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Hamid Gul’s Pakistan legacy: Taliban blowback

Analysis: The intelligence chief, who died Saturday, initiated the proxy warfare whose effects now haunt Pakistan

For many critics of the Pakistani security establishment, Lieut. Gen. Hamid Gul personified many of its flaws. Gul, who died Saturday of a brain hemorrhage, served as head of Pakistan’s pre-eminent spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, for just two years, between 1987 and 1989. Yet, the impact of the policies he initiated — supporting radical armed groups beyond the country’s borders and destabilizing democracy at home — continues to be felt to this day.

Gul became head of the ISI amid momentous events, as Pakistan took a leading role in supporting the anti-Soviet “jihad” next door in Afghanistan, funneling cash and weapons from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to the Afghan fighters who cast their struggle as one pitting Muslim believers against godless communists. That fight drew thousands of fighters from across the Muslim world, among them Osama bin Laden.

As the head of the ISI in 1989, when Soviet forces withdrew in defeat, Gul claimed victory. A superpower had been humbled, reaffirming Afghanistan’s reputation as the “graveyard of empires” and presaging the collapse of the Soviet bloc. In his elegantly appointed home in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, Gul proudly displayed a fragment of the Berlin Wall that had been a gift from the German government after reunification. The inscription saluted the man “who helped deliver the first blow.”

Gul took that extravagant tribute to heart, coming to see himself as a man who had played an outsized role in shaping the course of history. The defeat of Soviet forces and their Afghan protégé had certainly marked a rare military success for Pakistan. Like other soldiers of his generation, Gul was a veteran of the ruinous 1971 war against India, Pakistan’s worst-ever defeat which led to massive territorial losses as East Pakistan became the independent nation of Bangladesh.

If the goal was to efface that humiliation, the success of the Afghan mujahideen as an unconventional fighting force against the Soviets prompted Gul and his colleagues to try the same tactic against India in the disputed territory of Kashmir. From 1989 onward, a range of armed groups backed by Pakistan infiltrated across the Line of Control, which divides Pakistani-administered Kashmir from Indian-administered Kashmir, to join the separatist insurgency. The fighting raged on and off for several years, petering out in 2004, when Pakistan’s then-military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf pursued peace talks with India.

It was near the end of Musharraf’s rule that Gul’s controversial legacy boomeranged. The fighters nurtured by the Pakistani security establishment to fight proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir spawned a new generation that turned inward and began targeting the Pakistani state and the Pakistani people within the country’s borders. Since 2007, an estimated 60,000 people have died as result of the campaign of violence inside Pakistan waged by the Pakistani Taliban and its affiliates.

Pakistan’s purpose in Afghanistan had been to secure it “strategic depth,” a way to prevent Pakistan being encircled by India and its allies by ensuring a friendly regime in Kabul — in the form of the Afghan Taliban starting in 1996. 

That policy is now in tatters. Gen. Ehsan-ul-Haq, another retired ISI chief, said publicly in late 2013 that instead of Pakistan enjoying strategic depth in Afghanistan, it was the Taliban who enjoyed strategic depth in Pakistan.

Gul never recanted his support for the “Afghan jihad,” pointing out that the U.S. administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan had blessed that war. Gul often recalled how he was feted at U.S. Embassy parties in Islamabad, even making the outlandish claim — never corroborated by anyone else — that he had seen bin Laden there. Gul saw the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 as a betrayal.

The decade of war that followed in Afghanistan gave Gul a new career as a sought-after TV pundit, allowing him to present himself as an omniscient spymaster, pedalling conspiracy theories as political analysis. One of his favorite tropes was to claim that 9/11 has been a plot hatched to target the Muslim world, particularly its only nuclear power, Pakistan: “9/11 is the justification, Afghanistan is a waystation, Pakistan is their final destination.”

Gul blasted Musharraf’s decision to ally with the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror,” claiming it had mortgaged Pakistan’s independence to the Americans. In 2007, the former spymaster even joined street protests led by lawyers against Musharraf’s rule, denouncing the very military rule he had once enforced during an earlier phase.

When Gul was still ISI chief, in 1988, a mysterious plane crash killed Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, ending 11 years of military rule. Elections were called, and democracy returned to Pakistan with the election of Benazir Bhutto as the country’s first woman prime minister. But Gul and other generals were deeply suspicious of Bhutto. They had hanged her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1979, two years after toppling him in a coup. While the generals had deemed her left-wing father too hostile to the West, they saw Benazir as too close to it.

In fact, Gul openly boasted about his (failed) efforts through the ISI to muster a coalition of right-wing and religious parties to prevent her election in 1988. When Bhutto returned to Pakistan in 2007, she accused Gul of being one of three people plotting to assassinate her — she was murdered in an attack on her convoy in December of that year.

In recent years, Gul had become something of a bogeyman for the West, India and Afghanistan. In 2010, a series of Afghan war logs published by Wikileaks alleged that he was still actively supporting elements of the Afghan Taliban, despite his advanced age — an impression he did little to discourage. He was always eager to oblige the stream of Western journalists arriving at his home in search of lurid quotes suggesting Pakistan was an unfaithful ally, affecting a faintly sinister air. As much as he relished his infamy in the West, he enjoyed meeting Westerners, conversing in English, and wearing western suits and ties.

Gul has been described as a religious extremist, but he wasn’t an especially observant man. He never wore a beard, nor did he quote passages from scripture. He was more of a nationalist, driven by a desire to reclaim the faded glories of Islam’s former empire and push back against what he deemed Western encroachment. He dreamed of nuclear-armed Pakistan as leading a great Islamic power, but his legacy is an increasingly troubled Pakistan, its ever-fragile democracy besieged by a rising tide of armed and unarmed radicalism at home.

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