Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Gul Under the Bed

Afghanistan needs to stop blaming a washed-up spymaster for all of its problems.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the wee hours of Monday morning, Kabul-based Tolo News ran a short news item declaring Taliban supremo Mullah Omar dead as a doorknob. It's a plausible story given all that's happened in Pakistan lately. But wait! The Taliban leader was being transported to North Waziristan by Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate? That's an automatic tip-off that the story is dodgy. When you look at the source -- Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) -- it's clear someone thought attaching Gul's name would, in fact, boost the credibility of the item. For the NDS, it will always be 1989 and Gul will always be leading the charge.

Nevermind that in Pakistan, Gul is a relic, a broken-down war horse living off glories past. Indeed, the best way to understand Gul these days -- at least within Pakistan -- is as a joke. To that end: How many Afghans does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None! Hamid Gul won't let them have electricity!

OK, how about this one? Three mujahideen cross the porous border region into Afghanistan and blow up a girls' school. The local teacher asks why. And the mujahideen say, "Hamid Gul!"

In the wee hours of Monday morning, Kabul-based Tolo News ran a short news item declaring Taliban supremo Mullah Omar dead as a doorknob. It’s a plausible story given all that’s happened in Pakistan lately. But wait! The Taliban leader was being transported to North Waziristan by Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate? That’s an automatic tip-off that the story is dodgy. When you look at the source — Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) — it’s clear someone thought attaching Gul’s name would, in fact, boost the credibility of the item. For the NDS, it will always be 1989 and Gul will always be leading the charge.

Nevermind that in Pakistan, Gul is a relic, a broken-down war horse living off glories past. Indeed, the best way to understand Gul these days — at least within Pakistan — is as a joke. To that end: How many Afghans does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None! Hamid Gul won’t let them have electricity!

OK, how about this one? Three mujahideen cross the porous border region into Afghanistan and blow up a girls’ school. The local teacher asks why. And the mujahideen say, "Hamid Gul!"

Not to your liking? OK, last try: Three Afghan intelligence officers walk into a bar. The bartender says, "Name your poison." And the Afghans reply, "Hamid Gul!"

Ah, yes. Hamid Gul — the retired Pakistani general whose name induces cringes in at least five countries; who, at one time, was credited with Kaiser Soze-like omnipotence except that he was never so shy about being in the limelight.

My jokes aren’t meant to deride Afghanistan or its people. But they are meant to illustrate — probably clumsily — that Gul, while largely irrelevant in his home country, is still seen as the master puppeteer in another. His purpose now is to be the skeptic’s skeptic. If a reporter needs a quote debunking what everyone else knows to be true, Gul’s the man. He’s the militant mouthpiece dressed in slacks and a cardigan.

The general has a long history of military accomplishment, but his claim to fame is all about his jihadi street cred. He’s best known for his role as chief of Pakistan’s infamous ISI during the final throes of the Soviet-Afghan war, as well as his support for anti-India militant groups fighting in Kashmir. He can be counted on to come to the public relations rescue of any and all militants, extremists, and general jihadi ne’er-do-wells. For Gul, the "muj" can do no wrong.

He was then, as he is now, seemingly willing to sacrifice anything and everything to ensure that the soldiers of God carry on with their holy war. He dresses up his defense in the language of military and political self-interest: On hearing that Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari had called him a "political ideologue of terror," Gul responded, "I wrote a letter to Zardari that I am an ideologue of jihad, which is common between us. He is a Muslim like me and believes in the Quran. Terror is a totally different thing. I do not support terror at all, but jihad is our right when a nation is oppressed. According to the United Nations Charter, national resistance for liberation is a right. We call this a jihad."

The only problem for Gul now is that he’s not taken seriously.

The 75-year-old Gul has come to personify all those things that Pakistanis revile about the double-dealing tactics of Pakistani military intelligence. In Pakistan, Gul is the punchline to a macabre joke, a shorthand for all that’s wrong with a security-first policy. When it comes to influence though, he’s a zero.

But in Afghanistan, he’s still larger than life. Over there, Hamid Gul is the all-purpose bogeyman, the specter that hangs over that nation’s future. He has been accused of attacks against NATO and kidnapping plots — an astonishing feat for a septugenerian who’s been out of the spy game for two decades. Gul is for the Afghans what Osama bin Laden was for Americans: capable of anything, anytime, anywhere.

Graeme Smith of Canada’s Globe and Mail recently wrote an article touching on how Gul’s issue-specific popularity spikes in times of crisis. Everyone wants a clip, and Gul can crank out interviews at an astonishing rate. (Smith called him Pakistan’s "fabulist in chief.")

Maybe it’s that prolific pontificating that makes the Afghans think he’s got something new to say. Just like Pakistani intelligence is criticized for being overly stuck on India, maybe Afghanistan’s intelligence service just finds it hard to say goodbye. The devil you know and all that.

But the Afghan obsession with Gul, though it makes for some good laughs, does speak to something larger in the intelligence culture of the region. Ironic as it may seem to Pakistanis, in many ways Gul is seen as interchangeable with Pakistan. For Afghan spooks, Pakistan isn’t a complex country battling its own demons, with ordinary Pakistanis paying an extraordinary price. For intelligence purposes, Pakistan is Gul.

The two are the focus for everything Afghans have lost. While the reality of that is highly debateable, the narrative is firmly entrenched, and facts often have little to do with perception. Just ask Hamid Gul.

Naheed Mustafa is a freelance writer and broadcaster. She lives in Toronto.

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