Colonel Imam As I Knew Him

A note about colonel Imam, sent by Dr Hamid Hussain. The writer is not identified (but is a Pakistan army officer). The lines in red are comments from Dr Hamid Hussain.

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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.

Brown Pundits