Taliban 'godfather' dies while held by Islamist militants

Omar Waraich
Tuesday 25 January 2011 01:00

The godfather of the Taliban, one of Pakistan's most prominent retired spies, has died of a heart attack in the wilds of Waziristan while held captive by Islamist militants he helped spawn throughout his controversial career.

Sultan Amir Tarar, better known as "Colonel Imam", had been held hostage by multiple militant groups since March 2010. The retired official of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency had been held there since he accompanied another former spy and a British journalist on a doomed mission to film a documentary about the Pakistani Taliban in their sanctuaries along the Afghan border.

Fears for Col. Imam's life have been building since the trio were seized in North Waziristan by the pro al-Qaida group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Last April, Khalid Khawaja, another former ISI official, was executed and his body dumped beside a stream, with a note warning "American spies" to await the same fate.

The slaying was surprising as both Mr Khawaja and Col. Imam were themselves known militant sympathisers. The journalist, Asad Qureshi, who thought that the two men's jihadist views would yield him access to Pakistan's most notorious militants, was released last September after a ransom was reportedly paid. The documentary was commissioned by Channel 4.

Col Imam's 10-month ordeal illuminated the unravelling of a perilous policy he set in train 30 years ago. In the 1970s, he emerged as a US-trained army officer who went on to train and dispatch thousands of Afghan mujahideen to counter the Soviets.

After the Communist threat was vanquished, he returned to oversee the rise of his disciple, Mullah Omar. Those sympathies endured. But his death came in the custody of a younger, fiercer generation of militants, unmoved by his role in their history.

In many ways, Col. Imam was the embodiment of the Pakistan army's embrace of militancy. His appearance was distinguished by his stiffly wrapped white turban, unruly beard and ragged paratroop jacket. The last item of clothing was a souvenir from his days on a master parachutist course with the US 82nd Airborne Division. In 1974, he underwent Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, specialising in explosives.

Skilled in guerrilla methods, he returned to Pakistan to impart them to the first generation of Afghan mujahideen, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Masood.

Col. Imam's links with the Americans deepened, working with them to sprout training camps across the tribal areas and Baluchistan as staging grounds for the anti-Soviet insurgency.

During this period he gained his nom de guerre, splicing his army rank with the title ‘imam’, one he earned for leading fighters in prayer. One recruit who prayed behind him left a lasting impression. Using diplomatic cover as the Pakistan consul general in Herat, Col. Imam was the lynchpin in Mullah Omar and the Taliban's takeover in Afghanistan. Islamabad's much-coveted "strategic depth" in the region had been secured.

But the collapse of the twin towers abbreviated the triumph. Then president Gen. Pervez Musharraf heralded an apparent u-turn. Washington now enlisted Pakistan's support in its war against the very militants they had nurtured. Col. Imam opposed them, hastening to Afghanistan to urge Mullah Omar to resist the American invasion.

It was their last meeting, the pensioned spook would tell visitors to his home near military headquarters in Rawalpindi, as he briskly shuffled his worry beads.

But western intelligence agencies were not persuaded, alleging that Col. Imam and kindred minds served as conduits for abiding ISI contacts with the Afghan Taliban.

Col. Imam denied the charge, but openly cheered on his former trainees. He also maintained contact with his successors in uniform.

But neither the Afghan Taliban nor the army were able to help when he slipped into the hands of sectarian militants and was later passed on to their associates, the Pakistani Taliban.

The last sign of him came in a hostage video, broadcast last July. Flanked by two masked and armed men, he read from a script. "You know well what they're capable of," he warned darkly.

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