Colonel Imam: A man who knows the Taliban better than anyone gives his opinion to the Times of London
Perhaps no man alive knows Mullah Omar, his Taleban insurgents and the American military quite so well as “Colonel Imam”, a battle-creased Pakistani officer who wears a faded British paratrooper’s jacket and a turban.
As a top agent for the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, Colonel Imam recruited, trained and armed almost every one of Afghanistan’s prominent insurgents and warlords during the 1980s. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ahmed Shah Massoud and Jalaluddin Haqqani were all his charges or colleagues at one time.
“I have the Green Beret,” Colonel Imam smiled, recalling the US special forces qualification gained in Fort Bragg in 1973. “But I think this Taleban beret is better.”
He escorted Charlie Wilson, the Texan congressman who funnelled millions of dollars to the Mujahidin, into Afghanistan three times and once took the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, then the CIA’s Deputy Director, to a Mujahidin camp near the border. But his closest relationship was with Mullah Omar, the Taleban’s fugitive leader, whom he taught to fight and survive, and to bring down one superpower and tie down another, over 30 years of war.
“He’s a very wise man,” the Colonel remarked of his former student. “The peace of his nation is a supreme requirement but . . . it can only come with the liberation of the area. He should stick to that. He has no means to throw the Americans out but he can tire the Americans.
“[The Taleban] will not be tired. They are used to it. They are fighting addicts who will be happy to keep fighting. America will be tired ultimately. They are already tired. They may get tired like the Soviet Union.”
Colonel Imam, now 65, is scathing about both the US military surge and Britain’s initiative to buy off biddable Taleban elements. “Every senior officer knows it is a mistake to reinforce the error, to put more fuel on the fire of failure. And the bribe strategy is a shameless job for the British.
“Gordon Brown devised it. It’s wrong and dirty. It might have been effective in 2002, 2003, when [the Taleban] weren’t clear as to their future and were disillusioned. Not today.”
He insisted that only direct dialogue between the Afghan authorities and Mullah Omar himself, without the interference of the Americans, could end the conflict — along with the withdrawal of Nato forces. “Dialogue is the deadliest weapon against them … [The Afghans] should compromise on their stances and the occupation forces should say goodbye. But they should rehabilitate as they go, so that people don’t remember them as enemies.”
Key to the strategy outlined by Colonel Imam was the fate of al-Qaeda. “If he’s given a free hand Mullah Omar will be able to harness the al-Qaeda people,” he suggested. “He wouldn’t want to pollute the situation. He will segregate them and he’ll see what should be their disposal. No other leader can do it.”
Colonel Imam, whose real name is Amir Sultan Tarar, was chosen for the job of running Mujahidin training and operations by the ISI because of his skills and US military experience. At one time he had 200 specialist staff who put as many as 95,000 Mujahidin through US-funded camps during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
It was in one of these camps in 1985 that he met Mullah Omar. He and his comrades were being taught the skills of insurgency and being trained in bomb-making, ambush techniques and intelligence gathering.
Colonel Imam frequently accompanied and directed Mujahidin teams inside Afghanistan against the Russians and it was he who later sent Mullah Omar back to Karachi for treatment when he was wounded and lost an eye.
They saw each other again in Kandahar in 1994. The Soviets were long gone and Afghanistan was in the grip of civil war. Mullah Omar had been appointed “Emir” of the Taleban.
Colonel Imam, still a serving officer, was by then Consul-General in Herat. Colonel Imam’s critics allege that he was the senior Pakistani ISI officer who backed and directed the Taleban’s subsequent ascent to power.
“That claim is exaggerated,” he responded. “I didn’t have to advise Mullah Omar. He had a lot of experience. But I’d drop by and have a cup of tea with him. Naturally . . . then we’d talk about the situation also.”
Some Afghan intelligence figures have suggested that Colonel Imam still maintains his relationship with the Taleban, as a key figure among a renegade group of ISI officers.
“Why should I go to Afghanistan now?” he mused. “The whole world would know I was there. I wouldn’t want to create a problem for them.
“Besides, the Taleban are doing a better job than me. They’re teaching the ISI and CIA a few things too.”
Indeed, Colonel Imam insists that he has not seen the Taleban’s supreme leader since the autumn of 2001, as American bombs dropped on Kandahar. “The bombing started and I was recalled back [to Pakistan]. I said goodye to him and said, ‘If you want I can remain with you’. He said, ‘No, go back and pray for us’. I’m praying for them.”
Back in Pakistan, Colonel Imam immediately got into a furious row with Pervez Musharraf, the President at the time, over Pakistan’s sudden cessation of support for the Taleban after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
“I told him, ‘I spent 18 years with them and they cannot be defeated’,” Colonel Imam recalled. “He told me I didn’t know what a superpower was. But I’d just seen one crumble in front of me across the border and cease to exist. It hadn’t been the support of the Americans that had done that, but conviction in their cause.”
The subsequent war has served as an epitaph for the final vestiges of the Colonel’s relationship with America.
When Charlie Wilson died this month the Pakistani officer avoided his funeral. “The man was not a friend,” he said. “Otherwise I would have sold my jacket and at least gone over there, seen his grave and come back. But he used us. All Americans used us. They hijacked our problems and left us to the dogs.”