Killers of ISI official wanted custody of Afghan Taliban, not release


LAHORE: The Asian Tigers’ demand for the release of some key commanders of the Afghan Taliban, including Mullah Mohammad Omar’s second in command, in exchange for the freedom of two abducted former ISI officials, Khalid Khawaja and Colonel Imam, was apparently motivated by the hate factor and designed to get their custody from the Pakistan government.

According to the Pakistani authorities investigating the March 26 abduction and the April 30 murder of Khalid Khawaja, who had once been considered close to Osama bin Laden, his abductors were somehow convinced that the former ISI official had been working against the interests of the Punjab Taliban since 2007 and spying for the Pakistani and American intelligence agencies. His abductors believed that Khawaja was responsible for the deaths of dozens of their fellow Punjabi Taliban fighters belonging to the Harkatul Jehadul Islami (HUJI), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who were killed during the July 2007 Operation Silence carried out by the Pakistan Army against the fanatic Lal Masjid clerics to clear the Red Mosque. The Punjabi Taliban belonging to several Sunni Deobandi sectarian-cum-jehadi groups which are working in tandem with the Pushtun-dominated Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, further used to despise Khalid Khawaja for his support to the Afghan Taliban and opposition to the Pakistani Taliban.

Muhammad Omar, a spokesman for Taliban Media Centre being operated by the Punjabi Taliban, has already been quoted by the media as saying, Khawaja was executed because he used to call the Punjabi Taliban terrorists and refer to the Afghan Taliban as mujahideen. However, the family members of the slain ISI officer say Khawaja was opposed to only those elements in the Pakistani jehadi organisations which had let loose a reign of terror across Pakistan through bloody suicide bombings which would kill innocent civilians. Yet those investigating Khawaja’s murder pointed out, despite their disgust for the Afghan Taliban, which has already been expressed by the spokesman of the Punjabi Taliban, Omar, the fact remains that the Asian Tigers had demanded the release of some key commanders of the Afghan Taliban [currently in the custody of the Pakistani authorities]including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in return for the release of Khalid Khwaja, Colonel Sultan Tarar alias Colonel Imam and a British journalist of Pakistani origin, Asad Qureshi.

The Pakistani authorities are of the view that the Asian Tigers’ demand was not meant to ensure freedom for the Afghan Taliban commanders but they actually wanted their custody. Since the beginning of February 2010, Pakistani authorities have captured ten of the 18-member Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the second-in-command of Mullah Mohammad Omar, Motasim Agha Jan, the son-in-law of Mullah Mohammad Omar and at least half a dozen shadow governors of the Afghan provinces. These high-profile arrests, combined with the ongoing US-led military offensive in Helmand and the unending spate of American drone attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan have adversely damaged the command and control structure of the Afghan Taliban, which is called the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST). Khalid Khawaja’s affection for the detained commanders of the Afghan Taliban can be gauged from the fact that he had filed a petition with the Lahore High Court on February 26, 2010, seeking court orders to stop the federal and the Punjab governments from handing over the arrested Afghan Taliban leaders to the US or any other country till further orders. The petitioner contended that the Afghan Taliban leaders were Muslims and arrested from Pakistan, therefore, they should be prosecuted inside Pakistan instead of handing them over to the US. And the LHC Chief Justice Khawaja Sharif had subsequently restrained the federal and the Punjab governments from handing them over to any other country.

Following the March 26 abduction of Khalid Khawaja and his two companions, one of the major demands put forth by the Punjabi Taliban was an immediate withdrawal of Khawaja’s petition from the Lahore High Court. Subsequently, on April 26, hardly 72 hours before his execution, Khawaja’s lawyer had filed a fresh application in the Lahore High Court, seeking withdrawal of all the pending cases in the court against the possible extradition of ten arrested Afghan Taliban to the United States, but without mentioning any reasons. Later appearing in the chamber of Chief Justice Khawaja Muhammad Sharif, Khawaja’s lawyer Tariq Asad Advocate sought adjournment of the hearing on the application till May 4, saying he is waiting for final ‘instructions’ from the petitioner for withdrawal of the cases. He reportedly told the CJ that Khawaja was in the custody of Taliban for the last one-month and they are asking for withdrawing the cases. The Chief Justice subsequently postponed the case hearing till May 4. The Asian Tigers had actually fixed Saturday (May 1) as the final deadline for the government to fulfill their demands but decided to execute Khawaja 24 hours before the expiry of the time limit due to unknown reasons.

Explaining their decision to execute Khawaja, Muhammad Omar, the spokesman for the Punjabi Taliban, has said that all major militant organisations operating in the Waziristan region unanimously agreed to punish him and everybody wanted him to be executed as he had confessed of all the charges leveled against him. He alleged that during his previous visit to North Waziristan, Khawaja brought a list of 14 senior Punjabi Taliban commanders and told the TTP leaders, Commander Hakimullah Mehsud and Commander Waliur Rahman, to hand them over to the Pakistani authorities because they were getting financial assistance from Indian intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Omar even mentioned names of jehadi commanders who were identified as Indian agents by Khawaja. Important among those mentioned in the list were Qari Hussain Mehsud, an anti-Shia close aide of Baitullah Mehsud and commonly known in the TTP circles as Ustad-e-Fidayeen or the teacher of suicide bombers, Qari Mohammad Zafar, the acting ameer of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan on February 24 and Matiur Rehman, a bomb making expert of the LeJ who is believed to be using drug money to fund the recruitment drive and reorganization of the LeJ.

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