March 3, 2010
Mary Fitzgerald/The Irish Times
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — With his white turban, untrimmed beard and worn army jacket, the man known uniformly here by his nom de guerre, Col. Imam, is a particular Pakistani enigma.
A United States-trained former colonel in Pakistan’s spy agency, he spent 20 years running insurgents in and out of Afghanistan, first to fight the Soviet Army, and later to support the Taliban, as Pakistani allies, in their push to conquer Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Today those Taliban forces are battling his onetime mentor, the United States, and Western officials say Colonel Imam has continued to train, recruit and finance the insurgents. Along with a number of other retired Pakistani intelligence officials, they say, he has helped the Taliban stage a remarkable comeback since 2006.
In two recent interviews with The New York Times, Colonel Imam denied that. But he remains a vocal advocate of the Taliban, and his views reveal the sympathies that have long run deep in the ranks of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.
Despite Pakistan’s recent arrest of several high-level Taliban commanders, men like Colonel Imam sit at the center of the questions that linger around what Pakistan’s actual intentions are toward the Taliban.
American and NATO officials suspect that retired officers like Colonel Imam have served as a quasi-official bridge to Taliban leaders and their rank and file as well as other militant groups.
Now retired, Colonel Imam (his real name is Brig. Sultan Amir) lives in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, just yards from the Pakistani Army headquarters.
In the interviews, Colonel Imam denied any continued link to the Taliban. But he admitted that some “freelancers” — meaning former Pakistani military or intelligence officials — might still be assisting the insurgents.
If Colonel Imam personifies the double edge of Pakistan’s policy toward the Taliban, he also embodies the deep connection Pakistan has to the Afghan insurgents, and possibly the key to controlling them.
Once a promising protégé for the United States, he underwent Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1974, learning in particular the use of explosives, and he went on to do a master parachutist course with the 82nd Airborne Division.
On his return to Pakistan, 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.
Once the Soviets were pushed out, the Taliban emerged and Colonel Imam, then serving as a Pakistani consular official in Afghanistan, provided critical support to their bid to rule the country, Western officials said.
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.
Today, Colonel Imam speaks highly of the Americans he worked with. But he predicts failure for the United States in Afghanistan. While his views are clearly colored by his ardor for the Taliban cause, they also carry the weight of someone who knows his subject well.
The Taliban movement is so devolved, he said, that commanders on the ground make most of their own decisions and can raise money and arrange for weapons supplies themselves.
“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.”
He criticized President Obama’s decision last year to send more American troops into Afghanistan. “They are doing what you should never do in military strategy, reinforcing the error,” he said.
“They will have more convoys, more planes, more supply convoys, and the insurgents will have a bigger target,” he added. “The insurgents are very happy.”
The plan by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, to win over the Afghan people while pressing the Taliban militarily could have worked in 2003 or 2004, when the Taliban were weak and had less support, but now the Taliban had a presence in virtually every province, he said.
He also said the idea of paying members of the Taliban to change sides would not work and only bogus figures would come forward. “It is shameful for a superpower to bribe,” he said.
Meanwhile, he has nothing but praise for Mullah Omar, who is suspected of hiding in Pakistan today. Of all the thousands of men he trained, he said, religious students like Mullah Omar were the most “formidable” opponents because of their commitment.
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, he said.
He pointedly criticized the Pakistani Taliban who turned to fight the Pakistani Army in Swat last year and unleashed a wave of bombings in Pakistan’s cities. They were “troublemakers” that should be “neutralized,” he said.
Yet for Afghanistan, the solution was to negotiate with the Taliban leadership, he said. Mullah Omar wants peace and is capable of compromise, he said.
He was also the only leader who could keep Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan or in abeyance, including Osama bin Laden, he said. Mullah Omar’s popular support was such that Mr. bin Laden would have to listen, he said.
Mullah Omar had refused to hand over Mr. bin Laden, the Qaeda leader, in 2001 because he calculated that if he did, it would be only the first of many demands placed on him, he said.