x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The mysterious life and death of Sultan Amir Tarrar, 'Colonel Iman'

Was the former official in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence who gained prominence as a patron of the Taliban helping to make a documentary when he was kidnapped in North Waziristan, or, as some have claimed, on a mission to work out a peace deal between the Pakistani army and Tehreek-e-Taliban?

ISLAMABAD // Sultan Amir Tarrar, a former official in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence who gained prominence as a patron of the Taliban, died last week in circumstances as mysterious as the way he lived.

Known by the nom de guerre Colonel Imam, Tarrar helped to train and organise the Afghan resistance against the Russian invasion in the 1980s. He later assisted the Taliban in their efforts to take control of much of Afghanistan.

Tarrar was abducted in March 2010 while on the way from the north-western city of Kohat to the tribal region of North Waziristan along with Assad Qureshi, a British filmmaker of Pakistani origin, and Khalid Khawaja, a rights activist and former air force official.

The trio had said they intended to make a documentary about the Taliban.

Khawaja's body was found in North Wazaristan in April last year. Mr Qureshi was released in September. Media here have speculated that he paid a hefty ransom, a claim denied by family sources.

Tarrar was being held by a group of militants who identified themselves as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al Alami.

It is still not clear whether Tarrar was killed by his captors or died of natural causes. Negotiators with the captors were reported to have sent medicines for the ailing Mr Tarrar, who was believed to be in his 70s.

Government officials said the militant group claimed Tarrar was dead and it has demanded $200,000 (Dh734,580) to release the body.

Questions have surfaced about whether filming a documentary was what really brought both Mr Tarrar and Mr Khawaja to the mountainous safe haven for al Qa'eda and the Taliban.

Soon after Khwaja's death, his son claimed his father was on a mission to work out a peace deal between the Pakistani army and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the militant groups that have launched devastating suicide attacks on military and civilian targets.

Some analysts agree with this assertion. "They went to North Waziristan as mediators to broker a peace deal," said Zaid Hamid, a security analyst based in Rawalpindi.

"Col Imam was a highly respected figure in the Afghan resistance," Mr Hamid said. "His killing shows that Pakistan has no control over the militants in North Waziristan. It also makes the American claim that the ISI is protecting the Haqqani network totally absurd and farcical. Because if ISI had any influence there, it would have managed the release of one of their finest assets."

An ISI official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, however, denied that Tarrar or Khawaja were part of any backroom negotiations with Taliban militants. The official also denied that the spy organisation had been involved in any effort to secure the release of Tarrar.

Mr Tarrar underwent special-forces training at Fort Bragg in the United States in 1974.

On his return to Pakistan, he taught insurgent tactics to the Afghans who fled the country's communist revolution in 1978. The future resistance leaders Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Masood were his students. He then worked closely with the CIA in training and backing thousands of guerrilla fighters for the Afghan resistance against the Soviet army throughout the 1980s. As the Taliban came into existence after the civil war in the wake of the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan, Tarrar was working as the Pakistani consul general in Afghanistan. He supported the Taliban as they expanded their reach and claimed to have formed a close relationship with their leader, Mullah Mughammad Omar.

It remains unclear what exactly, apart from the financial incentive offered by the filmmaker, prompted Tarrar, who had retired from the ISI and was living in Rawalpindi, to go to North Waziristan. Most of the young militants have no ties with the old guard of the Afghan resistance.

Asad Munir, an Islamabad-based retired brigadier who writes on security and military issues, said Tarrar had no current contacts with the brash militant groups operating in the country's restive tribal regions.

He dismissed the claims that the ISI was using Tarrar to do its bidding in the tribal regions. "ISI never uses retired people unless they are re-employed", Mr Munir said.

"It was just his romance with the old days that made him go to North Waziristan," Mr Munir said.