Col Sultan Amir (Imam) Tarar

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By
Arif Ayub*

Col Imam, as he was known, had trained 125,000 Afghan mujahedeen during the Afghan jihad, but obviously this was not considered to be enough of an Islamic duty to endear him to the TTP. His murder by the TTP and Punjabi Taliban basically shows the dangerous nature of these groups who are willing to kill anyone who does not belong to their miniscule organizations; which would be about 99.99% of all Pakistanis. Like the assassination of Governor Salman Taseer, the murder ofImam, highlights the complete irrationality and alienation of the extremist groups from mainstream Islam. Imam was one of the most religious persons I had met, but his pro Pakistan views were enough to earn him a death sentence. Even more unfortunate is the fact that nothing is going to be done about the murder. The Pak Army is still in a state of denial about the nature of these groups and is still under the mistaken impression that it can make deals with them, despite the fact that these groups have killed serving three star(the DMS) and two star (Maj.Gen.Bilal)officers and their last attack reached close to the office of Gen. Kayani. Col Imam is therefore likely to get a ceremonial burial but no vengeance; not a befitting epitaph or tribute for one of the most famous soldiers the army has produced in its history.

I got to know Col Imam rather late in life as he was a field officer, based in Peshawar and Quetta, while I was in the ivory tower in Islamabad. As DG (AFG &CAR) I first met Imam, who was by then our Consul General in Herat. Despite our different world views, we developed an immediate friendship, which lasted for 20 years, based on, from my side, an immense respect for his professionalism, honesty, decency, experience and intelligence. Whenever we were together he used it as an opportunity to regale us with stories about the Afghan jihad.

Being one of the best SSG officers, Imam was selected for further training at Fort Bragg, where he became an immediate hit with the girls, as soon as they found out that being a good Muslim he was still waiting for his arranged marriage in Pakistan. According to Imam, the Commandant had to issue an order asking the girls to stay away from him. (We tried this technique but it did not work – obviously our credibility was less than Imam’s). Based on his professionalism, Maj. Gen. Nasirullah Babar as IGFC picked up Imam to start training the Afghan Islamists, whom President Bhutto was using to counter President Daud’s activism on Pakhtunistan.

Imam fell in love with the Afghans, whom he described as his best students. He told us that they used to learn in weeks what it used to take months for Pakistanis to learn. His favorites were GulbudeenHikmatyar and Ahmad Shah Masoodwith amarked preference for Ahmad Shah Masood. Even at the time of our worst relationship with Ahmad Shah Masood(following his burning of our Embassy, attempted murder of our Ambassador andDefenceAttache and the bombing in Peshawar, in which our Governor’s daughter was killed) Imam kept on insisting that Ahmad Shah Masoodshould be treated as a younger brother whoshould be brought back into the family and never be ostracized. He had no suchsympathy for GulbudeenHikmatyar, whom he accused of being responsible for the destruction of Kabul andthe killing of more mujahidin commanders than the Russians. As a true professional healways brought these lapses to the knowledge of his superiors, who always overrode hisrecommendations to sideline GulbudeenHikmatyar, due to President Zia UI Haq’s links with the Jamaat EIslami; which introduced a distortion in our Jihad policy from which we have still notrecovered.

The second distortion in the Jihad was introduced following the Russian invasion, when the US and Saudi Arabia decided to finance the Jihad, with funding reaching up to $2 billion annually in the mid eighties. This largesse attracted a large number of unsavory characters, which diluted the ideological nature of the jihad. Imam never wavered in his belief in the final victory of the mujahidin. He told us that even before the massive US funding had started, he had gone to Khost to provide first aid, food and logistics and was surprised to see some Pashtuns high on a plateau trying to attract a Russian aircraft. Imam thought they were some tribals who had been bought over by the Russians and he asked the mujahidin to take them out. However the mujahidin told him that the people were their men who were short on explosives for mines and would use the unexploded bombs for this purpose. The exploded bombs they would sell for scrap in Pakistan to get some money for other equipment. Imam realized at oncethat such a people could never be defeated.

Khost was also where Imam first met the Arab – Afghans, who refused to take any food or drink until the Russians had been forced to retreat from the area. This outstanding bravery exhibited by the Arabs developed into a blood bond with the Pashtuns which has endured to this day, despite the best efforts of the US to break the link. Imam also met Osama Bin Laden during this time and said he came across as a quiet and modest person whom no one used to take seriously at that time, as he was considered as just another low key Saudi financier.

The Afghans used to call the US assistance a block of ice, which used to pass through many Pakistani hands, before a snowflake amount used to reach the Afghans. It goes to Imam’s credit that despite passing on millions of unaccountable dollars, not a single dollar stuck to his hands. It is because of this group of dedicated and honest ISI officers that the Jihad was won; despite some of their seniors ending up as millionaires and billionaires. Imam never criticized any of them but had harsh words for Lt Gen Javed Nasir whom he accused of wasting money on hare brained schemes across the world. From Kandahar, Imam was moved to Herat, because of his excellent relations with Ismail Khan. He was in fact over- awed by Ismail Khan’s charisma and personality to such an extent that he had begun to model his appearance, clothes and headgear on Ismail Khan and even practiced Zikr with him, well into the night. Maj. Gen. Nasirullah Babar was in the meantime, trying to open the trade routes to Central Asia to coincide with Prime Minister Benazir’s visit to Turkmenistan. Both Imam and Gul( our new Consul General in Kandahar) tried their best to convince Babar that due to the breakdown in security, following the Russian withdrawal, sending of convoys was not yet a feasible option. Babar refused to listen and as good officers Imam and Gul acquiesced. However as they had predicted, the convoy was captured by a rogue mujahidin commander, from Amir Lalay’s group, who also put Imam and Gul in prison. The Indians saw the chance to embarrass us and sent a suitcase full of dollars to the commander with instructions to kill Imam and Gul and place weapons in the convoy instead of the food and medicines. Imam and Gul were saying what they thought was their final prayer, when the Taliban arrived out of the blue and released our convoy and both our Consuls General and for good measure hanged the rogue mujahideen commander from a tank barrel; leading to Babar’s comment about ‘Our boys saving the day’ which we were never able to clarify, despite its inaccuracy.

In Herat Imam’s brief was to broker a truce between Ismail Khan and the Taliban. While Ismail Khan was quite moderate and flexible the Taliban were completely unwilling to share power with any other group in Afghanistan. As the Taliban arrived close to Herat, Ahmad Shah Masooddecided to airlift about 3000 Pansheris to Herat to assist IsmailKhan. Initially the tactic worked and the Pansheris pushed back the Taliban and almost reached the outskirts of Kandahar. Both our Consuls General in Herat and Kandahar were advised to withdraw from their posts, but Imam refused to move, claiming that the battle was going to be over soon and the Taliban would be victorious. Asked to explain the reasons for his analysis, which seemed to conflict with the facts on the ground, Imam said that the Kandaharis were too numerous and too tough to be defeated by the Pansheris, who were operating so far from their bases and were without proper logistic support. Furthermore, the Heratis (despite also being Tajik) hated the Pansheris more than they hated the Kandaharis and had therefore decided to stop fighting. Imam’s analysis was absolutely accurate and events unfolded just as he had predicted, showing the depth of his experience and knowledge of Afghanistan. Ismail Khan however, never forgave Imam for his defeat, even though Imam had nothing to do with it. Luckily for me Imam was still in Herat when I became Ambassador in Kabul and on a daily basis provided a great deal of background information and assistance in our dealings with the Taliban. Imam also tried to break the logjam in our relations with the Taliban over the removal of the Arab Afghans and the Sunni extremists (from LEJ and SSP) from Afghanistan. He had the effrontery to tell Mullah Omar in a one – to – one meeting that

Mullah Omar was hosting anti – Pakistan elements just like the Afghan communists. Mullah Omar reportedly laughed and said that Imam was the only person in the world who could talk to him like that.

After such an exciting and eventful career, retirement hung heavy on Imam, particularly after he received a direct order from ISIto stay at home and avoid all dealings with his former students. He tried his hand at agriculture, but his lands in Chakwal were just not productive enough. I tried to get him interested in writing a book about his experiences and while he started something, his heart was not in the matter. Imam’s reputation had also reached China and last year he had been invited to visit Xinjiang and lecture to various think-tanks. He had taken the opportunity to present his frank and forthright views to his hosts, as a genuine friend of China, keeping in view the immense assistance provided by the Chinese to Pakistan and the Afghan Jihad. Hopefully the current respite in tension in the area is partly the result of the efforts ofImam requesting his hosts to treat the Uighers as well as they treated the Afghans and Pakistanis, in order to generate the same friendliness and respect that prevails for China in Afghanistan and Pakistan. When talk of reconciliation with the Taliban started, Imam was thrilled and hoped that he would be able to make some sort of contribution. He immediately contacted a former Taliban commander, and was surprised and amused to learn that his former student was quite happy with the US presence and the status quo. The commander told Imam that he was receiving US$l ,OOO/-permonth for staying at home and not attacking the US convoys, which was much better than his normal occupation of committing dacoities in Pakistan.  However, Imam never understood two crucial factors. Firstly,that the mujahidin overnight became terrorists after 9/11 ,because of political reasons and their failure to break their link with OBL. One had to be pragmatic about the issue, keeping the country’s interest in mind, but Imam was too emotionally involved in the Jihad to have a more cold blooded approach. He could never reconcile the fact that he had received a piece of the Berlin Wall from the German government with a plaque inscribed ‘To the one who dealt the first blow’ with the current day reality that his students were nowviewed as suspected terrorists. The second factor which he ignored and which was to prove fatal, was that Afghanistan and FATA were no longer a country for old men. His Taliban friends from the Jihad days, who were at that time considered as moderate and traditionalists, had changed considerably due to their long association with Al Qaeda andextremist organizations from Pakistan. On the other hand the Afghan groups likeGulbudeenHikmatyar and Sayyaf who were once considered the most extremist of theAfghan Islamist movements are now considered to be moderateswho are in touch with theAfghan government and also have cadres in the Afghan Parliament. This basically showsthe complex nature of the continuously changing Afghan kaleidoscope which Imam failed to take into account. While his reputation allowed him to safely roam around throughout Afghanistan in the past, without any escort, present day FAT A is a different experience where obviously, as current events have shown, even the Afghan Taliban(the Haqqani Group) have limited influence.

The army’s reaction is going to be analytical, cold blooded and indifferent; which is understandable because Imam was basically violating a direct order from ISI. However while this attitude is alright for intelligence agencies playing chess games with each other, it is not really useful when dealing with murderous thugs, where a more visceral approach is required. Imam lost his life for being pro – Pakistan and he (and the DMS and Maj. Gen. Bilal) deserve a more befitting response from an army to which they dedicated their lives. I guess ifImam fails to obtain justice from this source we would have to hope that the US drones manage to do the job since he was also part of the alumni of Fort Bragg and the 82nd Airborne Division.