By NBC News’ Carol Grisanti and Mushtaq Yusufzai
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Sultan Ameer Tarar, a U.S.-trained former Pakistani spymaster who guided the Taliban as they rose to power in Afghanistan, has died – after being kidnapped by the same people he once helped.
And now the group is apparently holding his body for ransom.
A colorful figure also widely known by the code name Col. Imam, Tarar was instantly recognizable by his small white turban and army camouflage jacket.
Once asked if he was copying Osama Bin Laden by wearing the same style turban, he replied, “No, Osama has copied me.”
Mullah Omar’s trainer
Tarar was trained as a commando with U.S. Special Forces at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1974 as part of routine training of Pakistani forces by the U.S. at the time.
Later, as an American ally, Tarar helped the CIA train, support and funnel thousands of young fighters into Afghanistan during the 1980s to fight the Soviet invaders. After the Soviets’ defeat in Afghanistan, former President George H.W. Bush acknowledged Tarar’s contribution by inviting him to the White House.
“I trained 95,000 fighters over a 10-year period,” Tarar told NBC News in an interview last year. “I trained all the trainers for the jihad; I was in charge.”
He was perhaps best known for teaching a young cleric, Mullah Omar, how to wage guerrilla warfare. Omar went on to become the leader of the Taliban and the spiritual head of the movement.
More recently, U.S. government officials believed that he was among a group of retired officers for the ISI, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, who continued to help the Taliban fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan. However, Tarar always denied the charge.
Best laid plans went awry
Despite his ties to the Afghan Taliban, Tarar was kidnapped last March as he traveled with another retired ISI official, Khalid Khawaja, and British-Pakistani journalist, Asad Qureshi, in North Waziristan.
They planned to make a documentary on the Pakistani branch of the Taliban, interview their leaders and highlight the effects of the U.S. drone strikes on the civilian population in North Waziristan.
But almost from the beginning, their plans went terribly wrong.
Soon after they arrived in North Waziristan, a little known Taliban offshoot, The Asian Tigers, kidnapped the three men and demanded a ransom of $25 million. A few months later, the militants accused Khawaja of spying for the CIA and executed him. Qureshi, the journalist, was freed after ransom money was paid to two Asian Tiger commanders – but Tarar was stuck in captivity.
Taliban and tribal sources told NBC News that Tarar’s health had deteriorated while he was in their custody. “Talks had been underway for his release, when he suffered a heart attack and died,” said a senior Taliban commander.
The family has still not received any official confirmation of Tarar’s death, nor word about where, or if, they can collect his body.
“Someone called us this morning to say that our relative is no more, but would not give us anymore details,” a close family member told NBC News, requesting anonymity out of fear of the Taliban.
However, one Taliban source told NBC News that the group was still holding Tarar’s body. “We have informed the family and the Pakistan government of our demands before we hand over the body,” he said.
The Taliban are, allegedly, demanding that the Pakistan army release five of their most prominent fighters from prison and that the family pay an undisclosed amount in ransom for them to release the body.
‘They are ruthless’
Before venturing off into North Waziristan last year, Tarar spoke often with foreign journalists. He insisted that negotiations with the Taliban were the only way to end the 10-year-old war. However, his kidnapping and death demonstrates the complexities and changing relationships among the different parties in the conflict and the disparities among the various groups of militants.
Tarar surely felt that he would be welcome among the Taliban in the tribal areas because of his previous ties to them and to their leader, Mullah Omar. It was a fatal miscalculation.
“I knew him well; we worked together when I was running the ISI. He was a very good officer,” said Javed Ashraf Qazi, a former director-general of the ISI. “He should not, however, have attempted to play any kind of role to reconcile the Taliban in his private capacity because as we all can see dealing with the Taliban is dangerous business. They are ruthless.”