Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the Taliban foreign minister when the Indian Airlines plane, IC-814, was hijacked from Kathmandu to Kandahar in December 1999, tells Jyoti Malhotra that India should not look at Afghanistan through the Pakistani lens.
I would like to ask you about the hijacking of IC-814 almost ten years ago.
Yes, I was present in Kandahar. I can tell you the problem was resolved according to the wishes of the Indian government. The deal was struck between the hijackers and the government. The fact that the hijackers disappeared into Pakistan, well, that was not within our jurisdiction. The people who hijacked the plane killed one person, but our aim after the plane landed in Kandahar was that no one should be killed on Afghan soil. We succeeded in that. The Taliban were not involved in the hijacking.
Did you approve of the deal?
We did not approve of it.
Why did you allow the hijackers to escape into Pakistan?
That was part of the deal with the Indian government. We did not want such people on our soil. If they went to Pakistan, it was not our business.
The plane was in Kandahar for one full week and you couldn't take action against the hijackers
The key actors wanted to take the plane to another destination, but we didn't allow that.
You sound as if you were surprised by the hijacking.
There were rumours of ransom being paid, about $20 million, to the hijackers
I don't remember these details very well. I was in the Bagram prison for two years (after the Americans took him prisoner). For us, this hijacking was something very new. I remember that when we offered the passengers food, many of them did not want to eat because they were vegetarian. They wanted cereals instead.
What else do you remember?
That it was something very stressful because it was during Ramadan. We told the hijackers, in front of the diplomats, to release the passengers. We also played a role in reducing the demands of the hijackers. They wanted ransom money, but it was our effort to finish it (the episode) as quickly as possible.
Was ransom paid?
As far as I know, no ransom was paid.
Do you think the Indian government should be grateful to you for the help?
They should be grateful, no doubt, but I don't think they are. After I was released from Bagram, I happened to meet some Indians. When they found I was there in Kandahar, I thought they would be grateful. But their behaviour was not proper. However, the hijacked passengers, when they were released, were very polite and thankful to us and to the Indian foreign minister (BJP's Jaswant Singh, who went to Kandahar to negotiate with the hijackers).
Was Pakistan involved?
It is natural, because the hijackers seemed to be Pakistani and also Masood Azhar, who was released by the Indians under the deal, is a Pakistani. But I don't know if the Pakistani government was involved. However, I want to say that India should look at Afghanistan through its own lens, not through the Pakistani lens. One of India's biggest mistakes was to support the puppet Soviet regime in Kabul because the mujahideen were based in Pakistan. India's second mistake was not to recognise the Taliban. Even today, the Indian government should accept the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and support the peace process. After all, the Taliban are a part of Afghan society.
How is the situation in Afghanistan today? There are rumours of a reconciliation process between the Karzai government and the Taliban
Discussions are going on. There is hope, but no result yet. I am not a representative of the Taliban. So far, these are only talks about talks.
Is it a good idea to engage the Taliban in talks?
Yes. For example, I suggested to the Afghan government that it should convince the foreign forces that peace is the only solution. There should be confidence-building measures. The Taliban are saying, first get the foreign forces out. The government is saying, accept the Constitution and then we'll talk. The government needs to build confidence with the Taliban instead of bombing them all the time. But no doors have been left open.
Is there a difference between the 'moderate' Taliban and the 'hardline' Taliban?
These terms need to be defined. Foreign forces also bomb people and kill them, they can also be called "hardliners." One thing is clear that non-Afghans should be excluded from the conversation.
Non-Afghans would also include the Al Qaeda
Yes, the Al Qaeda and the foreign forces. Reconciliation is purely an Afghan conversation.
And if the Al Qaeda doesn't go?
Don't speak of the Al Qaeda as if it's a country. It is all over West Asia, Africa, etc. It has an international agenda while the Taliban have a national agenda.
How would you assess the Taliban years?
We managed to integrate the country and provide security and justice to people, but could not convince the international community to support us. We wanted segregated schools, yes, but there was also a lot of media propaganda. The image of the Taliban was distorted. In fact, the first article of the Constitution that is being discussed today says it should be based on the Sharia. The only difference is that the Sharia has not been implemented yet. But when it is, capital punishment will be allowed because it is allowed in the Sharia.
There were so many human rights violations, especially with women. And then you destroyed the Buddhas...
There were lots of problems at that time. We were economically weak, the country was badly divided. But I want to tell you that Mullah Omar did say that it was not the job of the Taliban to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas.
Why were they destroyed?
There were differences.the cultural affairs ministry said they should be preserved, while the religious affairs ministry said they should be destroyed. Mullah Omar was asked.once he approved, it could not be stopped. This act definitely affected the Taliban image internationally.
Do you think they should have been destroyed?
I personally felt that they were already mutilated over centuries. I told Mullah Omar, but he had taken a decision.
Today, it is said that the Afghan Taliban are taking shelter in the Pakistani city of Quetta? Leaders like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, etc?
I have heard that they are in Quetta, just like you have, but I don't really know if they are there.
What about the attack against the Indian embassy in Kabul last year? The Jalaluddin Haqqani faction is supposed to be responsible?
Pakistan blames India for supporting the Baloch insurgency in Pakistan. One has to be very careful in coming to any conclusion about anything. In this history of India-Pakistan rivalries, Afghanistan should not be involved. My suggestion to (President) Karzai has been that we should not sacrifice Afghanistan to the rivalry between India and Pakistan but serve our own interests.