The Killer Axis: America, Militants, and the Establishment
From Hamid Mir
ISLAMABAD: The last mission of ex-ISI officer Khalid Khwaja failed but his assassination exposed many hidden secrets, including differences between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban, and has put a spotlight on his highly complex underworld life, as a mediator, sometimes on behalf of the Americans, a power-broker, a mover and shaker besides an ardent Islamic preacher.Squadron Leader (retd) Khalid Khwaja had been playing an active behind-the-scene role in domestic politics of Pakistan for the last 22 years. He became an important international player 11 years ago when he first tried to establish direct links between the Kashmiri militants and the Clinton Administration but failed.
He had been trying to establish direct contacts between the USA and the Taliban for the last five years.He also tried to mediate between the Pakistan Army and the Taliban many times in the last two years but all his efforts failed due to lack of trust between him and the current military leadership of Pakistan. His known contacts with some former CIA officials and an American businessman Mansoor Ijaz also created problems for him. He was intelligent enough in maintaining links with Americans and their critics like Hameed Gul at the same time but unfortunately he could not anticipate the seriousness of his adversaries, who did not miss any opportunity to strike against friends and foes alike.
He was sacked from the ISI on the direct orders of General Ziaul Haq in 1987 but he remained active with the ISI even after his sacking. He was the right hand man of former DG ISI Hameed Gul in 1988 and played a significant role in the making of the anti-PPP political alliance, the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI).He claimed that he arranged a meeting between Osama bin Ladin and Nawaz Sharif in Saudi Arabia in 1989. He made this revelation just a few weeks before the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif government in 1999. Khalid Khwaja tried to convince Nawaz Sharif not to support Asif Zardari as president in August 2008 but the PML-N leader did not listen to him.Khalid Khwaja was assassinated by a group of Punjabi Taliban on April 30 near Mir Ali in North Wazirastan. He was kidnapped on March 26 along with another former ISI official Col (retd) Ameer Sultan and a British born Pakistani filmmaker Asad Qureshi. An unknown group of Punjabi Taliban, with the name of Asian Tigers, alleged that Khalid Khwaja was working for the ISI and the CIA but that was not the main reason behind his killing.
A few weeks before his abduction, he met Taliban leader Waliur Rehman Mehsud in North Waziristan and handed over a list of some militants and alleged that they were working for Indian spy agencies. Within a few hours of that meeting, the vehicle of Waliur Rehman was attacked by a US drone but the Taliban commander survived. Waliur Rehman immediately informed the Punjabi Taliban to be careful about Khwaja, who then decided to trap him.
A spokesman for Punjabi Taliban hinted on Saturday that “charges against Col Imam are not strong and we may release him”. He also admitted that the Afghan Taliban were also putting pressure on the Punjabi Taliban to release the former ISI colonel.
While talking to this scribe on phone from North Waziristan, the spokesman reacted to the statement of Khalid Khwaja’s wife, who declared that her husband was a martyr because he was killed by some criminals.
The spokesman for the Punjabi Taliban said that both Mr and Mrs Khalid Khwaja played an active role in Lal Masjid tragedy in July 2007. They forced late Abdul Rashid Ghazi not to surrender but disappeared when the operation started.
Some friends of Khalid Khwaja, however, tell a different story. They say that Khwaja was arrested just a few days before the operation in Lal Masjid but they also admit that Khwaja was not supporting the surrender.
It is also learnt that Khalid Khwaja was investigated by a three-member committee of the militants for more than four weeks. Initially, Khwaja claimed that he had moved a petition in the Lahore High Court against the drone attacks along with former PML-N MNA Javed Ibrahim Paracha and he came to North Waziristan for recording the statements of drone victims to be produced in the court on April 6.
The militants confronted him as to why on the one hand he was opposing the drone attacks but on the other hand he was trying to establish contacts between the USA and the Taliban. The militants claimed that he arranged a meeting between US Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes and a religious cleric Javed Ibrahim Paracha in 2005 in Serena Hotel, Islamabad. They also produced some articles downloaded from the Internet and asked about his links with former CIA officials, James Woolsey and William Casey.
Khwaja had met these former CIA officials through an American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, who was very close to the Bill Clinton administration. Ijaz played a key role in forcing the Sudanese government to expel Osama bin Ladin from Khartoum in 1996 and helped Khwaja to establish direct links between the Taliban and the Bush administration in October 1999 when he wanted Mulla Omar to meet James Woolsey to avert an American attack on Afghanistan. Mulla Omar refused to meet the then CIA leader.
Next year, Khalid Khwaja tried to fix a meeting between American businessman Mansoor Ijaz and Kashmiri militant leader Syed Salahuddin. Khwaja contacted Salahuddin through his friends in Jamaat-e-Islami and informed him that Mansoor Ijaz wanted to deliver a letter from Bill Clinton. Syed Salahuddin came to know that Mansoor Ijaz had meetings with Indian Army officials in Srinagar in early 2000 and also with then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. He smelled a rat and refused to meet Mansoor Ijaz. Shortly after these attempts by Ijaz, a ceasefire was announced by a rebel Kashmiri militant commander Abdul Majid Dar in July 2000 but it failed. Majid Dar was assassinated after sometime in Kashmir.
Khalid Khwaja was arrested in 2002 after the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi. Khwaja had exchanged some e-mails with Pearl just a few days before his killing. Later, Marianne, the widow of Pearl, informed investigators that Pearl contacted Khwaja through Mansoor Ijaz and he only tried to help her husband in obtaining the contact numbers of some militants. Khwaja was released after a few weeks.
He surfaced again in 2005 when he gave an interview to a foreign newspaper and claimed that he was instrumental in arranging funds for a training camp established by a politician from Rawalpindi for Kashmiri militants. The same year he arranged a meeting of an MMA parliamentarian Shah Abdul Aziz, a religious leader from Kohat Javed Ibrahim Paracha and a pro-Taliban businessman Arif Qasmani with some top US officials, including Karen Hughes.
Javed Paracha confirmed that meeting to The News on Saturday and said that it was arranged by Khalid Khwaja. He said: “I was offered a huge amount of money for talking to the Taliban on behalf of the US government, but I told the Americans that first the Pakistan Army must give me a green signal and then I will proceed but Americans were acting on their own and the talks broke down.”
Javed Paracha also said that Khalid Khwaja came to his home on March 25 with Col Imam and a British journalist. Khawja wanted me to help him in his visit to North Waziristan. He said, “May be Khwaja was again trying to establish communication lines between the Americans and the Taliban but I received a clear message from Taliban that your friend is not welcome.”
Paracha claimed that he advised Khwaja not to go there. He said: “I also requested Col Imam not to take the risk. Col Imam was reluctant but Khwaja insisted and they left for Mir Ali against my advice.”
Both Javed Paracha and Khalid Khwaja had close relations with Lal Masjid clerics in 2007. Paracha met Maulana Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi along with then Federal Minister Ejazul Haq and requested them to surrender. Khalid Khwaja advised Lal Masjid clerics otherwise.
Khwaja became very active in August 2008 when he contacted PML-N leaders and asked them to file a petition against the participation of Asif Ali Zardari in the presidential election. According to PML-N leader Senator Pervez Rashid, “Khalid Khwaja offered us that Nawaz Sharif should file a petition against Zardari and he will manage a Supreme Court verdict against Zardari within 24 hours but we refused to play in the hands of Khwaja.”
Khwaja had played a very active role against the government of Nawaz Sharif in 1999. He claimed in front of some JUI-F leaders that Nawaz Sharif took money from Osama bin Ladin in 1989 and promised that he would not act against Arab militants after coming into power. Those were the days when Americans were putting pressure on Nawaz Sharif to start operations against the Arabs living in Pakistan. The JUI-F and the JI started a mass campaign against Nawaz Sharif and within a few weeks his government was toppled.
This scribe tried to confirm the claim of Khalid Khwaja from Osama bin Ladin in November 2001 but he never confirmed it. Khwaja told American TV channel ABC in November 2007 that he had arranged a meeting between Nawaz Sharif and Osama bin Ladin in the Green Palace Hotel of Madina in 1989 just a few weeks before the no-confidence move against Benazir Bhutto. Osama was reported to have agreed to provide him some money.
US officials investigated this claim from many al-Qaeda operators arrested after 9/11 but only one, Ali Muhammad, told the FBI that a meeting between the representatives of Osama and Nawaz Sharif took place long ago in Saudi Arabia. He never confirmed a direct meeting between the two. Osama bin Laden never liked these claims of Khalid Khwaja who always claimed to be a friend of Osama. Khwaja had no meeting with Osama bin Laden in the last 20 years but he always claimed to be a friend of Osama.
Khwaja and Shah Abdul Aziz met Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in early 2009. They convinced Baitullah to write a letter to General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani for a ceasefire. The Pakistan Army leadership never trusted Baitullah Mehsud and this effort failed.
Khalid Khwaja filed many petitions in superior courts in his last days. One of them was against the constitutional immunity for the president. His political role is still a mystery. His friends claim that he definitely had relations with some Americans but he was not a CIA agent.
Sources in the military establishment said that he had no mandate of the Pakistan Army for talking to the militants. Some sources said that Khalid Khwaja was used by the Pakistani establishment against Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto many times but he was not trusted in his last days.
The whole drama of his kidnapping and assassination exposed the internal differences of many Taliban groups. A powerful Taliban commander of North Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, tried his best to rescue Khwaja but failed due to his limited influence in Mir Ali. This area is mostly populated by Dawars but these days Mir Ali is controlled by Mehsud militants who have provided sanctuaries to different groups of the Punjabi Taliban, including some Kashmiris, who have developed differences with Pakistani establishment after the ban on many outfits during the last few years. These disgruntled militants don’t listen to Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Sirajuddin Haqqani group, which is influential in the areas close to Miramshah.
It is also interesting that these Punjabi Taliban have no respect for staunch US critics like General Aslam Beg and Hameed Gul just because they don’t support bomb blasts in Pakistan.