COL IMAM AS I KNEW
I had known Sultan Amir later on Col Imam since mid-1966. I had been commissioned about 6 months earlier than him. However, my unit Guides Infantry FF (formerly Queen Victoria’s own) came to Lahore as a result of pull back of forces due to Tashkent Accord in 1966 about the time he was commissioned in the 3rd Pathans (FF).
Both young and energetic got plunged into the lives of young officers of that time which was divided in training and sports events, assaulting Xing water obstacles exercises, even evenings were devoted to regimental dinner and guest nights leaving very little time for fun and frolic. Only on Sundays one could indulge ‘non-training events’. Most of us covered our sleeplessness of the previous six days of the week.
In December 1970 both of us found ourselves competing for selection into the elite SSG (Special Services Group). I must have just crawled through but Sultan Amir passed through the three days of gruelling selection tests with flying colours. Only 24 officers were selected from the large number of officers who had volunteered for the SSG.
The basic Commando Course started in early 1971. It was here we discovered the real Sultan Amir. Originally designed by the US Special Forces instructors, it was considered as one of the toughest courses in Pakistan if not other modern armies. He would carry the heaviest load to farthest distance not asking for relief or respite till one of us felt that we are not being fair to him. He was the most helpful among all of us to carry anyone’s belongings tired enough not to carry his own weight, weapons, ammunition or anything else. After 25-30 miles, night marches over the most rugged terrain when we would just slump down he would run around to see our hideout, gather fire wood, cook food and see to the security drills of the hideout etc.
It was here that his real leadership qualities came out.
A few days before we were to graduate from the course, he was with us in setting a record of crossing the Mangla Lake at its widest, approximately swimming 6 miles both ways in 2 hours & 45 minutes. This record remains unbeaten till today. He along with Brig Akram later Commander SSG came out with the highest grade in that course.
He was posted to the elite Tipu Company and I went over to 2 Commando Brigade (SSG). During the Dec 1971 war he had infiltrated behind the Indian troops in the Desert Sector and laid a blocking position. Unfortunately the Pakistani ground offensive just petered out. It goes to his credit that lost, hungry and forsaken he was able to safely extricate along with his troops. By the end of 1973 he had undergone the US Special Forces Course at Fort Bragg along with Psychological Operations Corse. His visit to the US was to bring about a marked change in him; appreciating their training methodology while criticising the materialistic way of life that he saw there. Meanwhile, as the OC Parachute Training School he had also become a jump master with golden ensign (over 100 jumps).
We went up our career ladders, commanding our parent battalions and landed back together in 1976. I was the Commanding Officer (officiating) and he as the Second in Command. We went through hectic training, exercise, operations, etc. together. During this period we were involved in training of the Mujahedeen on a small scale courtesy General Naseerullah Khan Babar who was the architect of the forward policy and had advised Mr Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to be proactive along the Durand Line and payback in the same coin for what the Afghans were doing in NWFP in particular. Promoted to the rank of Lt Col he commanded his Paltan and landed in the Afghan cell of the ISI in early 80’s and was to become a larger than life legend. His stay there was to also change his earlier outlook towards life as well as profession. ( a number of officers went through a transition later dubbed as ‘reverse indoctrination”) It was here that he adopted the nom de guerre of Col Imam which became a world famous identity.
Imam went after his job with single minded devotion. Firstly, training the Afghan Mujahedeen and later leading them into operations against the Soviet troops. Without, de-negating the efforts of the Mujahedeen it was not possible to coordinate any operation without the immense efforts of this handful of officers and men. The animosity among Afghan groups was so great that Ahmad Shah Masoud and Hikmatyar killed more of each other’s cadres than the Russians. (The Taif incident is a classic example of this when Afghans could not even agree who would be their spokesperson at the conference and irate Saudis put the entire Afghan delegation in Taif prison to knock some sense). Imam had a low opinion about the operational capability of the Russian forces except the Spetnaz. He had a healthy regard for them and thought that they were among the best Special Forces in the world.
He was one of ISI operators who stayed the longest, went the deepest and earned total respect of the Mujahedeen for his operational handling, tact and coordination. This was also the most dangerous period with Soviet gunships ruling the air (superiority). However Charlie Wilson’s effort bore fruits and the induction of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles severely challenged the Soviet air superiority. Very few people know or understand that most difficult period. Were it not for the timely induction of these SAMs Dr Najibullah might have been still around. At the same time he was not without his distractors while handling over the Afghan desk to me my predecessor Gen Afzal Janjua remarked that one of the biggest worry he had was the personal security of Imam. He was apprehensive that Gulbadin Hikmatyar (GB) may eliminate him for his friendship with Akhunzada Nasim (the biggest drug smuggler of Afghanistan) the leader of the Mujahedeen in Helmand Province but vehemently anti GB. During my stay as the Head of the Afghan desk I too had to ensure that they do not come into each other’s clashing zones.
The Peshawar Accord of 1992 owed itself to hectic work of pushing the Mujahedeen leaders round the clock to come out with a solution. Prince Turki Al Faisal Head of Saudi intelligence was also there to pressurize the Afghan leaders (In my own opinion in line with Afghan’s history money played a much larger role than everything else. Turki’s Chief of Staff Ahmad Badeeb brought the cash in brief cases. No one knows the exact amount but some estimate that it may have been around $5 million) . However it was handful of people in which Imam was also brought in to utilize his influence, charm or arms twisting abilities to force the Afghan leaders to come out with an accord. Although not to the full satisfaction of Iranian diplomats waiting in line to exercise their own influence on future of Afghanistan. The working to bring out an accord was by itself one of the major achievements of ISI. Till the last moments there were hiccups and a possibility of its being sabotaged.
The Mujahedeen Government led by Hazrat Mujadadi was installed in April 1992. Most of our work in operations had finished. I asked for a posting out Imam stayed there till his retirement. Afghanistan remained in a state of civil war even after the installation of the Mujahedeen Government. It was the period of the warlords, Turan Ismael in Herat, Gul Agha in Kandahar, Rashid Dostum Uzbek at Mazar I Sharif and the Ahmed Shah Massoud in Punjsher Valley and other Tajik areas. The Central Government was confined to parts of Kabul only.
The Foreign Service officers were not interested or keen in serving in a turbulent Afghanistan particularly after the assault on Pak Embassy and drubbing of our diplomats in Kabul. (was this the incident in which Defence Attaché Brigadier Ashraf Afridi was injured?) Col imam came in handy and was appointed as Pakistan’s Counsel General at Herat. Having very good personal relations with Turan Ismael and his brother, he went after his job with gusto. There is no record of Imam having strayed beyond his official responsibility and interfering in the internal affairs of Afghanistan however his personal friendship with so many of them does not rule out his influence over them. As a Counsel General Imam strengthened these friendships further. He was also target of kidnapping and assassination more than once. Probably his distractors wanted to shoot two birds with one shot i.e. embarrass Pakistan besides eliminating him.
Pakistan Government during this period was conceiving its own plan for opening up Central Asian Republics through over land routes through Afghanistan. His location at Herat and Kandahar was ideally suited for facilitating this purpose. The Interior Minister Gen Baber was particularly very keen though some saner elements had advised against this adventure. Unfortunately the very first convoy led by Imam got mired in the intra Afghan feuds and was made hostage. The timely arrival of the Taliban saved Imam and the convoy from annihilation. The arrival of the Taliban in 1996 onwards was a home grown affair in Afghanistan though laid at the doors of the Pakistani establishment Imam’s personal knowledge was most useful in establishing contact and ultimately recognizing Taliban, Although little prematurely and without the input of the foreign office.
Till the last he remained an admirer of the Taliban and prided in having been Mullah Omar’s instructor. (After 2001, he was invited for a talk at NDC. The title was Fall of Taliban. When he rose to speak, he started by saying that the title of the talk was wrong. Taliban was not an entity but an ideology, hence it will live on. The same opinion was echoed by another officer who had worked for a long time with southern Afghan groups when he told me few months after September 2001 about possible outcome of the coming conflict.) We had heated discussions on the subject particularly after the destruction of the largest Buddha’s statue at Bamyan. However it was difficult to convince Imam. He did enjoy the good company and basked in the limelight he was getting as a mentor of Taliban. His impressive, tall and handsome looks with a white turban did knock off some pretty journalists. He also had a knack of impressing people with his candid and frank opinion particularly on the future of American occupation in Afghanistan. He felt that more innocent Afghans had been killed as collateral damage than the Russians did. The time and the psyche of Afghans foretold that the time and space was on the side of the locals.
Lastly what ultimately happened to Col Imam is the most difficult question to be answered by anyone else to him. His last public appearance was the marriage of my daughter on 5th of March 2010. A few days later he was apparently kidnapped by the Punjabi Taliban known as Asian Tigers on a visit to Waziristan along with Khaled Khawaja and Asjad Qureshi a British Pakistani journalist. Imam had earlier told me that during President Karzai’s last call on President Musharraf Karzai had complained that rouge elements of ISI under Col Imam were training the Afghan Taliban. Imam was called upon by his old Directorate where he told them that if he was training them then they would surely know it because nothing remains hidden from the plethora of Intelligence agencies for long. It is felt that he was lured into coming by one of the foreign funded Taliban groups with the aim of finding out what was ISI or Imam’s linkages with the Afghan Taliban. When nothing came out he had to be eliminated otherwise the game would be up. The story of arrest of Raymond Davis and Imam’s purported execution by the Pakistani Taliban soon after seem to interwoven and interlinked somewhere. It also gives credence to the perception in Pakistan’s establishment of Pakistani Taliban being a tool in the new great game in the pay of distant paymasters. It will remain a mystery till his remains are found, DNA tested and given a proper Islamic burial. (Every nation and group has its own narrative as well as priorities and that is fine. However, Pakistan does not have the sole right to fish in the troubled waters. Everybody and his cousin also want to enjoy this playful hobby. The risks and benefits of playing in the snake pit need to be thoroughly analyzed before embarking on these dangerous journeys. In my opinion, ‘what the others can do’ is almost always missing from decisions made by ‘knights of the long table’. One doesn’t have to agree but need to take into consideration what others think or may do. I recall only months after the November 2001, when new Afghan ruling band of Kabul warned that if this time around neighbours specifically referring to Pakistan & Iran don’t behave then they will make sure that this time around, the fire will not be limited to Afghanistan but also burn their homes. When reminded of conventional military power of Pakistan, the smiling Afghan rascal replied that ‘when was the last time that we used any army?’ We simply have to tell the bugger that whatever you snatch in your foray is yours and that incentive alone will be enough. Now with this ingredient in the chalet, you add a little bit of a poisonous ideology and the one who drinks from it can be a bit difficult to handle. As far as I know these warning were given for years but no one cared and the Afghan decision to pay back in the same coin came very late. I don’t have access to any special information, but based on my limited knowledge, at least until 2008-09, there was no significant official Afghan support to either Pakistani Taliban or Baluch militants. Mr. Bugti before he moved to the hills where he was later killed sent message to Kabul asking for a safe passage. Kabul and Washington vetoed it telling him to mend fences with General Mussharraf. From Afghan’s point of view if Taliban version of Sharia under the benevolent guidance of now late Mullah Omar is good for Afghan people then what is wrong with the Taliban Sharia under the divinely inspired Mullah Fazlulluah for the people of Swat? Everyone no matter how big or small can play the dirty game that can hurt the adversary to a certain extent, however, people of the region deserve better. There are no innocents and every state has indulged in the dark art. Restraint should not be seen as a favour to the adversary but in best self interest. The only sane advice that applies to every player Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran, U.S., Russia, Israel etc. is understanding the limits of power especially covert action. I like former CIA director Richard Helms words, “Covert action is like a damn good drug. It works, but if you take too much of it, it will kill you”. (quoted in Bob Woodward’s Veil: The Secret Wars of CIA.)
“A friend is someone who tells you the truth. Not someone who believes in you”. Late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.