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The South Asia Channel

Who killed the ex-ISI official?

Confirmation came today that Khalid Khawaja, a former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Pakistani Air Force official, was found dead in the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali. Khawaja had been kidnapped last month along with another former ISI agent Sultan Amir Tarar, better known as Colonel Imam, and Asad Qureshi, a British journalist who was ...

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

Confirmation came today that Khalid Khawaja, a former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Pakistani Air Force official, was found dead in the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali. Khawaja had been kidnapped last month along with another former ISI agent Sultan Amir Tarar, better known as Colonel Imam, and Asad Qureshi, a British journalist who was working on a documentary on the Taliban. On April 19, a previously unknown group calling itself the Asian Tigers released a video in which Khawaja and Colonel Imam identified themselves as former ISI agents. The group also demanded the release of three Afghan Taliban leaders: Mullah Baradar, Maulvi Abdul Kabir and Mansoor Dadullah.

Unless we accept that the Asian Tigers — a name which, unlike that of other militant groups, has no religious overtones — suddenly sprung up out of nowhere, the true identity of Khawaja’s killers will likely remain unknown. A look at Khawaja’s past associations and the current situation in North Waziristan, though, can help narrow the list of potential suspects.

Journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, the Peshawar editor of The News, believes the Punjabi Taliban are the most likely culprits. In a telephone interview he said, "The Punjabi Taliban are allied with local militants and they are unhappy about the presence of Hakimullah Mehsud and the South Waziristan Taliban since they fear that might lead to army action." It has been reported that militants from South Waziristan sought refuge in North Waziristan after the army launched a military operation there last fall. Yusufzai also discounts Khawaja’s well-known sympathies for the Taliban as a factor in his killing. He claims Khawaja only supported the Afghan Taliban, which has been used to achieve "strategic depth" against India. Khawaja did not have any meaningful links to the Pakistani Taliban, according to Yusufzai, because he would not have supported their attacks against the Pakistan Army.

At the same time, Khawaja’s Islamist sympathies cannot be discounted. In 1988 he was kicked out of the ISI after criticizing then-president Zia-ul-Haq for failing to do enough to "Islamicize" Pakistan. And Khawaja was also a favorite of foreign journalists reporting on the Taliban. Slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl repeatedly tried to convince Khawaja to introduce him to militant leader Sheikh Mubarak Gilani. Similarly, journalist Nicholas Schmidle used Khawaja to get access to Lal Masjid cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi. Simply put, Khawaja was the go-to guy for anyone seeking contacts with the Taliban. That alone was enough to make Khawaja a valuable target of the Pakistan military and civilian government, because he could have potentially valuable information about the militants he knew — and, indeed, he was arrested in 2007. In recent years, Khawaja had also become a self-styled human-rights activist, forming a group known as the Defence for Human Rights which sought to locate the so-called ‘missing people’ that were believed to have been picked up by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, among others. Among the people he represented were the six U.S. citizens caught by Pakistani security forces in Sargodha late last year. Still, it is far more likely that the military would hold him for interrogation rather than kill him outright.

Khawaja also had plenty of other enemies. He claimed that he had arranged meetings between Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz chief Nawaz Sharif and Osama bin Laden. According to Khawaja, possibly trying to publicly shame him, Sharif sought bin Laden’s financial backing to dislodge then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Late last year Khawaja also filed a petition against the constitutional provision that gives the president immunity from prosecution. His petition came after the Supreme Court struck down the National Reconciliation Ordinance that granted amnesty to politicians, including President Asif Ali Zardari, possibly making an enemy out of the president.

Khalid Khawaja’s life shows that he had one overarching dream — to see the establishment of an Islamic state in Pakistan. To work toward that goal, he established short-term alliances with unlikely partners. In October 2001, Khawaja was part of a delegation, which reportedly included former CIA director James Woolsey, that was supposed to talk with the Taliban. His willingness to consort with everyone from CIA officials to hardened terrorists makes pinning down Khawaja’s murderers an almost impossible task.

Nadir Hassan works for the Express Tribune, a recently launched English-language newspaper in Pakistan.

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