A general’s legacy

Published: August 20, 2015


PHOTO: AFP The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter

It was an eerie feeling hearing of Lt General Hamid Gul’s death, almost the way it felt 27 years ago when General Ziaul Haq died on August 17, 1988. No one could quite believe that General Zia would ever go away, leave alone exit the way he did. Had nature waited another two days, people could have remembered a whole generation of generals together — Zia, Akhtar Abdur Rahman and Gul.

Notwithstanding disagreements with his strategic thinking, Gul was easy to talk to. While many of his contemporaries and successors feigned innocence when it came to the question of feeding militants, Gul unabashedly owned up to core policies of the security establishment. He owned up to the expensive security policies of his institution without admitting to the high cost that the state and society had to bear as a result of following them. He didn’t mind being a punching bag. I remember a personal conversation with him in 2001 regarding a de-weaponisation campaign that disallowed public display of weapons. He claimed playing a role in building consensus within mujahideen groups to comply with the campaign and not get into any friction with the military. He was thrilled by every political crisis, as he believed it meant the state and society was inching towards its real destiny of establishing Islamic rule and perhaps, the recreation of a Muslim empire in the form of a formidable Islamic state. Although he was no longer in the ISI in 1990, he was part of an intellectual exercise, along with Mirza Aslam Beg, to develop contours of a policy of strategic defiance and expansion. A restricted paper titled “Gulf Crisis 1990” expanded upon the idea of Pakistan installing itself as a regional power, but also as a potent force representing the Muslim bloc. Part of the plan was to use the Afghan mujahideen as additional infantry in case of a war with India. Not surprisingly, in 2008, another spymaster, Gul’s junior, who was known to represent cultural liberalism and moderation, called people such as Baitullah Mehsud patriots and recognised the right of the Taliban and jihadis to speak their minds.

In his personal life, Gul was not a fundamentalist, but neither was Zia. Unlike ordinary people, the families of these generals were given greater freedom to pursue matters of faith. Of course, Zia, Rahman and Gul believed in religious ethos, but they fine-tuned the use of religion for strategic purposes to a different level. Some will argue that Pakistan’s entire leadership, be it military or political, used religion for concrete political gains. But the junta in charge of the country during the 1980s took it to greater heights. If the 1980s is viewed as a watershed decade, then these generals were certainly part of that watershed and denote a critical milestone in the strategic thinking of their institution. The norms they set did not end with them. Many years later in 2009, as I interviewed another army chief ‘for a few hours’, he spoke about how Swat could be handled by allowing sharia rule in the area. He believed that the rest of the country could continue as normal. This was a continuation of the Gul school of thought that religious militancy could be used, but kept out of cantonments and other strategic areas. He probably knew a lot about ‘asset management’ to assume that these elements would not really get out of control, especially if good communication was maintained with them. To Gul, Pervez Musharraf’s over-obsession with the US was the primary cause for deteriorating relations with strategic assets. He must have died a proud man realising that succeeding generations of officers have kept up the traditions he established.

Gul and many of his colleagues fought the American war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. While many officers of the time were too glad to present the invasion as a precursor to Moscow invading Pakistan, Gul argued otherwise. When I interviewed him for the first time in 1994, he claimed that the configuration of Soviet forces in Afghanistan did not indicate further expansion. He held a similar opinion about India’s military exercise ‘Brasstacks’, which was labelled by many in Pakistan’s security community as a build-up to war. Gul claimed that because Generals Rahman and K M Arif had no experience of commanding a corps, they misread the movement across the border. He was one of those who argued for testing Indian intent by moving a strike corps close to the border, resulting in de-escalation.

Obviously, Gul challenged decisions within the confines of organisational norms; otherwise he would have been sent packing, as has historically happened to some good officers who suffered the ire of their bosses for disagreeing with them. He was extremely dedicated to the military’s internal and external power maximisation and survived as one of the beneficiaries of the myth-building around the fear of Soviet invasion. As money and weapons poured in, so did the capacity of the security establishment to fight a low-intensity conflict. The intelligence apparatus was fairly independent in raising its own funds.

This generation of generals provided the real watershed in military-strategic thinking in Pakistan — the war front could be made thrilling despite the disparity in conventional weapons strength. If Pakistan could cause the break-up of the Soviet Union (as is popularly believed) then gains could be made at other fronts, too, using the same operational formula. Gul was one of those who fathered the idea that Afghanistan could be manipulated for power maximisation in the larger South and Central Asian regions. This was not about defending territory against an offensive, which was the main logic behind Pakistan training the first generation of Afghan warlords during the 1970s, so they could keep President Daud’s government in check. The 1980s was a decade when the term offensive-defence took on a whole new meaning. This was also the beginning of a strategic thinking that insisted upon carving a larger military-strategic role in the region. So, when later spymasters flaunt how the world seriously engages with Pakistan and its military, it’s the thinking of Gul’s generation at work. Indeed, despite evidence of some friction, the military never disowned him or Zia.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 20th,  2015.

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Reader Comments (24)

  • Uza Syed
    Aug 20, 2015 - 1:44AM

    He was an extremely egocentric individual who fought for his personal interest and had no qualms taking orders from Americans as long as he thought he was going to be the Chief. As soon as it’s clear that he was not to be he turned anti American. He did more harm to our society and country than even the Talibans who were his illegitimate children. No one in his right mind going to ever miss this man than his children who benefited from his influential contacts for their wealth.Recommend

  • usman777
    Aug 20, 2015 - 6:23AM

    Perhaps they were wrong. Atleast they didn’t travel to India to put down Pakistan with the likes of Tarek fatah.Recommend

  • Iqbal
    Aug 20, 2015 - 9:28AM

    What an article. Falling shy of praising the spymaster for his strategies, and again falling shy of criticising him for the Frankenstein that he gleefully unleashed on the nation. This article is characterized the most, not by an incisive analysis, appearances not withstanding, but by the witholding of punches. Pray what could be the reason? Are facts so difficult to digest and spell out that one had to undertake such a massive exercise in equivocation?Recommend

  • nadeem
    Aug 20, 2015 - 9:28AM

    He championed and provided fuel for a thinking that severely eroded the State of Pakistan, and indirectly caused the death of 50,000 Pakistani citizens. He – and those in the army who helped him – should be remembered as someone who caused harm to Pakistan. Recommend

  • Arifq
    Aug 20, 2015 - 10:07AM

    People in popular media, print press are unable to express their true disgust, such is the legacy of Zia/Gul that continues to haunt Pakistan. When state/companies strategic policies prove to be failures, history teaches us tactical victories are nothing but noise and that is how rest of the world reads Zia/Gul achievements. Nazi generals had collected many feathers in their illustrious caps but history will remember them as villains for their collective failure.Recommend

  • Rizwan
    Aug 20, 2015 - 10:50AM

    At the death of Khanzada, Imran Khan acknowledged his help in the early days of PTI. No such message of gratitude at the passing away of Hameed Gul, who was the Kaptaan’s mentor in those days. Both had gone to Edhi sahib around 1995, and God knows what they told him to spook him so much that he jumped on the next plane leaving Pakistan. Recommend

  • saleem
    Aug 20, 2015 - 11:01AM

    The author omitted the treasonous role played by the General in the politics of Pakistan, Definitely a candidate for article 6.Recommend

  • Expat
    Aug 20, 2015 - 11:45AM

    His loyalty to Pakistan or Islamic is unquestionable. He was more patriotic and religious then I am. Yet I do feel that his legacy must mention the failures during his tenure as the DG e.g. Ojhri Camp disaster, Gen Zia C-130 sabotage & alleged cover up, failed Jalalabad offensive. infighting between Mujahideen, creation of IJI to manipulate 1990 election etcRecommend

  • abhishek
    Aug 20, 2015 - 12:21PM

    His ideology is just in plant state right now in Pakistan. Any nation who builds a hypothetical atmosphere of unknown fears and makes fear of security as the utmost priority among it’s people are destined to meet a certain destiny (not for really securing the nation, but actually to achieve their own goals and to quench the ever lasting thrust of power and expansionism of an institution or group of people). KARMA will play it’s role. every action has a equal and opposite reaction and that is the way nature works. The plant of such ideology will grow and bear fruits in Pakistan’s civil society soon. And sooner than later Pakistan will realize that all the problems and their solutions lies within Pakistan only. But really appreciate the way generalists works in the Pakistan in one of the most challenging and life threatening situations. Hats off !!Recommend

    Aug 20, 2015 - 1:00PM

    The mayhem and grief that these petty minded Generals brought to the very ordinary citizens of Pakistan is regrettable. I wish that we educated and trained our populace, how much grief, pain and dislocation they would have avoided. I have tasted grief, pain and dislocation in person that was brought on my country via the actions of petty minded Generals and could overcome it focusing on educating myself. However, I empathize with millions of Pakistanis who given an opportunity to educate themselves could have avoided the grief, pain and dislocation that they are experiencing, brought into their lives because of decisions taken by the establishment particularly in the 1980s and continuing till today.Recommend

  • Aug 20, 2015 - 1:11PM

    India is, the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.Recommend

  • Saeed Muhammad Basit
    Aug 20, 2015 - 3:17PM

    Although, many would be criticizing him (H. Gul) today, but the times when he played his role definitely required that kind of strategic thinking & its application. Since the past is over and beast is no more there, therefore, I would say that critics of today are playing out of context.Recommend

  • nizamuddin khan
    Aug 20, 2015 - 6:12PM

    Do we have to judge a person by individual events or his/her contributions over their entire life particularly when they have passed away. Whether be it Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, or even Mother Teresa…each may have had times when their thinking/actions were deemed wrong…so what? We do remember these individuals for their total contribution.

    So how do we want to judge our Generals? They are in the business of killing and deceiving the “enemy” to protect our country…so do we let them decide who is the enemy? If so, then we have to accept their thinking and actions at the time with that underlying assumption that they were doing the right thing from the point of view of protecting our nation.

    Remember the generals for their contributions and let the “other” unpleasant stuff stay buried.Recommend

  • TAKhan
    Aug 20, 2015 - 6:32PM

    n fact, Ayesha doesn’t know what to say about Gul: praise him or criticize him? Doesn’t really have the guts to be more articulate. So, she wraps the whole thing saying that his legacy is very much there. It would have been perfectly OK if she hadn’t written this short note. It is not necessary to express yourself, when you have such an eerie feeling.Recommend

  • kakar
    Aug 20, 2015 - 6:39PM

    If the premise that the taste of pudding is in eating is true and is certainly true then this strategic pudding that the hapless countrymen were compulsively made to taste was terribly unsavory and unpalatable. What we have been tasting for the last three decades are heroine which was unheard of in our part of the world and overdosed with AK147. The terrible fallout and cost of these sordid gifts in terms of human tragedies is incalculable. The national security outcome of this suicidal vision is for everyone to see. The preponderant contribution of this lunatic policy is that we are at war with everyone and most prominently with ourselves let alone pushing the country to the disastrous brink. And the most mind-boggling aspect is that we all are out there to celebrate the mayhem and go out of the way and fall over each other to pay tribute to those who brought this all about.Recommend

  • Zahoorul Haq
    Aug 20, 2015 - 7:13PM

    India is the birthplace of untouchables…….. India is slaughterhouse for Muslims (Gujrat….butcher Modi) where they are discriminated against everyday. Hundred of thousands have been killed in Kashmir, thousands of women raped….the list goes on…….Recommend

  • Raza
    Aug 20, 2015 - 7:49PM

    Wow- such delusional talk about being a ‘regional force’ and ‘formidable Islamic state’, for a country that has always been economically challenged, internally divided and besieged by poverty, unemployment, illiteracy rate and overpopulation. A country which was broken into half in 24 years. A country which couldn’t provide its own citizens basic rule of law or justice. General Gul and his likes were simply egocentric men who prioritized military might over all others to maintain their own status in the establishment; and the world’s a better place without him. There are no positives from his ‘legacy’- maybe there would have been if he had recognized that military/’strategic’ relevance requires a strong domestic base, which was never the case with us- thanks in part to militant elements such as the Taliban which these very generals patronized. Recommend

  • Sheikh Saa'di
    Aug 20, 2015 - 10:33PM

    @Zahoorul Haq:

    India is the birthplace of untouchables…….. India is slaughterhouse for Muslims (Gujrat….butcher Modi) where they are discriminated against everyday. Hundred of thousands have been killed in Kashmir, thousands of women raped….the list goes on…….

    And yet,

    Waseem Akram

    Fawad Khan

    Ali Zafar

    Adnan Sami

    All prefer to live in India.

    Can you name even TWO Indian Muslims living in Pakistan, excepting Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon, that is.Recommend

  • waqar
    Aug 20, 2015 - 11:23PM

    Hameed Gul was a true patriotic Pakistani,who saved Pak from Russian aggression.Although some Pakistani didn’t like his policies and they feel pain as our enemy always feel pain due to Gul. May Allah bless him,he will be remembered by every true Pakistani till last breath.Recommend

  • curious2
    Aug 20, 2015 - 11:26PM

    Pakistan’s reputation is in tatters and not one Muslim nation looks up to Pakistan – that’s Gul’s legacy. Recommend

  • Junaid Tariq
    Aug 21, 2015 - 12:43AM

    Ojhri camp and Zia C 130 incident were not under his watch. At that time DG ISI was Gen Aktar. Recommend

  • Bystander
    Aug 21, 2015 - 1:02AM

    Hamid Gul was a great Pakistani patriot by any and all standards. Ayesha has written a balanced article. I have read her earlier book on the armed forces. Perhaps TAKhan was expecting a loaded negative article on Gul as has become a fashion/trend in heavily-controlled-through-financially-supported Pakistani media.
    As far as our cousins from across the border are concerned they need to ‘grow up’ to the political realities and the fact that it is them who need to mend fences with their neighbors as all their neighbors cannot be against them at the same time (China, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan). And they should also not forget that present India is only around 70 years old just as we are. Prior to that they and us were all divided into over 200 kingdoms ruled by mostly-independent Rajas and Nawabs. All history prior to 1947 is common to all. No one country, religion and caste can take ownership of only the good things in our common past. Lets be real & fact-oriented not swallow what we hear from our very very loud but twisted media.Recommend

  • It's (still) Economy Stupid
    Aug 21, 2015 - 3:33AM

    If Pakistan could cause the break-up of the Soviet Union (as is popularly believed) then gains could be made at other fronts, too, using the same operational formula.

    If Pakistan could cause the break-up of the Soviet Union (as is popularly believed) then gains could be made at other fronts(read INDIA), too, using the same operational formula.

    This explains support for Khalistan, NE insurgency, drugs in Punjab and support to non state actors with intent to break India. With expectation that this will leave |Pakistan as a major regional power. There is a flaw in this hypothesis army of a nation can not be strong without strong economic fundamentals and is evident in current state of Pakistan a presumed strong army and poor economic fundamentals.

    ‘The intelligence apparatus was fairly independent in raising its own funds”.
    Uhmm all those kidnapping of rich doctors and businessman for ransom in the name of taliban.Recommend

  • Malik Tariq
    Aug 21, 2015 - 5:35AM

    No sane Pakistani who wants Pakistan to be a democratic welfare state envisioned by Quaid would eulogise Hameed Gul. The only good thing comparatively better compared to other generals of his age and time is that he lived and died in Pakistan, had all his assets located here and not like others whose greed was endless.Recommend

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