Last week, a day after Pakistan’s 69th Independence Day, Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul, and former spymaster of the country’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence passed away in the vacation town of Murree.
And yet for a man whose participation in active politics was minimal to say the least in later life, the divergence of opinions that greeted his death, in Pakistan and across the world, is emblematic of the deep fissures that still dominate a deeply polarized Pakistan.
For many in the religious-military complex of Pakistan, Gul was a true patriot whose right-wing ideology and dream of an Islamic Revolution across the subcontinent and Central Asia was illustrative of the country’s role in the region’s geo-politics.
For significant others, Hamid Gul was the cause of many of the problems that face Pakistan today, especially domestic terrorism and a cross-border insurgency that the country seems to be failing in tackling.
A former Tank Commander, Hamid Gul is perhaps best remembered as the ‘Godfather’ of the Taliban, the well-funded patron of the militant group that took power in Afghanistan in 1996. As the centre of the trifecta of spymasters that also included William Casey and later, William Webster of the CIA and Prince Turki bin Faisal, Director-General of Saudi Arabia’s Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah, Gul was at the head of the Mujahedeen insurgency against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
However, as history would judge him, he was also the man behind the head of the snake-to-be, the man who used his incomparable knowledge of militant warlords in a region of shifting loyalties to create a Noah’s Ark of jihadists.
A protégé of former Pakistan President General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq’s school of a military, Islamic conservatism, Gul was that rare person who matched General Zia’s verbose and fanatical zealotry for jihadist terrorism, a tool he used to great effect in sanctioning clandestine activities in both Afghanistan and India, especially in Kashmir and Punjab.
A vociferous and vocal critic of the democratic process however, he was also constantly at odds with most elected officials of the political establishment, most notably the Late Benazir Bhutto (Who incidentally, also had him fired), and her husband, former President Asif Ali Zardari.
In later life, especially after democracy was re-introduced in Pakistan in the 21st century; it would seem that Gul’s celebrity was constantly at risk of fading in public space as more evidence of his participation in covert plots in Afghanistan and India surfaced.
He was on the list of 4 ISI officers in the list of International terrorists the United States submitted to the United Nations Secretary-General. He was also, to the surprise of many in Pakistan who lauded him as a hero, said to be involved in the Karachi bombings that shook the city in 2007.
And yet, for a spymaster with the guile and wit of a South Asian George Smiley, Hamid Gul’s image always seemed to precede his actions, which is why even after his death, his critics have been far less vocal than his supporters, who remain as fiery as ever.
The late Hamid Gul was a person of a rather peculiar breed. He was a man who derided democracy, a man who owed his allegiance and life to the army, an establishment for which he never won any glory or honours.
In fact, his most famous military foray was the battle to take over Jalalabad in 1989, a siege that ended in a decisive tactical victory for Najibullah’s fledgling Marxist government of Kabul and proved that not only is the Afghan National Army well capable of defending its positions on its own but, the Mujahedeen in which the ISI and Americans had placed so much faith in, especially the warlord Hekmatyar, was misplaced and were incapable of winning a conventional war.
His legacy or rather, his infamy lies in his uncompromising ideas of military conservatism, an ideology he used to fuel insurgencies in his own neighbourhood. Critics correctly point out that much of the instability in South Asia owes itself to the ISI’s policies in the region in the 80’s and 90’s. His virulent support for fanatical and often, fringe terror groups, including Al-Qaeda made him enemies, not just across the border but also in once-allies, United States, a country he long nursed a grudge against.
And yet, for all the criticism he faced, he remained defiant and proud, even going as far as saying that Pakistan should be proud of harbouring Bin Laden for so long. Perhaps, he’s right and going by the numbers who attended his funeral, it’s pretty certain that he was not alone.
But, what is also certain that he will be forever painted as the man who pushed the country and its neighbourhood into a state of reckless turmoil.