Published January 24, 2011
ISLAMABAD – A former Pakistani spy who helped the Taliban rise to power in Afghanistan has died in militant captivity 10 months after he was seized in northwest Pakistan, a top official said Monday.
Sultan Amir Tarar, who as an American ally against Soviet rule in Afghanistan in the 1980s trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, died of a heart attack, said Tariq Hayat, the most senior government representative in the tribal regions.
Tarar was kidnapped along with a British TV journalist who was released in September and another former spy, Khalid Khawaja, who was executed by his captors in April. It is unclear why the two men traveled to the northwest, but they may have been acting as guides to the reporter.
Tarar's life personified some of the deep complexities of U.S. and Pakistani policies toward insurgents in the region.
His death in militant captivity was also shrouded in uncertainty, but appeared to indicate the extent to which some insurgents in the northwest had abandoned any loyalties to Pakistani intelligence agencies that nurtured an earlier generation of fighters.
Tarar, who was better known as Col. Imam and usually seen wearing a white turban and army camouflage jacket, played a major role in funneling Pakistani support and training to Afghans fighting Soviet rule in the 1980s, a push in large part financed by the CIA.
After the Soviets withdrew, he continued to be Pakistan's point man with the Taliban, which were seen by Islamabad as allies. He provided the movement with arms, funding and training and was known to be close to Mullah Omar. He and Khawaja remained publicly sympathetic to the Afghan Taliban and Omar since the movement's downfall in 2001 in the U.S.-led invasion.
Some media reports have said Tarar maintained operational ties with the Afghan insurgents in recent years, which he denied. In interviews before his kidnapping, he had spoken of the need to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban to end the almost 10-year war.
The two presumably felt their background and Islamist views offered some protection while traveling in northwest Pakistan. The region is now home to militants battling the Pakistani state, including its intelligence agencies and al-Qaida leaders also hostile to the pro-U.S. regime in Pakistan. Afghan Taliban factions fighting in Afghanistan that do not directly target the Pakistani state are also based there.
A previously unknown militant group calling itself the Asian Tigers initially said it had seized the men. Analysts speculated the captors were a new breed of militants who had turned against their former protectors.
In July, Tarar appeared in a video saying he was being held by another group and that it was demanding the release of prisoners held by the government in exchange for his release.
Tarar's death was first reported Sunday, but officials could not confirm it. He was believed held in North Waziristan, a region bordering Afghanistan that is under effective militant control.
Hayat, the government official, said authorities were "sure that he is dead" but that militants still had Tarar's body. He said the captors, whom he did not identify, were demanding more than $200,000 for its return.
Tarar had very close ties with the U.S. during the Soviet occupation. He trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and gave personal tours of the border region to several Congressmen, including Charlie Wilson, who drove American financial support to Afghan militiamen then regarded by Washington as freedom fighters, said Roy Gutman in his book "How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and the Hijacking of Afghanistan."
According to Gutman, the Reagan administration presented Imam with a plaque mounted with a piece of the Berlin Wall that read: "Dedicated to Colonel Imam. With deepest respect to one who helped deliver the first blow."
Tarar developed a close rapport with Taliban leader Mullah Omar in the mid-1990s as he rose to power in Afghanistan, said Zahid Hussain in his book "Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle With Militant Islam." He was posted as Pakistan's consul general in several Afghan cities, including Kandahar, and helped funnel arms and money to the Taliban, said Hussain.