By Syed Saleem Shahzad
News of the killing of Sultan Ameer Tarar, alias Colonel Imam, a legendary Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI) official, has stunned decision-makers in Pakistan and raised questions about the circumstances of his death.
Imam, 67, was apparently killed on Saturday by his kidnappers in the North Waziristan tribal area where he had been held since being seized in March last year while on a backchannel mission to get militants to agree to a ceasefire with security forces.
Imam spent 10 years in the ISI's Afghan cell during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and after retirement he worked for the ISI in various capacities for handling the Taliban.
Pakistani television channels flashed the news of Imam being shot dead on Saturday evening. Some sources then maintained he had not been killed but had died of a heart attack. Others pointed to the fact that the body had not been seen, and that no group had claimed responsibility; militants have a tradition of leaving the body of a "spy" on a road and claiming responsibility.
Whatever the circumstances of Imam's killing - assuming he is dead - they could be a major turning point and even lead to Pakistan finally bowing to the demands of the United States to launch an all-out military offensive in North Waziristan against militants.
On Sunday morning, Imam's family was still claiming that reports of Imam's death were nothing but rumours - and there might be some justification for this belief.
Late last week, Imam spoke to family members on the phone. Militants, too, spoke to the family and were very respectful. "Colonel Imam is a respected elder to us. We have put certain demands to the government. It is our compulsion that as long as our demands are not fulfilled, we cannot release him. Try to understand our position. Otherwise, he is at home. He is getting all medicine and care," the militants said. Imam also sounded as if he was comfortable and in a friendly environment.
He was abducted by a group of Punjabi militants in March 2010 along with a British journalist, Asad Qureshi, and another former ISI official, Khalid Khawaja, who was subsequently killed.
Most militant groups denounced the abduction. Taliban leader Mullah Omar sent a message to the militants calling for their release. However, the ringleader, Ali Imran alias Usman Punjabi, would not listen and killed Khawaja. Qureshi was released, allegedly after paying a huge ransom. On what to do with Imam, the militants were divided in two groups. Those led by Sabir Mehsud killed Usman Punjabi along with five of his accomplices. The issue was then brought to the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP - Pakistan Taliban) Hakimullah Mehsud, who took Imam into his custody and executed Sabir Mehsud for killing Usman Punjabi.
Since then, the Pakistani security forces have tried to establish a channel of communication with Mehsud for the release of Imam. The mediator has been Maulana Fazlur Rahman Khalil, a chief of the banned Harkatul Mujahideen. Khalil took guarantees on behalf of the militants that Imam would not be killed.
Imam was an officer in the army and a former member of the Special Service Group and he also served as consul general in the western Afghan city of Herat during the mujahideen government in the early 1990s until the end of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001.
Imam trained senior commanders of the Afghan national resistance against the Soviet invasion, including Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Mullah Omar. After the emergence of the Taliban movement in Kandahar, he enthusiastically reported on its merits to Islamabad as a pro-Pakistan movement that could eliminate warlordism.
Later, with the consent of the Pakistani military establishment, he helped the student militia in its mobilisation from Kandahar all the way to Jalalabad and Kabul - where it took power in 1996. This left no option for mujahideen leaders like Hekmatyar and Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani and others to escape.
Controversies with militants
Western media often portrayed Imam as the father of the Taliban or somebody who shared ultra-radical Taliban thinking and supported their strategies.
Even among militants, especially Pakistanis who fought in Kashmir against Indian forces and later joined forces with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, said the same of Imam.
However, that was not the case. He was recognised by former chief of army staff and president General Zia-ul Haq and former joint chief of staff committee (then chief of the ISI) General Akhtar Abdul Rahman as qualified enough to handle the Afghan mujahideen. Militants placed much hope in officers like General Hamid Gul - another former head of the ISI - and Imam, and when they didn't come up to expectations, especially after September 11, 2001, and the "war on terror", militants were angered.
After Zia's death in a plane crash in 1988, Gul, then director general of the ISI, continued with Zia's mission of an Afghan jihad. Gul was an ambitious officer and the brains behind his army chief, General Aslam Beg. Because of American pressure, Gul could not be elevated as army chief, yet he remained an inspiration for officers. General Pervez Musharraf - president from 2001 to 2008 - cited Gul as a role model.
Imam was part of Gul's team and they played an important role after 9/11 to convince top militant leaders to trust Musharraf and that he would never sell out the interests of Pakistan and Islam. Later, that was actually the biggest complaint of the militants with Gul and Imam - that they took the wrong decision in supporting Musharraf after 9/11 and in misleading militants that Musharraf would successfully deceive the Americans and get them buried in Afghanistan.
Gul and Musharraf eventually fell out, and immediately after the imposition on November 3, 2007, of a state of emergency, Gul, who had successfully split the military oligarchy by gathering many hundreds of retired army officers of all ranks against Musharraf, was among the first to be rounded up and put behind bars.
Imam, who had continued to work as a front man for the ISI in communicating with senior Taliban commanders in Afghanistan. also fell out with Musharraf in late 2007 and was completely disowned.
Senior militant leaders like Commander Ilyas Kashmiri and other al-Qaeda leaders complained that Gul's and Imam's initial support for Musharraf and then the fallout caused so much damage to jihadi efforts in Afghanistan that they could not be repaired.
When Imam went to North Waziristan in March 2010, after getting support from Gul and Beg, it was believed in establishment circles that the Taliban and al-Qaeda would give him a serious hearing. But in fact, for pro-al-Qaeda militants, Imam didn't deserve any respect. Although Mullah Omar called for his release, and Pakistani commanders like Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Sirajuddin Haqqani did pass on the message to Imam's abductors - they never intervened for his release because they feared hostilities with the TTP, which they were not prepared to risk for someone like Imam.
The circumstances leading to Imam's death could help the army decide on the course of its relations and the trustworthiness of the TTP.
Pakistan saw relative calm in 2010 as militant attacks were vastly reduced due to ceasefire agreements. However, as the US increased pressure on Pakistan to launch an operation in North Waziristan, pro-al-Qaeda militant Qari Ziaur Rahman emerged from the Afghan province of Kunar and carried out a devastating attack in Pakistan's Mohmand area.
Dozens of soldiers were killed and several were abducted. That was a clear show of power by the militants that in the event of any military operation, the militants were capable of opening up fronts across Pakistan. So Pakistan stalled the Americans.
In the meantime, Pakistan opened communication with the militants and assured them that no military operation would be launched on North Waziristan. Khalil, who is inactive as a militant but maintains connections with high-profile militants - played the role of guarantor. One of the issues on which Khalil appeared as guarantor was Imam's safety.
Economically and politically vulnerable Pakistan cannot afford a Taliban-led insurgency to reach the levels of 2007 and 2008. Therefore, ceasefire agreements are essential, provided that the Taliban show commitment to their pledges.
At the same time, Pakistan does not want to give militants too much breathing space to make themselves more dangerous to national security.
The precise circumstances of Imam’s death could indicate whether the Taliban are sincere about making peace with Pakistan, or whether they are just buying time, which in turn will decide whether or not the army goes in North Waziristan.