The violent, self-destructive legacy ISI chief Hamid Gul leaves behind

Shekhar Gupta
Shekhar GuptaAug 16, 2015 | 21:18

The violent, self-destructive legacy ISI chief Hamid Gul leaves behind

It is interesting that a soldier who served 36 years in his country's army should be remembered for just two of these. Such is the mystique of Lt General Hamid Gul, the malevolent Pakistani spymaster who died of a cerebral stroke on Saturday. He had an interesting life before his two years at the head of the ISI (1987-89) and after, when he chose to retire voluntarily from the army, unable to stomach his sidelining to what he described as a menial job, to head the "ordnance factory complex" at Taxila.


Gul joined his army in 1956, as a cavalryman, just like his friend, idol, mentor and military-spiritual guide, General Zia-ul-Haq. I did not find much reference, surprisingly, to what he did in the 1971 war, but in 1965, he commanded a squadron of tanks in the Sialkot sector where his regiment, the very old and legendary 19 Lancers (called King George V's Own in British times), was deployed. In that war too he didn't do much of note, not enough even to excite the usually fertile imagination of the citation writers of subcontinental armies.

Shaking hands with the man, Najibullah, who defeated Gul in Jalalabad, 1990.

He really came into his own as Zia rose to the top. He had been a battalion and a brigade commander under Zia's command. The boss perhaps figured his fellow cavalry-man's real talent was not the old-fashioned "bash-on-regardless" but hide, sneak in from behind, stab in the back. Or better still, pay, fool, indoctrinate or instigate the enemy of an enemy to do this.

No surprise that soon after Zia rose to the top, he hand-picked Gul to be the Director-General of Military Intelligence. This pretty much coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The first Afghan jehad (the “good” jehad, sponsored by the West-Saudi-Chinese nexus in their war on the Soviets) saw Pakistan become a key ally and launching pad. Zia learnt all the wrong lessons from it while he exploited it beautifully for Pakistan's short-term gain and for persuading the Americans to look the other way as AQ Khan's evil nuclear empire expanded unchallenged.


In so many reporting visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan for India Today magazine, I found sufficient evidence of how Zia became more and more devout and fundamentalist as the "jihad" progressed, internalising his sycophantic clergy's view that he had been specifically sent by Allah, and then placed in a position where only destiny could have placed him, because He had willed him to lead that jihad as "The Chosen One". I was never able to find sufficient evidence of this on Gul.

A happy afternoon spent with some of his legatees-turned-mercenaries in Mazar-e-Sharif, 1993.

Although later he became a a key figure in a rogue group of retired Pakistani soldiers, scientists and businessmen to fund jihad, subversion and illegal nuclear activity (the group was declared terrorist by US), I would go by the view that early on he was more a Pakistani military supremacist and India-hater.

He was named ISI chief by Zia in 1987 but had already been involved in fomenting the Khalistani insurgency in India's Punjab and was its most enthusiastic supporter. The folklore in Pakistan's informed circles is that when Benazir Bhutto became prime minister after Zia's death in the mysterious C-130 crash in Bahawalpur, she asked Gul to stop subversion in Indian Punjab forthwith. He apparently told her keeping a small group of Sikh militants active in India was equal to adding a full division to Pakistan’s army.


On a subsequent visit to Pakistan, where I button-holed him at a reception, I asked him if that story was true. He smirked and said, if I said such a thing, I probably would have said an entire strike corps, not a mere division.

Bhutto detested him as much as he hated her. The previous year, he had masterminded the raising of Islamic Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) to keep her out of power. But even now, he was too powerful for her to remove as ISI chief.

That opportunity came the following year. With Zia gone, and the new chief of the army staff (Mirza Aslam Beg) way more reckless and stupid, Gul had a free run. For the first time, he threw the might of Pakistani army regulars to fight alongside the Mujahideen and defeat the army of Najibullah after the Soviet withdrawal. This was a disaster.

I spent more than two months in Kabul that year, viewing that battle from the other side, and then for a week out of Peshawar, along with photographer Prashant Panjiar (also for India Today). Afghan forces fought well but the Muj were not happy to fight a frontal, conventional battle. Najib was well-equipped and brutal, raining Scud missiles over the border city of Jalalabad, which the Muj and the Pakistanis had laid siege to. The assault failed, with massive casualties, dented pride and global humiliation for the Muj, but more importantly, also for Pakistan’s army and ISI.

And most precious of all, the chance encounter General Mirza Aslam Beg I could not avoid on Pakistan Independence Day reception, Islamabad, 1990. Note my hurriedly bought salwar-kameez since reporters never really carry formal clothing for ceremonial receptions in their bags.

This was just the moment Bhutto was waiting for. He was removed but sent to command the key corps based in Multan.

But he had neither forgiven her, nor would he forget what he was really good at. Cloak-and-dagger subterfuge. Later that year, as Rajiv Gandhi came to Islamabad for the SAARC summit and had very conciliatory discussions with Bhutto, the room where they talked was bugged. Sure enough, the tapes were leaked to an ISI-run daily and ultimately used to justify Bhutto's dismissal by the president and the army. Gul's fingerprints on the operation were not missing.

The truth, however, is even more delicious. There is a saying in deep Punjab: jehde Lahore bhaide oh Peshawar vi bhaide (one who is a disaster in Lahore will also be a disaster in Peshawar). Gul, as Corps Commander, Multan, became a key player in his new boss General Beg's famous exercise Zarb-e-Momin. It was a response to Sundarji's Brasstacks in India.

Brasstacks entailed a massive Indian armoured and mechanised assault across the desert in the Pakistani heartland. Zarb-e-Momin (Strike of the Faithful) was a defensive response: to encircle Indian invading forces and then turn the tables. The exercise was widely seen as a failure as, apparently, the units acting as invaders in the war game didn't quite play by the chief's book and "destroyed" the encirclers.

Beg was succeeded by a genuinely professional chief in General Asif Nawaz, who had no time for jehads. He carried out a short-lived clean-up — he died mysteriously while in service on a car ride to Murree midway through his tenure and to read more about this, check out his brother Shuja Nawaz's classic on the Pakistan army, Crossed Swords. But Gul was among the first he targeted. He was posted to the ordnance factories in Taxila, where he refused to go and was retired for not accepting the posting.

His post-retirement life is more in the public domain. Along with General Beg (after retirement), he set up an organisation to support jehadis. He was among the few senior Pakistanis who kept on meeting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and, to his death, called 9/11 a hoax and an inside job. Along with Beg, he also announced that America was dead, and now the Taliban were the future.

It would be quite accurate to say that the violent, self-destructive legacy he leaves behind includes Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Taliban (including Pakistani Taliban) and anti-India Lashkars as his most dangerous offspring. You can also say quite safely that while created to fight for Islam, these groups have killed at least a hundred fellow Muslims for one of the others (Hindu, Christian, Jew) that they have killed.

Forces Gul unleashed harmed the entire world, though his neighbours, Afghanistan and India, enormously more than the rest. He never regretted what he did. And although I was never invited into his home, those who were recount how he showed off a sizeable piece of the Berlin Wall that his German fans had presented him. Why? Because he led the jehad that ultimately destroyed the Soviet Empire.

Though reclusive earlier, lately he had become quite accessible. He set up a Twitter account and, just a few days before his death, showed he at least had a sense of humour. He asked on Twitter, why a nice Sikh girl like Sunny Leone was wasting her time in pornography and movies when when she could have offered her services to the Khalistani cause.

In fact, till his death, there was mystery even about his Twitter handle. Was it his, or a fan's or a parody. He didn't bother to clarify either. Subterfuge, after all, was so essential to the personality of this evil man.

And my chance conversation with his boss:

The Pakistani Independence Day (August 14) of 1990 came immediately in the wake of the dismissal of Bhutto and the installation of Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi as a caretaker prime minister. I was reporting the story then and was invited to the official post-Independence Day flag-hoisting reception. I found there Army Chief Mirza Aslam Beg, and he couldn't avoid talking with me.

I needled him by asking how successful he thought Zarb-e-Momin had been. He didn't answer me. He was just irritated and gave me, instead, a long lecture on how bad the Indian army had become in Kashmir and how, in the next war, "your army's Niazi" will surrender.

I too was 25 years younger and more reckless. I told him Sundarji, after retirement, was beginning a new column in India Today magazine. It didn't register much on him.

"Do you know sir, what is the column called?” I asked.

"What is it?" he was almost bored with me by now.

"Brasstacks," I said, and felt the temperature drop dramatically.

Last updated: August 17, 2015 | 14:25
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