September Issue 2015

By | People | Profile | Published 4 years ago

The best thing that can be said about Hamid Gul is that he was a wily operator. He managed to parlay an undistinguished two-year tenure as ISI chief, during which time he was responsible for the disastrous decision to back a military campaign to drive the Soviets out of Jalalabad, into a long career as a middleman for militants, a relentless conspiracy theorist and darling of talk-show hosts.  That he did all of this with a broad smile and gregarious demeanour should not be allowed to disguise the untold damage he wrought on the country he claimed to love.

There is a story Hamid Gul loved to tell which best expresses the contradiction at the heart of his ideology. He said he often attended cocktail parties at the US Embassy in the 1980s where Osama bin Laden could be found mingling with his patrons. The point of this anecdote is to show that OBL was an American client, something which ties in with his often-expressed belief that 9/11 was an inside job. At the same time, Gul was a fan of the Al-Qaeda leader and even congratulated Pakistan for harbouring him.

What is undeniable is that Gul started out as an ally of the West in general and the US in particular. At a time when defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was a Western priority, the hyper-nationalist Gul was an asset, not a liability. This is why the Germans even gave him a piece of the fallen Berlin Wall for dealing a severe blow to Communism.

For both Hamid Gul and the US, their relationship was one of convenience. This is why, when the US imposed sanctions on Pakistan for our nuclear programme, Gul so completely turned his back on a former ally – happily embracing the anti-US jihadist cause as his own. The true enemy, in Gul’s mind, was not the US, but India.  Every action of his, from being a godfather to militant groups, to forming the IJI to oust ing Benazir Bhutto from power, should be seen in light of his obsession with Kashmir and suspicion of India.

Gul is so inexorably linked with the army that it is hard to remember he had a complicated relationship with the institution he always identified with. He was unceremoniously sacked as ISI chief because of the Jalalabad fiasco and then retired from the army in a huff in 1999 when then army chief Asif Nawaz offered him the post of DG Heavy Industries, Taxila, a post Gul saw as beneath his dignity.

Hamid Gul was a man of words even more than he was a man of action. No Pakistani has been quoted so frequently in foreign newspapers; he was always ready with an outrageous sound bite. This is why it is easy to dismiss him as a jester and a fool. Doing so would be dangerous. As the ideological son of Zia-ul-Haq and a regular consort of the likes of Mullah Omar and Hafiz Saeed, Hamid Gul is one among many who has the blood of the 50,000 Pakistanis, who have died in the war against militancy, on his hands. That politicians of all stripes had kind words to offer after the passing of a man who always undermined democracy and saw Pakistanis only as collateral damage in his broader ideological struggle, tells us everything we need to know about where this country has gone wrong.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.