Colonel Imam: Ideologue or PragmatistMarch 10, 2010
In a recent interview with the New York Times, the once renowned Colonel Imam made some very insightful remarks and dire predictions. For those unfamiliar with the name, Colonel Imam was an ISI operative who played a prominent role in recruiting and training resistance fighters during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. His list of students includes prominent ‘mujahideen’ commanders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Masood. The Colonel worked closely with the Americans and Saudis to train, arm, and support the mujahideen throughout the Soviet occupation and beyond.
Following the emergence of the Taliban, he provided crucial tactical advice and training to this new and potent force, helping them sweep across the rugged country in a series of decisive battles. By his own admission, Colonel Imam was very close to Mullah Omar and spent a considerable amount of time with the Afghan Taliban leader following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
All told, the Colonel spent over two decades straddling the dangerous Pak-Afghan border and was deeply ingrained in the tumultuous affairs of Afghanistan and the border areas. He is undoubtedly an expert on the region and some would argue that his insight is invaluable. His views on the current state of affairs in the region are also certainly worth considering.
Colonel Imam’s last visit to Afghanistan ended right before the US invasion and his final advice to Mullah Omar was to engage the invading forces in a prolonged struggle using guerrilla tactics, instead of taking them head on. So far, it seems that the Taliban leader heeded his advice. From the initial US-led invasion to the recent operations in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban seem to have avoided direct large-scale confrontations with coalition forces. And for the most part, they have vacated their strongholds such as Marjah ahead of major operations.
The Taliban have focused on utilising guerrilla tactics such as ambushing convoys, attacking isolated outposts, and deploying IEDs to target western forces. Of course, they have also relied heavily on other tactics such as suicide bombings. Some would argue that the methods used by the Taliban reflect their weakness, since they have been unable to hold any territory against US-led attacks. On the flip side, and according to the view espoused by Colonel Imam, it can be argued that the Taliban have consciously chosen to operate in this manner. Realising that they cannot match western forces in terms of firepower and technology, the insurgents have decided to employ a strategy similar to the one used by mujahideen commanders against the Soviets: bleed the enemy to death with small cuts instead of a single decisive blow.
Consider this. Every time the Taliban successfully attack ISAF forces, they cause damage worth thousands if not millions of dollars, depending on the kind of equipment they destroy and the number of casualties they inflict. In the process, they lose a handful of men (that are easily replaced by a seemingly endless flow of recruits), some assault rifles, and perhaps a few hundred rounds of ammunition.
Similarly, with every successful suicide attack, they cause immense damage in terms of life and property and put a serious dent in the coalition forces’ morale — all this, at the expense of a brainwashed youth and a few kilograms of explosive material.
According to Colonel Imam, the recent arrests of senior Taliban commanders will not weaken the insurgency. He claims that the Afghan Taliban have evolved into a decentralised force, with field commanders leading self-sufficient units that operate independently. He predicts that President Obama’s troop surge will end in failure, since the increased number of American soldiers will only serve to provide the militants with bigger and more diverse targets, such as supply convoys, planes, and vehicles. Furthermore, he also believes that efforts to fracture the Taliban movement by weaning commanders away with bribes will not succeed, since committed militant commanders will not trade their loyalty for cash.
In an interview with the New York Times, Colonel Imam was full of praise for Mullah Omar and the Taliban movement. He described them as a force that brought stability to the war-torn country and all but ended the drug trade. He denied providing support to the insurgents, as some observers have suggested, but stressed the need to negotiate with the Taliban leadership, a view he has reiterated in a number of interviews over the past few years.
It is interesting to note that time and again the Colonel has insisted that Mullah Omar is a reasonable man who would be willing to negotiate and compromise with the Americans, given the right terms and conditions. In an interview with McClatchy in January, he even hinted at the possibility of acting as a liaison between the Americans and the Afghan Taliban leadership. Given his history of close links with both sides, it is entirely conceivable that Colonel Imam might play an important role in any future or ongoing talks with the Afghan insurgents. Of course, any such role would require the approval and active support of the ISI.
With rumours of secret negotiations and potential deals doing the rounds in the international media circuit, some reports already suggest that the US is actively seeking a compromise with the Afghan Taliban. Speculations of Saudi involvement in this process have also been made and it will be interesting to see if anything concrete develops over the next few months, and if so, how Pakistan and the Colonel would fit into the equation.
On his part, Colonel Imam makes no effort to conceal his ideological support for the Afghan Taliban. This support can possibly account for his particular views and predictions. That being said, his in-depth knowledge of the region and vast experience with key players involved in the conflict cannot be overlooked. If his predictions prove to be accurate, the implications for the region will be crucial. In the end, only time will tell if the enigmatic Colonel Imam is an ideologue dwelling in the past (as suggested by his detractors) or a grounded pragmatist with profound foresight.