March issue 2011
Spy or Intermediary?
After almost a month of his execution, the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) issued a gruesome videotape in the third week of February to confirm the death of retired Pakistan Army Colonel Sultan Amir Tarar, commonly known as Colonel Imam, which was his code name as a long time operative of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Not many people knew his real name. For 11 years as an agent of the ISI, his fictional name defined the Chakwal-born soldier who wielded enormous influence during the various stages of the Afghan conflict due to his close ties to the mujahideen and the Taliban. He had trained a large number of Afghan fighters battling the Soviet occupation forces; he befriended scores of mujahideen and commanders, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Ahmad Shah Masood and Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani; he had known Afghan Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar; he escorted several US and other western leaders, including the then CIA deputy director and now Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as well as Congressman Charlie Wilson on visits to the mujahideen and functioned as Pakistan’s consul general in Herat, western Afghanistan.
Ironically, he met a violent end at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban, who have increasingly charted their own course after initially expressing loyalty to Mullah Omar. Appeals for mercy by certain Afghan Taliban commanders including Sirajuddin Haqqani and former Afghan mujahideen and Pakistani religious scholars also failed to move the TTP head, Hakimullah Mehsud, who was seen in the video personally supervising Colonel Imam’s execution. The videotape also provided evidence after months of speculation that Hakimullah Mehsud was alive and kicking – and still in command of the TTP.
Colonel Imam’s body still hasn’t been returned to his grieving family though he was executed in late January somewhere in South or North Waziristan. All media reports that his body had been found near Miramshah, headquarters of North Waziristan, turned out to be untrue. In fact, the delay in releasing his body to the family has fuelled speculation that the video of his execution could be a fake. Most accounts, though, corroborate the news of his death.
His kidnapping in March last year was an indication of the generation gap and the splintering of militants of different persuasions presently operating on both sides of the Af-Pak border. In the past, Colonel Imam would have been welcomed and feted as an honoured guest by the Afghan mujahideen and Taliban, and also by some Pakistani militants. But times have changed. The new generation of militants operating under the TTP banner or linked to its like-minded groups considered Colonel Imam as an enemy and wanted to use him as a bargaining chip for the release of fellow militants and ransom money.
Earlier on April 30, 2010, the TTP had executed another former ISI official, Squadron Leader (retd) Khalid Khwaja, who had accompanied Colonel Imam on that fateful journey to North Waziristan in March 2010, because the Pakistan government refused to accept their demands. The militants-turned-kidnappers had secured a hefty ransom for releasing Asad Qureshi, the British documentary filmmaker of Pakistani origin, and his local driver Rustam Khan. Qureshi was lucky to have survived even if the experience may haunt him for the rest of his life.
Colonel Imam and Khalid Khwaja, both simple soldiers, had actually accompanied Qureshi to North Waziristan to enable him to film his documentary on the impact of US drone strikes and the civilian casualties caused by them. They were hoping to use some of their contacts and goodwill to do the job, and also get a feel of the place. It was naïve of them to go to North Waziristan, the stronghold of local and foreign militants of every persuasion, especially after having publicly criticised the Pakistani Taliban. As pointed out by Usman Punjabi, or Mohammad Omar as he used to introduce himself in his phone calls and emails to members of the media, Colonel Imam and Khalid Khwaja used to label the Pakistani Taliban as terrorists and instead shower praise on the Afghan Taliban. As head of a faction of militants that variously described itself as Punjabi Taliban and Asian Tigers, he argued, “It was wrong of them to describe us as terrorists. We, too, are fighting jihad,” while speaking to this writer from Miramshah shortly before he was killed due to the infighting that erupted between different factions of the militants over the issue of kidnapping of Colonel Imam and Khalid Khwaja, and sharing of the ransom money. This stance of theirs regarding the Pakistani Taliban was used as grounds for justifying their murder.
The situation remained confusing and complex from the moment Colonel Imam and his colleagues were kidnapped right until the end when reports emerged in late January 2010 that the retired colonel had been executed or had died of heart attack.
The Asian Tigers, a name unheard of until then and obviously coined to hide the identity of the kidnappers, claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and said demands had been forwarded to the concerned people without elaborating. It soon emerged that the Punjabi Taliban – or jihadists who had quit their mainstream militant organisations due to the latter’s close links with Pakistan’s security establishment – had linked up with the TTP and were involved in the kidnappings. Usman Punjabi became the link between the militants holding the four men and the outside world. He was the one who had invited the former ISI operatives to North Waziristan and trapped them. In fact, the militant group holding them was led by one Abdullah Mansoor, who had split from the anti-Shiite Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and aligned with the splinter faction Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al-Alami.
It was after Khalid Khwaja had been executed and a ransom deal for the release of Asad Qureshi was being worked out that militants holding Colonel Imam developed differences among themselves. This resulted in the killing of Usman Punjabi and five of his men at the hands of his former colleague Sabir Mehsud, who belonged to South Waziristan and who had more fighters under his command than the militants from the Punjab. The incident enraged Hakimullah Mehsud, who sent his men to execute Sabir Mehsud and members of his band and take custody of Colonel Imam. Those seeking Colonel Imam’s release were then required to approach Hakimullah Mehsud, who presented tough conditions including the release of his men in the custody of the government and also the payment of ransom. Subsequently, hopes for a deal were raised when reports emerged that Colonel Imam could be freed on payment of ransom. His execution was sudden and shocking for all those trying to negotiate a deal as the talks with the TTP had not broken down yet.
The brutal manner of Colonel Imam’s execution in the presence of Hakimullah Mehsud explained the latter’s anger. In his statement before the execution, the TTP leader accused Colonel Imam of so many things that it seemed he was convinced that the former ISI operative had specifically come to Waziristan to spy on him and provide intelligence for the Pakistan Army’s strikes and US drone attacks on his hideouts. Militants often argue that the punishment for spies is death and this was the reason that both Khalid Khwaja and Colonel Imam were executed. In their view, both were spies although it is far-fetched that the two retired military officers, who were critical of Pakistan’s alliance with the US and unhappy over Islamabad’s decision after 9/11 to break with Afghan Taliban, would still be working for the ISI. In fact, the military authorities would have made a real effort to save them had they still been working for the ISI and were in any way useful to the military or the government. Rather, their families were disappointed that the military didn’t do more to secure their release.
One fallout of Colonel Imam’s execution is that it has created mistrust and caused a wedge between the TTP and other militants, particularly the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. Those aware of Colonel Imam’s services to the cause of the Afghan jihad and the Afghan Taliban were clearly unhappy with the TTP and Hakimullah Mehsud and were privately criticising him for executing the former ISI official. In fact, serious doubts have arisen about Hakimullah Mehsud’s agenda after this incident. Though the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network have refrained from publicly condemning Hakimullah Mehsud and the TTP for killing Colonel Imam and Khalid Khwaja, they are unlikely to trust him anymore.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.