISI is to be attacked and the last two years have seen multiple attacks on the agency’s detachments,safe houses and vehicles.

Much effort was made to get Khawaja and his companions released and the interlocutors included many heavyweights — but to no avail. North Waziristan has become a witches’ brew. It houses multiple groups,and while they cooperate in mounting attacks on the army or defending against any military operation,central leadership is very loose to non-existent. There is no papal figure to control the actions of groups,sub-groups and,in many cases,sub-sub-groups. This has consequences for policy-making,both at the operational and strategic levels.

Khawaja has paid for Icarian overreach. But by killing Khawaja the Pakistani extremist groups may also have overreached. Those who have been supporting them in the media and the courts would now be less confident of a beast that can eat its own kind.

The writer is national affairs editor,‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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