The TTP has released a video which shows TTP leader Hakeemullah Mehsud ordering the murder of Colonel Imam by firing squad. While the content of the video is clear – and enclosed below – some have doubted the authenticity of the video, including Lt Gen (R) Hameed Gul and Javed Aziz Khan. Viewer discretion is advised.
Death of the ‘Imam’
Amir Sultan Tarar AKA Colonel Imam
Brigadier Retired Amir Sultan Tarar is suspected to have died in Taliban captivity, presumably because of cardiac arrest, but suspicions and conspiracy theories indicate that his captors, the Taliban, may have murdered him because of non-payment of ransom by his family. However, the official quarters including Military sources as well as the Frontier Corps are finding it hard to verify the reports saying they have no confirmed information in this regard.
“We have been told that his dead body has been seen near Danday Darpa Khel area in North Waziristan Agency, but the news could not be confirmed nor could we get any picture of the dead body of Colonel Imam”, a senior Army official told this scribe when contacted. Similar remarks were offered by the FC sources.
It was also reported that the group claiming the responsibility of the killing of Ex-ISI official, denied to identify itself and has also refused to hand over the dead body to his family which creates doubt about the authenticity of the news. The relatives of Col Imam said that intelligence sources conveyed them the news of his death. Meanwhile, security officials have confirmed the death of Col Imam, saying that his body was still with the kidnappers, who were demanding a ransom of Rs 2 million for returning it.
If true, Tarar’s death marks the brutal demise of one of the most colourful and controversial figures in the shadowy world of spy games along the troubled borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Soldier and Spy
As a former agent of the ISI, little is known of Amir Sultan Tarar’s true history or operational profile. Most information about ‘Colonel Imam’ is generated by his own admission, as well as news media speculation.
Amir Sultan Tarar graduated from the PMA (course and year classified) and was commissioned in the 15th Frontier Force (FF) Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant. In 1974, he was seconded to Fort Bragg, Carolina, USA, where he trained with US Special Forces and Green Berets in special warfare operations, notably guerilla tactics. This included a Master Parachutist course with the 82nd Airbone Division. He was awarded the Green Beret and upon his return to Pakistan, he enlisted for the Pakistan Army’s Special Service Group (SSG), commonly known as the Commandoes.
The Afghan Jihad
In the 1980’s, as a Colonel, Tarar was deployed to Afghanistan to weaken the Soviet occupation and to study the conditions for an insurgency that would liberate the land-locked country. He taught insurgent tactics to the first Afghan students who fled the country’s Communist revolution in 1978, among them future resistance leaders Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Masood. He then worked closely with the C.I.A.to train and support thousands of guerrilla fighters for the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Army throughout the 1980s. He is thought to have participated himself in the Battle for Hill 3234.
After the Soviet withdrawal, Colonel Tarar was promoted to the rank of Brigadier, and positioned as Consul General Herat. Operating under diplomatic cover, Tarar was the ISI’s point-man with the Taliban, nurturing a relationship in which Pakistan offered arms, advice and finance. In these capacities, he engineered linkages between Pakistani intelligence and the Taliban movement; as Colonel Imam, he is widely acknowledged as the trainer and guide of Mullah Omar, the Amir of the Taliban. Tarar played a major role in funneling Pakistani support and training to Afghans fighting Soviet rule in the 1980s, a push also supported by the CIA.
After the Soviet defeat and the collapse of communism, Colonel Imam was invited to the White House by the then President George Bush Sr, and was given a piece of the Berlin Wall with a brass plaque inscribed: “To the one who dealt the first blow.”
He ran a network of CIA-funded training camps in the tribal belt and Balochistan, which funnelled tens of thousands of mujahideen guerrillas into battle against the Soviets. He won the respect of his charges, mostly Pashtun refugees, by showing regard for their religious beliefs and tribal traditions. “They called me Imam after the man who leads the prayers in the mosque,” he told the Guardian in 2006. Among his students a young Afghan cleric named was Muhammad Omar, who emerged as head of the Afghan Taliban and seized power in Kabul in 1996. Tarar played a key role in that movement too. Col Imam was serving as Pakistan’s Consul General in Herat when the Taliban swept to power in 1995 and he was said to have advised them in their assaults on Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul.
September 11, 2001 and the War on Terror
It is widely thought that after the Soviet-Afghan war, Colonel Imam had supported and trained Taliban fighters independently.
Even after the September 11 attacks in 2001, Colonel Imam was allegedly believed to be still supporting the Taliban independence movement in Afghanistan. He developed a close personal relationship with Omar and, according to some reports, advised him as US forces attacked Afghanistan in late 2001. He – along with other Taliban sympathizers in Pakistan’s former intelligence apparatus, like Hameed Gul – is also alleged to have masterminded the Taliban comeback in 2006. Some media reports have said Tarar maintained operational ties with insurgents in recent years, which he denied.
Tarar denied the allegations but conceded that he maintained contact with the Taliban, describing himself as a “student of the insurgency”. “They are a superior people with a superior culture,” he told the Guardian last year. “I have my friends, the former mujahideen, who come to Peshawar and talk to me.” The Taliban insurgency, he added, was only a natural reaction to American aggression. “They are the product of circumstances. They got sucked into it, there was no alternative.” In interviews before his kidnapping, he had spoken of the need to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban to end the almost 10-year war.
By his own account, he was so close to the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, that he visited him in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and left only when the American bombing campaign began later in 2001. He says he has not returned since. His parting advice to Mullah Omar, he said, was to fight on, but stick to guerrilla tactics.
Colonel Imam goes missing
In March 2010, Colonel Imam and Khalid Khawaja, another former ISI officer of the Pakistan Air Force, teamed up with Asad Qureshi, a British journalist, to videotape a documentary on the Taliban movement. For this, they would have to venture deep inside the no-go tribal areas of Pakistan. Khalid Khawaja’s contact, Usman Punjabi, turned out to be unreliable, and on March 25, 2010, Tarar’s family was no longer in touch with him. Usman Punjabi and his hitherto-unknown group of “Asian Tigers” stated they had kidnapped Tarar, Khawaja and Qureshi near Kohat, and on 30th April, the group abandoned the bullet-riddled body of Khalid Khawaja in the Karam Kot area of Mir Ali Tehsil in North Waziristan agency. This heightened concerns for the well-being of Tarar and Qureshi, even though Tarar’s family was apprehensive that he might have already been killed. During captivity, Qureshi states that he had seen Colonel Imam being subjected to a mock execution.
The captors demanded a ransom of $25m (£16m) along with the release of at least two arrested Taliban leaders in Pakistan’s custody for the release of the two officers. The demand was made through an email which also contained the footage of the two officers. The captors had threatened that if Mullah Kabir and Mullah Mansoor Dadullah were not released, the officers would be killed. Usman Punjabi, the supposed leader of the Punjabi Taliban, had once said that they kidnapped Col Imam as they were not happy with him because he had supported the Afghan Taliban but opposed their Pakistani counterparts.
On May 6, 2010 it was reported that Colonel Imam and British journalist Asad Qureshi were eventually released by their captors in North Waziristan Agency’s headquarters Miranshah and abductees were handed over to Sirajul Haq Haqqani Group during a Jirga arranged by the chief of his own faction of JUI Maulana Samiul Haq in Miranshah, but that too proved merely a rumor and the release could not be materialized.
On July 24, 2010, a video of Col Imam – held by his captors – was released and broadcast publicly a few days later. In it, Colonel Imam started off by saying; “Today is July 24, and tomorrow, it will be July 25. I am Sultan Amir, son of Ghulaam Amir, and people know me as Colonel Imam. I am in the custody of Lashkar Jhangvi Al Alami, Abdullah Mansoor. I sent my statements and CD messages to the government several times, but no attention has been given until now”.
Journalist Asad Qureshi and his driver Rustam Khan were released several months later reportedly after his family paid ransom to his kidnappers, who in reality were a group of Mahsud tribal militants and the Punjabi Taliban led by Sabir Mahsud and Usman Punjabi.
But the negotiations for the release of Colonel Imam had grown complex. Usman Punjabi, the original kidnapper, was been killed in a shootout with a local tribal commander: Sabir Mahsud and Usman Punjabi later developed differences over the ransom money and militants affiliated with the former killed Usman Punjabi and his five men at Danday Darpakhel village near Miramshah on August 28, 2010. It prompted Hakimullah Mahsud-led militants to raid the hideout of Sabir Mahsud in Miramshah bazaar and kidnap him and his gunmen. In the evening, the bullet-riddled bodies of Sabir Mahsud and his men were found on the Miramshah-Dattakhel Road near the Miramshah town. The TTP militants, besides seizing arms and resources of the Sabir Mahsud group, also took Col Imam into their custody and shifted him to an unknown location. Tarar had passed into the hands of Hakimullah Mehsud’s Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and along with Vice Chancellor Ajmal Khan, was reported to have been shifted to the TTP stronghold in Shaktoi, South Waziristan. The case was complicated by the fact that the Taliban were demanding the release of at least five prisoners, whom the Pakistan Army refused to give up.
Colonel Imam ‘dies in captivity’
According to some media reports, Col Imam was killed by his kidnappers in North Waziristan over non-payment of ransom money. The kidnappers reportedly demanded Rs4-5 million for the release of Col Imam, which was not in reach of his family. However, other news reports contradict this element of murder, and state that Col Imam died of a heart attack while in Taliban custody. At the time, Col Imam was rumored to be in Khost, Afghanistan, and not even in Pakistani tribal territory. This also explains why there has been no visual confirmation of Col Imam’s death, or of his body being viewed or received for confirmation.
The Future of the Taliban and the Afghan Insurgency
Was Col Imam relevant to the momentum of the Taliban or the Afghan endgame? Not likely. There are little to no serving officers in the ISI who support Islamic extremism and militant fundamentalism, especially after the purges conducted by Gen Ehsan ul Haq and the current Army Chief, General Kiyani, during the Musharraf years. The ISI and their Pakistani civilian counterparts are having a tough time dealing with local insurgencies and militant transformations, hence an overt policy shift from strategic depth to “soft” strategic depth which does not imply active military support to Afghan insurgents.
Is the Taliban without a spiritual figurehead or founding father? Not likely. Mullah Omar’s sway over the ordinary Taliban footsoldier, the apparent safety and security of Taliban military and political leaders, and the operational dynamism of the Taliban component of the Afghan insurgency are the actual driving forces in keeping this insurgency real and dangerous. At most, Col Imam could have been a motivating force during the resurgence of the Taliban in 2006-07, though this is hotly contested. Col Imam himself told Carlotta Gall that Mullah Omar was the only leader who could keep Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan or in abeyance, including Osama bin Laden. Mullah Omar’s popular support was such that Mr. bin Laden would have to listen, he said.
Could the concept of Col Imam invigorate the Pakistani Taliban in a fight against an “illegitimate” state? Could the death of Col Imam make the TTP’s drive against the Pakistani state more fierce? Again, not likely. Winter and early spring mean intensified urban insecurity for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, while spring is the season where rural and tribal warfare in the mountainous regions starts thawing. Also, Usman Punjabi was right in stating that Col Imam supported the Afghan Taliban but not the Pakistani Taliban, hence an off-shoot or client of the TTP kidnapping the Colonel and his two associates. The Taliban had been tainted in recent years by bad characters joining the movement and committing crimes, and Mullah Omar was now cracking down on them, according to Tarar. He pointedly criticized the Pakistani Taliban who turned to fight the Pakistani Army in Swat and unleashed a wave of bombings in Pakistan’s cities. They were “troublemakers” that should be “neutralized,” he said.
In 2010, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall referred to Tarar as a former Pakistani officer who embodies a policy puzzle. Tarar remained a vocal advocate of the Taliban, and his views revealed the sympathies that, according to Gall, ran deep in the ranks of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. Colonel Imam spoke highly of the Americans he worked with; but predicted failure for the United States in Afghanistan. While his views were clearly colored by his ardor for the Taliban cause, they also carried the weight of someone who knows his subject well, according to Gall. The Taliban cannot be defeated, he said, and they will not be weakened by the capture of senior commanders, including the No.2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. “The Taliban cannot be forced out, you cannot subjugate them,” he said. “But they can tire the Americans. In another three to four years, the Americans will be tired.”
The manner of the death of the “godfather of the Taliban” suggests that there were some thing he could not foresee – and that even the powerful spy agency has very limited influence over the militants within their own borders, despite what the US, NATO, ISAF and Afghan establishments profess readily.
Brigadier (Retd) Amir Sultan Tarar, popularly known by his nom-de-guerre Colonel Imam, is rumored to have suffered cardiac arrest while in custody of the Taliban. His last whereabouts are unknown, and are rumored to be in Khost (Afghanistan) or FATA (Pakistan). Brigadier (Retd) Tarar was an ideologically motivated professional and one of the last Cold Warriors alive to see the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism and militant radicalism engulf the identity of the Muslim world. He is survived by two daughters, two sons, and an entire Pakistani nation awaiting the outcome of the War on Terror, and praying for peace and stability in South Asia.