Spy who trained Taliban dies

By Omar Waraich

ISLAMABAD - The godfather of the Taleban, 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.

Sultan Amir Tarar, better known as "Colonel Imam", had been held hostage by a number of groups since March 2010.

The retired official of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was captured when he accompanied a former spy and a British journalist on a doomed mission to film a documentary about the Pakistani Taleban in their sanctuaries along the Afghan border.

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

The slaying was surprising as Khawaja and Colonel Imam were known militant sympathisers. The journalist, Asad Qureshi, who thought the two men's jihadist views would yield him access to Pakistan's most notorious militants, was released in September after a ransom was reportedly paid.

Colonel Imam's 10-month ordeal illuminated the unravelling of a policy he set in train 30 years ago. In the 1970s, he emerged as a United States-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, Colonel 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 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.

Colonel Imam's links with the Americans deepened, working with them to sprout training camps across the tribal areas and Baluchistan.

During this period he earned his nom de guerre, splicing his army rank with the title conferred on a prayer leader: "imam". Under diplomatic cover as the Pakistan consul-general, Colonel Imam was the linchpin in Mullah Omar and the Taleban's takeover in Afghanistan, securing Islamabad's much-coveted "strategic depth" in the region.

But the collapse of the twin towers changed all that and Washington enlisted Pakistan's support in its war against the militants they had nurtured. Colonel Imam opposed them, urging Mullah Omar to resist the Americans.

It was their last meeting, Colonel Imam would tell visitors in Rawalpindi, as he shuffled his worry beads.

But Western intelligence agencies were not persuaded, alleging Colonel Imam and others were conduits for abiding ISI contacts with the Afghan Taleban.

Colonel Imam denied the charge, but cheered on his former trainees and kept contact with his successors in uniform.

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

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

- INDEPENDENT

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