Colonel Imam’, the Pakistani agent who trained Mullah Omar and the warlords to fight the Soviets, says the US must negotiate with its enemies
“You can never win the war in Afghanistan,” said so-called “Colonel Imam”, who ran a training programme for the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union’s occupation from 1979 to 1989, then helped to form the Taliban.
“I have worked with these people since the 1970s and I tell you they will never be defeated. Anyone who has come here has got stuck. The more you kill, the more they will expand.”
A tall, bearded figure, whose real name is Amir Sultan Tarar, he trained at Fort Bragg, the US army base where America’s special forces are stationed.
During the late 1970s and 1980s he controlled CIA-funded training camps for 95,000 Afghans and often accompanied his students on missions.
After the Soviet defeat and the collapse of communism, he was invited to the White House by the first President George Bush and was given a piece of the Berlin Wall with a brass plaque inscribed: “To the one who dealt the first blow.”
Today western intelligence agencies believe Imam is among a group of renegade officers from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) who continued to help the Taliban after Pakistan turned against them following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
United Nations officials and Afghanistan’s intelligence service have reported sightings of him in the Afghan provinces of Helmand and Uruzgan. It is a charge he shrugs off, claiming that at 65 he has not worked for almost eight years.
“I wish I could do it but they don’t need me any more,” he says. “My students are far ahead of me now. They are giving a lesson to the world. I am very proud of them.”
Although he expresses great admiration for the British military (“far more gallant than the Americans”), Imam says that in sending troops to Helmand, Britain had forgotten its previous wars in Afghanistan.
In particular, he chides, they should have remembered the battle of Maiwand in 1880, in which 2,500 British troops took on 25,000 Afghans and suffered a devastating defeat.
“When people in Helmand heard the British were coming back, the cry went up all over: ‘Remember Maiwand? Our old enemy has come to the same area where they were once defeated to take revenge’. Then everyone, Taliban and nonTaliban, joined together. They told me on the phone, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make sure the Brits don’t have an easy time’.”
His comments come as the number of British soldiers killed by enemy action in Afghanistan has risen to 137, one more than the number who have died in Iraq.
According to Imam, Helmand is particularly difficult because of the character of the people. “They couldn’t care less about loss of property or loss of life,” he said.
It is unlikely that anybody alive today knows the Afghans as well as Imam. All the key figures were trained in his camps, from the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panj-shir, to warlords such as Gul-buddin Hekmatyar, his “naughtiest” student. “It was a matter of pride for me that my students later became big commanders,” he said.
“The Afghan is a very cunning soldier,” he added. “He picks things up very quickly and never forgets. As a Pakistani unit commander I’d be training my men for six months and maybe they would remember 70%. But in Afghanistan teenagers came, had only three days’ weapon training and they remembered 100%. In just 15 days they mastered the Stinger [the shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missile].”
Omar passed through his camps in 1985. “He was a simple man, a small commander leading a maximum of 40 people and didn’t have much weaponry,” Imam recalled.
One of Imam’s biggest backers was Congressman Charlie Wilson, the Texan who was instrumental in securing funding for Operation Cyclone, the CIA programme to supply arms with which the mujaheddin would fight the Soviet troops.
“He used to dance with happiness at seeing our training camps,” said Imam.
Within 10 years the Russians had been forced out. “Total expenditure just $5 billion and not a single American life,” said Imam. “Now the Americans are spending hundreds of billions and losing hundreds of lives.”
The last time he saw Wilson was after the 1988 Geneva accords on the Soviet withdrawal. Imam told him: “You’re abandoning the Afghans. They need financial support for rehabilitation.” Wilson replied: “Dollars don’t grow on trees.” “Do Afghan youth grow on trees?” asked Imam. “Over 1.5m Afghans have died.”
Furious at the American betrayal and devastated by the resulting infighting in the Afghan resistance, he became close to Omar. “I love him,” he said. “He brought peace to Afghanistan.”
Imam was Pakistan’s consul-general in Herat when the Taliban captured the city in 1995 from Ismail Khan, the mujaheddin commander, who claims the ISI agent oversaw the whole Taliban operation. From there he guided the Taliban as they took over the cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad and eventually captured Kabul.
Like many Pakistanis he refuses to believe the September 11 attacks were carried out by Osama Bin Laden. “An operation like that needs ground support,” he said. “I have no doubt it was carried out by the Americans to give a bad name to the Taliban government as an excuse to topple it.”
When General Pervez Musharraf, then president of Pakistan, agreed to American pressure to cut ties to the Taliban, the colonel was outraged.
Recalled to Islamabad, he told Musharraf: “You cannot defeat these people, they are well trained, they have a lot of ammunition and the more you kill, the more supporters will come.”
Today he adds: “It was the blunder of his life and because of it we are all doomed.”
Imam left Afghanistan when the US bombing of the country ceased in 2001 and claims he has not returned. “I can go any time on my old routes, even the Americans cannot stop me, but there is no need,” he said. “I have friends roaming all over there. At times they give me a call, they like to hear my voice.
“I’m quite happy with the current situation because the Americans are trapped there. The Taliban will not win but in the end the enemy will tire, like the Russians.”
He has offered to find the Americans a way out: “We can give them a face-saving solution but they must change their strategy.”
First, he says, they must spend billions on reconstruction. Then they must open talks with Omar rather than the so-called moderate Taliban with whom negotiations are under way.
“When are you people going to understand there are no number two Taliban?” he asked. “Those who break away from mainstream Taliban have no place in society. You may make deals in Dubai or Saudi Arabia, but when they come back to Afghanistan and people know they have compromised with the Americans, they are finished.
“In Afghanistan the only man who can make a decision and people listen is Mullah Omar. He’s a very reasonable man. He would listen and work for the interests of his country.”
He insisted the Taliban leader was not in Pakistan: “He’s in the hills of Uruzgan, his home province. If there’s a requirement he will listen to me, but why should I get him involved in a risky situation?”
Imam said he had watched with horror as fighting spread into Pakistan and had been shocked to see his fellow officers having to fight against their own countrymen in the Swat district.
“These are not Taliban, they are tribals,” he said. “Mullah Omar told them time and time again not to fight against Pakistan. They are fighting against the government of Pakistan because it is supporting the enemies of Islam. Everybody knows our government is supporting the US drone attacks in our own area.
“This is an American plan to make us a subjugated country and have an excuse to get our nukes. Everybody, your prime minister, President Obama, all go, ‘Oh, the nuclear weapons are unsafe’. I say you’re making them unsafe. When you were not in the region there was no problem.”
The call for prayer brings our interview to an end. Before he goes he has one last warning: “I tell you when my nation rises up it is not Afghanistan, not Iraq. There will be tremendous killing