RAWALPINDI: He trained Afghan resistance fighters against the Soviets and helped create the Taliban, but today Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) former chief Hamid Gul says the group’s long-time foe Abdullah Abdullah has the best chance of securing peace.
Widely viewed as a “Godfather” figure for Pakistan’s strategy of using proxies to exert influence in neighbouring countries, the 77-year-old retired general is still seen by some observers as offering a window into the mindset of the military establishment.
As Afghanistan prepares for a run-off election on Saturday between Abdullah and his rival Ashraf Ghani, Pakistan – which backed the Taliban regime that was ousted in 2001 and is often accused by Kabul of supporting their insurgency – has maintained a resolutely neutral stance.
But Gul, who headed ISI between 1987 and 1989 during the late stages of the Soviet occupation, said it would take a fighter, not an academic to secure peace for Afghanistan – as long as he refused to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States.
In an interview with AFP at his Rawalpindi home, Gul, smartly dressed in a white shalwar kameez and sporting the trimmed moustache favoured among army officers, said Abdullah’s past as a resistance fighter together with his shrewd choices of running mates made him uniquely placed to negotiate with those he called the “Afghan opposition” – the Taliban.
Abdullah draws his main support from ethnic Tajiks in the north, while Ghani is a Pashtun like the majority of the country and the Taliban.
But, said Gul: “Abdullah has a distinct advantage for future peace in Afghanistan – if that is the objective and it should be – that he is a fighter.”
“And the other people with him are also fighters,” he continued, referring to running mates Mohammad Khan, an ally of powerful warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who has traditional ties to Pakistan, and Mohammad Mohaqeq – a Hazara seen as closer to Iran.
“Ashraf Ghani is not a fighter,” he said about the ex-World Bank economist who spent the 1980s living in the United States. “And for a fighter to open a dialogue with a non-fighter would be very difficult.”
Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the country slid into anarchy, and Taliban fighters trained in Pakistan gradually prised control from the Northern Alliance of commander Ahmad Shah Massoud – a revered national hero who was also Abdullah’s mentor.
During this period, Gul maintained contacts with both sides in an unofficial role as a mediator. “At that time I used to live in Ahmad Shah Massoud’s guesthouse and Abdullah was deputed to look after me so I met him almost every day” during trips from 1992-1995, prior to the Taliban’s ascent to power, he said.
He added his last trip to Afghanistan came in 2001. “And that was to attend the last parade of Taliban government on 19th of August 2001, just three weeks before 9/11. I was a chief guest there.”
Since leaving the army, Gul has remained in the limelight, and is viewed with deep suspicion by India for his alleged links to Kashmiri militancy, as well as by the United States, which worked with him during the 1980s but later lobbied for his inclusion on a UN list of international terrorists.
Stridently anti-American, Gul warned that war would continue if the next Afghan president signs a long-awaited security pact allowing some 10,000 US troops to remain in the country in non-combat roles until 2016.
“If the Americans pull out then a deal is possible through intra-Afghan dialogue, that means with the opposition, mainly Hekmatyar and Taliban,” he said, referring to Pakistan’s old allies.
“Contingent on this situation arriving is the Americans’ pull-out. There can be no compromise because this is the spirit of the Afghan nation. The earlier the Afghan people see the back of them the better,” he added.
Some observers in Pakistan have accused Gul of aggrandising his role in regional affairs post-retirement, but respected security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa said he remained “strongly connected” with the prevalent line of thinking in the Pakistani military’s high command.
“The army definitely would want to have an influence (in Afghanistan) and the presence of a friendly state in the neighbouring country which protects them against their traditional enemy India,” she said.
For his part, Gul said he was happy to be active in retirement. “I have acceptability on both sides of the divide,” he said of pro- and anti-government forces. “People keep coming from Afghanistan. They bring me good wishes and they are very well informed.”