With his white turban, untrimmed beard and worn army jacket, the man known uniformly here by his nom de guerre, Colonel Imam, is a particular Pakistani enigma.
A U.S.-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 centre 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 Brigadier 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 CIA 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 Septemebr 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 coloured by his ardour for the Taliban cause, they also carry the weight of someone who knows his subject well. — New York Times News Service