The mystery of the death of ‘Colonel Imam’ has been removed. After all, he died a natural death, following a heart attack, while in apparent captivity in the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan. Earlier speculations that he was executed have been laid to rest. Correctly so. It was almost unthinkable that the Taliban would allow their mentor to be killed in cold blood. That would have gone against the grain of Afghan traditions. Besides, ‘Imam’ had always been one of them. He had personal equations with Mullah Omar dating back to the 1980s. He was with Mullah Omar in Kandahar in the final countdown to the American air strikes in October 2001, when they dispersed, with Omar famously climbing on to a motorbike and driven away into the darkening mountains as the dusk fell. ‘Imam’ never hid the fact that he urged Omar to fight on and drive the Americans out of Afghanistan.
The remaining mystery is why the Pakistani military didn’t move heaven and earth and get him released. It is hard to believe that the requisite ‘influence’ was lacking - or the political will. A million dollar question remains: Was Imam indeed in ‘captivity’, or was he on some sort of special assignment to steer the Taliban safe and dry in the final lap of their triumphant return to power in Kabul?
I first heard about his presence in the Kandahar-Herat region sometime in late-1994 from an Afghan who came to Delhi for medical treatment. It wasn’t too difficult to put 2 and 2 together and make it 4 - that Taliban was indeed an outfit of the Pakistani security establishment, contrary to the myths that were being propagated from Islamabad. For, Imam’s presence in that complicated region inside Afghanistan right at that point in time could only have meant that some bloody serious business was afoot. Curiously, Pakistan was also sponsoring Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at that time and Gen. Hamid Gul was active on that front. Amazing that two such vastly different streams of Pakistani ’strategic assets’ were in operation simultaneously - and they finally ‘coalesced’ in 1996 near Saroki in the outskirts of Kabul when Taliban drove Gulbuddin out of Afghanistan into exile in Iran. No doubt, Imam plotted fastidiously the Taliban’s ‘pilgrim’s progress’ from Kandahar via Herat and Jalalabad to Kabul.
Stories about Imam as the Pakistani consul-general in Herat used to filter down to the Tashkent bazaar when I served in that ancient oasis town in the Central Asian steppes. I invariably asked about him while walking the dusty streets of Mazar-i-Sharif. By the mid-1990s, he was already of the stuff of legends. I began harbouring a secret longing to meet him sometime, somewhere. It never happened. But it was also as if I already knew him so well that there was no more any real need to meet. One never got tired of devouring stories of his feats that were handed down. Indeed, at a certain point one even stopped bothering to check out the veracity of the stories surrounding the working life of this secretive man. It became pointless to segregate the kernels of hard facts and fiction. They blended so well. Imagine, this was the man who was received in the Ronald Reagan White House and presented with a piece of the Berlin Wall with a plaque commending him for striking the ‘first blow’ that brought the Soviet Union tumbling down.
Peter Hopkirk could have written a whole book about him. He belongs to that unique chain of British army officers in Calcutta in the 19th century who worked on the Great Game. But Imam’s big difference was that he was much more than a great ‘pro’. He believed in his mission. He probably considered himself a ‘jihadi’ handpicked by God and bestowed with the special skills he acquired as a special forces officer of the Pakistani army trained in Fort Bragg in the US. Rock-like faith was what made this austere man so hugely effective on the operational plane - unlike Gul who talked too much, lived rather well, dressed nattily, partied and sought publicity. Wouldn’t the angels be saying Salaamun ‘Alaykum as the Colonel enters the gates of paradise?
Posted in Terrorism.
– January 25, 2011