At his luxurious villa at a military compound for senior army officers in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, retired Gen Hamid Gul, former head of Pakistan’s feared Inter- Service Intelligence (ISI), has been busy conducting interviews since the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington. According to most Pakistani analysts, ISI is a state within the state and has been the major decision-maker in all policies related to Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of 1979.
Gul headed the ISI from 1987 to 1989, critical years that witnessed the end of the Soviet occupation. He remained responsible for the Afghan file until his forced retirement in 1992 after a fallout with then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The general was among the closest aides to former Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq, the man whom most Pakistani analysts hold responsible for the growing influence of extremist Islamist parties in Pakistan and the establishment of military rule.
Through his tenure as head of ISI, Gul coordinated efforts with the United States to back Afghan resistance groups, or Mujahidin, in their fight against the Russians. After Zia died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988, Gul differed with Sharif over Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan and the group that Islamabad should back in the infighting among the Mujahidin. He was consequently forced out of the army, the most organised and disciplined body in Pakistan.
Following his retirement, Gul remained close to Afghan groups. When the previously unknown Taliban movement emerged in 1994 in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, he said he saw hope it would restore peace in Afghanistan and offered it his military and political advise.
Consecutive Pakistani governments also backed the Taliban, seeing in it a friendly regime in a volatile region. Pakistani officials say they had to “admit the facts on the ground” as the Taliban managed to control up to 95 per cent of Afghanistan. Yet Pakistan continued to support the Taliban and not only politically. It also offered it military assistance to the movement in its battle against the Northern Alliance which Pakistan accuses of receiving support from its arch-enemies India and Russia, several Pakistani analysts told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Gul claims he is not a Muslim extremist “but I support the implementation of Shari’a and we must be governed by the rules of Allah.”
The once close ally of the US during the Afghan war is now a bitter critic of Washington. The about-face is common in Pakistan where many officials and senior army officers accuse the United States of abandoning their country after the end of the Cold War, leaving them with an acute refugee problem and a shaken economy. Like many Islamists here in Pakistan, Gul also believes that it was Israel which plotted the horrific attacks in New York and Washington.
Following are extracts from an interview with the general, dubbed “godfather of the Taliban.”
How do you envisage an expected US war against Afghanistan?
I think that beyond the air strikes and long-range missiles, they [the United States] don’t have the heart or the courage to attack Afghanistan. They would want to use the Northern Alliance and create a revolt in the ranks of the Taliban to get the job done and install a puppet regime there. But when they do that, the result will still be the same as invading Afghanistan.
If they set up a puppet regime in Afghanistan, as the British did in the 19th century and the Russians in the 20th century, the regime will start sending signals for help. Americans will get mired in Afghanistan in a very bad situation at the wrong time, among the wrong people and in wrong terrain.
This will be a bigger blow than what they received in the World Trade Center and in the Pentagon.
Do you think air strikes will be effective?
Even air strikes will be useless. After the [Taliban] Shura Council [its highest decision-making body] gave its verdict, authorising [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar to call for jihad, we are facing a very dangerous situation.
This will be the first time in modern history that a truly Islamic state under Shari’a law makes a call for jihad. Therefore, the response will be spontaneous and felt across the Muslim world.
But the Taliban regime is not popular in the Muslim world.
They might not be now. But when the call for jihad goes up, it will be very difficult for any Muslim to stay away, particularly when the fight is against the Americans.
If the Talibans are not popular at this point in time, Americans are even more unpopular compared to the Taliban.
So you assume many Pakistanis will respond to the call for a jihad?
Of course. This goes without saying. Tribesmen [along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan] will be the first to make a jihad because they are of the same ethnic [Pashtun] origin as the Taliban. Young men, some bearded and some not, will also respond to the same call. There will be widespread unrest in the whole of the Arab and Muslim world. Afghanistan under the Taliban is now a true Islamic state that established its authority over 95 per cent of the territory.
All what they are saying now is that Osama Bin Laden can be taken away to stand trial in a neutral country on condition that proof [of his complicity in the US attacks] is provided. I think the Americans should take up this offer. It is un- Islamic to hand over a man to people who are going to kill him. They [the Americans] have already convicted him even before presenting the evidence.
When the United States attacks Afghanistan, Pakistan will face a great deal of internal turmoil as the Pakistani people would want to join in with their Afghan brothers. [Pakistani] President Pervez Musharraf’s government will then have to choose: either go along with the Americans or his nation. Knowing the man, I think he will go with his nation.
But so far, President Musharraf has expressed full solidarity with America.
That is not what he is saying. He offered conditional support for using Pakistan’s airspace, intelligence sharing and logistical support. Yet in reality, we have no control over our airspace. When US missiles hit Afghanistan in 1998, flying over our airspace, the Americans did not seek our permission and they don’t have to seek our permission now.
As for logistical support, the Americans do not need military bases here because the bases will not be secure among a hostile Pakistani population. How can they use a base in Peshawar, for example, when the whole of Peshawar will take over that base if the Americans come? It would easier for Americans to strike from their aircraft carriers based in the Gulf.
The same applies to intelligence sharing. Americans, in their attempt to hunt Bin Laden, need fresh and timely information on his hideout. I don’t think our intelligence, the ISI, has this kind of information right now.
The real problem facing the Americans is that they have no defined targets. They must find the targets inside America. The people who committed this crime are inside America, and let me tell you that they are Israelis, not Muslims. Only Israelis can pull off a job like that. They are the ones who can jam American radar systems. They are the ones who can occupy the cockpits of those planes on the ground because this was not a mid-air hijacking. It is unbelievable. They are the ones who can shut off the Pentagon’s warning system and prevent the American air force from scrambling for one hour and 15 minutes. And when they did scramble, it was only a single F-16 aircraft [which tried to intercept the passenger jet that plowed into the second World Trade Centre tower].
Don’t you think US authorities are aware of all these points?
They are aware but they are afraid of Israel’s influence which is why they are diverting attention to the outside. Yet Americans must be aware that they are not fighting against only the Taliban. They are fighting against the Afghan nation and this can never be destroyed. The Americans will be destroyed by the Afghan nation as were several other superpowers since the time of Alexander the Great.
Perhaps this is their destiny, that God wants this arrogant superpower to be destroyed at the hands of the tiniest nation and the one most devastated.
Afghans fight amongst themselves when they have no outside enemy to fight against. If this outside enemy comes, they unite. Because they are so arrogant, Americans did not read Afghan history.