The Pakistani Taliban are demanding the government release two top Afghan Taliban commanders in exchange for two former ISI officers who are known supporters of jihadist groups.
The Taliban released a videotape today of former Inter-Services Intelligence officers Colonel Imam and Khalid Khawaja, both of whom went missing along with two journalists while visiting the town of Miramshah in North Waziristan last month. In early April it was reported that Imam, Khawaja, and the two journalists had disappeared while trying to link up with top Taliban leaders, including top South Waziristan commander Waliur Rehman Mehsud.
In the tape, Imam and Khawaja both stated they were directed to visit the Taliban by two top former ISI officers, former Chief of of Army Staff General Aslam Beg and former Director General of the ISI Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, Dawn reported. According to the Dawn article, Khawaja also claimed in the tape that a serving ISI officer, Colonel Sajjad, had advised him to visit the Taliban. Both Beg and Gul have openly aided the Taliban in the past and present; the two men helped found the Taliban and have provided support for al Qaeda and various Pakistani jihadist groups.
The Taliban have threatened to kill Imam and Khawaja if the government does not release three top Afghan Taliban leaders, Mullah Baradar, Mullah Abdul Kabir and Mullah Mansur Dadullah Akhund.
Kabir led the Peshawar Regional Military Council, one of the Afghan Taliban’s top four regional commands, before he was captured by Pakistani intelligence in February 2010. He served as the Taliban’s former shadow governor of the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, as well as the governor of Nangarhar during the Taliban’s reign.
Dadullah, who is also known as Mullah Bakht Mohammed, replaced his brother Mullah Dadullah Akhund as the top commander in southern Afghanistan during the summer of 2007. His status has been in doubt, but he was last reported to have been arrested by Pakistani security forces in January 2008.
A senior US intelligence official who closely follows the Taliban on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border described the Taliban’s demand for an exchange of Imam and Khawaja for Kabir and Dadullah as “farce.”
“This bit of Taliban theater is a farce,” the official said. “Imam and Khawaja are supporters of the Taliban who are free to openly operate in Pakistan. They are untouchable despite their support of terrorists, the Taliban wouldn’t kill these assets. This is a ruse.”
The official also noted that the Pakistani Taliban are demanding the release of Afghan Taliban leaders. “This sort of thing happens often, yet many people still want to draw distinctions between the two groups,” the official said. “The reality is they [the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban] are intertwined.”
Background on Imam and Khawaja
Colonel Imam, whose real name is Amir Sultan, is considered to be one of the fathers of the Taliban. He was instrumental in providing training, organization, and material support for the Taliban as they began to take over vast regions in southern Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. He is believed to have directed the Taliban takeover of Herat in 1995, and then later directed the Taliban assaults on Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad, according to the London Times.
Imam has continued to support the Taliban since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and has been spotted in southern Afghanistan by Afghan and United Nations officials. Imam has openly praised Mullah Omar.
“I love him,” he said. “He brought peace to Afghanistan.”
Khawaja is a former Squadron Commander in the Pakistani Air Force who fought alongside al Qaeda and reportedly Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s. After retiring as a major, he served in the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Pakistan’s notorious military intelligence service that helped to found the Taliban and other jihadist terror groups. Khawaja has also been linked to the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Khawaja serves as the Taliban’s “consigliere,” a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal. At the end of February, Khawaja succeeded in blocking the transfer of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban’s second in command, and four other members of the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta Shura, to foreign custody. He is also one of the lawyers for the five Americans who entered Pakistan to join al Qaeda in North Waziristan late last year.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.