Behind the hijackers' demands

Kashmir may be at the heart of this dispute, playing out in a part of

Eight days into the drama, it appears the hijacking of an Indian airliner is part of a larger aim to focus world attention on the 50-year-old Kashmir dispute - by Islamic radicals using violence in bolder doses.

In recent months, a variety of militant Islamist groups operating mainly from Pakistan have expressed pride over dozens of operations in Indian-controlled Kashmir. They've used faidi, or suicide bombers, young graduates of militant training centers who openly attack high-profile targets in Kashmir with little chance of survival.

Today, on the eve of a historic calendar turn, the image of a wide-bodied Airbus with more than 150 hostages being guarded by black-turbaned Taliban in the dusty medieval Afghan city of Kandahar symbolizes many of the complex dangers still to be faced in an unstable part of the world that now possesses nuclear weapons.

"This airplane hijacking is a Kashmir story," says Stephen Cohen, a South Asia expert with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "With nuclear weapons on both sides of the line, the unresolved dispute is more dangerous than ever."

Two days ago, as Indian, Pakistani, and Afghan officials cooperated to negotiate with the Kashmiri rebel hijackers - Islamic guerrillas in Kashmir attacked the headquarters of an Indian antiterrorist special operations group, killing 10. This October, faidi-style insurgents took the unprecedented step of attacking the central Army headquarters in Srinigar, the capital of Kashmir. Two militants were killed, but not before storming the public affairs office and taking the life of Major Purushottam, a widely known and well liked Army spokesman.

Six months ago, in an effort to similarly "internationalize" the deeply contentious issue of Kashmir, the Nawaz Sharif government of Pakistan provoked a limited war with India - marking the first direct fight ever between two nuclear states.

Unlike the crisis last summer, when Indian and Pakistani-based troops fought hand to hand at altitudes of 15,000 feet in the Himalayan mountains - few diplomats believe the new military-led government of Pakistan is directly behind the current hijacking.

But the desire to get international attention to the plight of Kashmir, where 300,000 Indian soldiers are deployed among a totally resistant Muslim majority population - is similar.

The chief aim of the Indian airline hijackers, who boarded the plane last Friday at an airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, is to secure the release of Maulana Masood Azhar, an Islamic leader who was arrested in 1994 as he tried to bring together the two largest militant groups in Kashmir. Both groups have been on the US State Department's terrorist list, and one group now operates under the name Harakat ul-Mujahideen.

Yet as a publicity strategy, the hijacking, reminiscent of similar often-violent standoffs during the height of the Arab-Israeli crisis, is described by most experts as a loser. The Western publics have not traditionally sympathized with these groups' causes.

"As with the Palestinian hijackings, you get the issues and grievances on the front page," says Teresita Schaeffer, former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka. "But you don't move any closer to a solution; usually just the opposite."

Sources in Kashmir familiar with insurgent politics say that after the Kargil war was abandoned last July by Pakistan immediately after soldiers had gained the high ground - the militant Kashmeri opposition felt alienated and dispirited. The bolder strategy of the present is the result of what one expert stated as a condition of "young men that don't care what happens to them; they figure there's nothing left to lose."

Pakistan abandoned the mountaintop positions inside the Indian "line of control" after former Prime Minister Sharif visited President Clinton on July 4, and after Pakistan received numerous diplomatic rebuffs for the Kargil operation, even by ally China.

The politics of the hijacking offers an opportunity for both the new Pakistani government of Pervez Musharraf and the Taliban of Afghanistan to show the international community they are trustworthy partners.

The Indian government, by contrast, is seeking to avoid any international mediation over the hijacking that would offer a precedent forcing India into peace talks that could result in lost territory in Kashmir.

The Taliban, who desire international recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, have an opportunity to change their image. They want to show their version of Islam is orthodox and fundamentalist - not the political or terrorist-exporting Islam that they are often labeled as representing.

The UN levied sanctions against the Taliban in November for harboring wealthy Saudi rebel Osama bin Laden, accused of engineering the bombing of two US Embassies in Africa last year.

Yet since coming to power in 1995, Taliban representatives say, they've been a force for law and order in their country and deserve credit for stopping the chaos and wanton tribal violence that prevailed in the early '90s.

The dialogue between the Muslim officials and the hijackers, thought to be a mix of young Pakistanis and Kashmiris, is one reason for looking on the bright side. Taliban officials have talked the hijackers out of their initial demand for $200 million, as well as threats to systematically kill hostages, on the grounds these demands are anti-Islam.

Sources say it is a positive sign that the Indians are expressing a guarded confidence in the outcome. Passengers on the plane are reportedly enjoying somewhat better conditions.

But on the dark side, the hijackers do not appear to be sophisticated or to have thought through their options. By landing in Kandahar, the spiritual capital of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, the hijackers have left themselves very few options for a face-saving resolution.

The Taliban are unlikely to allow forces from outside states to storm the plane and free the hostages.

"I only see one peaceful option left - an agreement to hand back the plane," says Ambassador Schaeffer. "And I'm not sure you can expect that."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.