The death in custody of retired ISI officer Colonel Amir Sultan, alias Col Imam, who had been abducted by the Taliban early last year, points, once again, to the blunder of ‘strategic depth’ as national policy towards neighbouring Afghanistan. Some reports have ‘Taliban sources’ saying that he died of a heart attack, but his mentor General (retd) Hamid Gul says Col Imam was never a heart patient and that he had been killed by Indian agents and American private security firm Blackwater. Col Imam was kidnapped along with another former ISI officer, Khalid Khwaja, in March 2010. His captors demanded ransom and the release of Taliban prisoners by Pakistan. Mr Khwaja was shot by the allegedly Punjabi Taliban, on a purported phone call from Islamabad, where the caller accused him of being a CIA agent.
Col Imam was an icon of Pakistan’s Afghan policy after 1996, which ousted the Indian embassy from Kabul and facilitated the inauguration of the ‘Islamic’ government of Taliban, one of the cruellest in human history. Islamabad recognised the Taliban government in a manner typical of the Kargil Operation in 1999. The then prime minister Nawaz Sharif didn’t know who had okayed the recognition, because he hadn’t. Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub followed orders that came from a source other than the prime minister; but that was, more or less, routine in Pakistan by then.
Trained by Col Imam in camps that also trained terrorists for infiltration into India, the Taliban did something in Mazar-i-Sharif that began the regional isolation of Pakistan in pursuit of the policy of ‘strategic depth’. They finally got hold of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998 and this came at the cost of a massacre in which hundreds of locals were killed, including Iranian diplomats, in the city’s consulate at the hands of men sent in from Pakistan. The good colonel claimed the Taliban who invaded Mazar-i-Sharif were unarmed and were mostly traders! He also put the blame on Iran for asking the Hazara Shias to resist and start the massacre.
The American-trained Colonel Imam was a commando officer who trained the mujahideen in camps run by Pakistan and the US. He was sent into Kandahar in 1994 to keep the Taliban going in the right direction but he soon moved to the more ‘strategic’ location of Herat, where he was given the dubious title of ‘king of Herat’. Today, India has a presence in Afghanistan with the help of the international community to prevent Pakistan from repeating 1996; and Iran is aggressively pressuring Herat through infiltration to forestall another Pakistani attempt at checkmating its neighbourly interests in Afghanistan. The Mazar tragedy of 1998 had brought the Taliban and Iranian troops eyeball-to-eyeball on the border, with Iran blaming Pakistan for the confrontation.
The Punjabi Taliban — a group of fighters from Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkatul Jihad al Islami, Harkatul Mujahideen, and various other jihadist groups — are all the product of the Pakistani state, which is proved by the statement given out by Khalid Khwaja and Col Imam saying that they were going to the Taliban territory in North Waziristan on advice from ex-army chief Mirza Aslam Beg and ex-ISI chief Lt-Gen (retd) Hameed Gul. The Punjabi Taliban wanted their men held by the ISI released, and finally killed the two ISI hostages when this was not done.
The Taliban have denied that they had anything to do with the killings, but the truth is that when post-kidnap demands were communicated, they contained one from the Afghan Taliban too, asking for the release of an Afghan Taliban leader captured outside Karachi. What is most significant is the fact that the Taliban and al Qaeda care little for Pakistan’s official policy of ousting India and targeting the Americans in Afghanistan. What they have in their cross hairs is Pakistan itself, and they see the Pakistan Army and the ISI as a hindrance in the realisation of this objective. Pakistan needs to change its Taliban-linked policy in the region in order to stave off the internal crisis generated by its totally misguided ‘strategy of depth’ against India. This would be completely in line with furthering our national and security interest.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2011.