Lieutenant General (retired) Hamid Gul passed away last weekend. He was perhaps the most vocal jihadist general after his former boss General Muhammad Ziaul Haq, with whom he shared his zealotry and now the month of death. Both were equally verbose and fanatical but General Gul’s boisterous bravado contrasted sharply with General Ziaul Haq’s sly viciousness. General Gul epitomised everything that is wrong or right depending on which side of a suicide bomber’s vest one’s loved ones are on with using jihadist terrorism as a tool of foreign policy. He did not make jihadism the cornerstone of Pakistan’s Afghan and India policy but he certainly was its most outspoken advocate and practitioner. His 1987 to 1989 stint as the Director General (DG) of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was the high-water mark of his otherwise lacklustre military career. And even for those two ‘golden years’ he could only show a crushing military defeat at Jalalabad, blatant political subversion and massive jihadist blowback at home.
His subordinate and the then in-charge of the ISI-backed Afghan mujahideen assault on Jalalabad, Brigadier (retired) Mohammad Yousaf, was to write later in his book, The Bear Trap, General Gul was removed from his post at the ISI in June 1989, when it was clear to everybody that Jalalabad was a catastrophe. His two-year involvement with the jihad must have been a bitter experience for him. He came at a time when military victory was in sight; he left when mujahideen defeat was distinctly possible. General Hamid Gul, a former cavalryman, was never to win a set-piece military engagement in his life despite insisting to the then Prime Minister (PM) Benazir Bhutto that Jalalabad would fall within a week. And when the late Benazir Bhutto dithered before eventually authorising the assault, General Gul was livid. The respectable military historian Mr Shuja Nawaz chronicles that General Gul told her: You cannot deny us the drive into Kabul in victory to pray at the Kabul mosque. The humiliation he and his henchmen suffered in the spring and summer of 1989 at Jalalabad was immediate, utter and quite public. According to Brigadier Yousaf’s account, 3,000 jihadists were killed or wounded.
We, in Peshawar, saw first-hand the scores of injured mujahideen being brought to the Arab-run hospitals mostly situated along the University Road after the Afghan army pummeled them in the outskirts of Jalalabad. At that time, an Arab orthopedics and trauma surgeon named Ayman al-Zawahiri practiced out of one of those facilities. The terror mastermind needs no introduction today and neither does his leader Osama bin Laden who was among General Hamid Gul’s hordes descending upon Jalalabad. Indeed, bin Laden’s participation in the Jalalabad attack has been a part of the al Qaeda lore since. Mr Shuja Nawaz accurately notes in his book, Cross Swords: Pakistan, Its Army And Its Wars Within, A footnote in this operation was the inclusion in the battle for Jalalabad unbeknownst to most participants at the Peshawar meeting of a young Saudi financier and Islamic militant named Osama bin Laden. Benazir Bhutto and the then US ambassador to Pakistan, the late Robert Oakley, attended that meeting while no Afghan not even the mujahideen was said to have been present there. General Hamid Gul was to strike politically against the Bhutto government that same year while bin Laden launched his first terrorist attacks against the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam within a decade. While political intrigue and transnational jihadism remain General Hamid Gul’s lasting legacies, perhaps a major lesson is that doing business with unsavoury characters can be expedient; it is surely not without disastrous consequences.
General Hamid Gul had an avowed dislike for democracy, particularly the late Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). He tried to keep her out of power by engineering a right wing coalition Islamic Democratic Alliance (Islami Jamhoori Ittehad or IJI) right before the 1988 elections. Bhutto was able to form a coalition federal government but the IJI’s success in Punjab dialed the national political dial to the right for good. The campaign run by the General Gul-backed IJI was nasty and misogynist, and tainted by personal vitriol against Benazir Bhutto. She had to cede any say in, let alone have control over, national security and foreign policies before she could set foot in the office. She perhaps tried to appease him and the then brass by allowing misadventures like Jalalabad and later the Taliban enterprise on her watch but General Gul and his ilk seemed to have it in for her permanently. His subordinate, Brigadier Imtiaz Ahmed, cobbled together a no-confidence move against Bhutto’s government in 1989. Berating politics and politicians, and manufacturing dissent through fanatical street mobs and palatial intrigue that General Hamid Gul presided over has carried over with the net effect being political instability and uncertainty in which Islamist militancy has thrived without pause.
In his day, the late general turned Pakistan virtually into a jihadist Noah’s Ark with assorted mercenary fanatics arriving in droves and unleashing havoc in Afghanistan. He was proud and unrepentant about it. He did eventually make it to Kabul as a guest of the Taliban regime after Mullah Omar overran the Afghan capital. General Gul later midwifed the transition of the jihadist mercenaries from Kabul to Kashmir. The Taliban regime-controlled Afghanistan served as training grounds for various Kashmir-oriented jihadists like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and also sectarian terrorist outfits like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. General Gul unabashedly shared the stage with the ringleaders of these outfits at forums like the Defence of Pakistan Council (DPC). General Gul was perhaps the least mysterious of spymasters. He carried himself with a swagger that appeared compensatory and was quick to blurt out his jihadist creed. For almost a quarter century post-retirement he remained a permanent fixture in the media and practically was the bellwether of those sections of the security establishment that were given to intrigue and ideologically-anchored adventurism. Imbued with his zealotry, General Hamid Gul helped sow a jihadist wind in Afghanistan and Pakistan for which innocents in both countries ended up reaping a whirlwind.
The Ojhri Camp arms depot disaster that happened on General Hamid Gul’s watch in 1988 killed hundreds of Pakistanis in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, including a sitting minister, Mr Khaqan Abbasi. Brigadier Yousaf notes that one reason for the Ojhri Camp’s massive fallout was that instead of using it as a transit facility, General Gul had decided to stockpile weapons before releasing them to the mujahideen. The Ojhri Camp inquiry conducted by General Imranullah Khan was never made public. One must never speak ill of the dead; it is the jihadist life and legacy of General Hamid Gul, however, which is impossible to ignore if further bloodshed and mayhem in Pakistan, and the region, is to be averted.