Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat- Former chief of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Service Intelligence agency [ISI] attained almost legendary status in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. He presided over Pakistan’s ISI during the period of the Afghan Jihad, which saw Pakistan and other Muslims countries, as well as the US, providing weapons and training to the Afghan mujahedeen to fight the Soviet forces.
Lt General Hamid Gul’s sitting room in his home in Islamabad features a piece of the Berlin Wall, sent to him in 1989 by the chief of the German intelligence service, under an inscription that reads “with deepest respect to one who helped deliver the first blow.” However in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, General Gul became persona non grata in the West after he continued to provide moral support to the militants in Afghanistan, and was later accused by the CIA of providing material support to the Taliban.
General Hamid Gul is as an extremely controversial and indeed powerful figure in domestic Pakistani politics, and was viewed by many as a kingmaker during his time as head of the ISIS.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Now, one decade after the terrible events of 9/11, what is the security situation in the region? Do you think Pakistan and Afghanistan are safer than they were before? Is America safer?
[Gul] Firstly, we must understand that 9/11 was basically a pretext for the Americans to establish a permanent presence in Afghanistan, as this is a central strategic location. From here, the Americans can contain China, control the Middle East and South Asia, and keep an eye on Central Asia. Pakistan represents their central target. I could put forward a lot of arguments of a technical nature to the effect that 9/11 was an inside job. I could go into detail, but this will divert from the subject of your interview.
There have been internal reports issued by the US administration that the real threat to American influence in the coming decades will be from Muslims and China. The Russians killed 1.3 million Afghans, however so far the Americans have only killed 50,000 Afghans. Historians are in agreement that America is a declining power. Paul Kennedy predicted America’s downfall years ago. But nobody could have imagined that they would lose at the hands of the powerless Afghans and be forced to flee in search of shelter. In my opinion, the Americans have now lost in the battlefield.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, there were security concerns [before 9/11], there are security concerns today, and there will be security concerns in the near future. However we have not left the danger zone. The situation where the Americans could have pressured us is no more.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have always been a strong critic of US military presence in the region. If the US forces withdraw from Afghanistan on schedule in 2014 how will this impact the regional security situation?
[Gul] China will become an economic superpower without firing a single bullet. China will be the biggest beneficiary when US troops leave the region. This will mean that China will emerge as the most important power in the region, particularly as China enjoys naturally strong relations with Pakistan. As far as India is concerned, I have always said that India is on the wrong side of history.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However isn’t India also an emerging economic power?
[Gul] No, it is not. Their economic strength is false. In India, 300 million people have joined the middle class and they are enjoying urban elite status, but this does not mean that the 900 million deprived Indians will not rise up one day. There is the so-called “red corridor” in India where Maoist movements are present. On the other hand Islamic forces are also moving to confront India. India was with the capitalist forces in this war against Islamic forces, and the Islamic forces are winning.
As for China, it is not merely an economic power; it is also a strategic ally of Pakistan. Recently China has taken very strong positions in support of Pakistan and has criticized India. In the wake of the Abbottabad operation (that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden), the Chinese [also] took a strong position in support of Pakistan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that the Pakistani government and military will be able to stabilize Pakistan in the event that US forces withdraw from Afghanistan?
[Gul] Yes, Pakistan can definitely stabilize itself. [In fact] US influence has been a destabilizing factor. Look at Karachi, for example; who is responsible for the massacre in Karachi? The US divided the Pakistani nation and has asked India to provide weapons to Tehrik-e-Taliban in Pakistan. They are the ones responsible for destabilizing Karachi. In addition to this, India is fragmenting. Take it from me, their democracy is falling apart and voices of revolution are coming out of India. An alternative to the democratic system has to emerge, and that can come from Islamic sources. Religion is a very powerful sentiment. Islam is even more powerful because it is in a resurgent state. It is a comprehensive system; that is why it is so dominant. Therefore Pakistan can emerge as a model on three issues; religion, nationalism, and democracy. This is because we are constitutionally committed to all these dominant trends of the 21st century. The combination of Afghanistan and Pakistan, with China at their back, will be too powerful a block. This represents a potential emerging giant in the world, not through territorial expansions, but by acting as a role model.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Following the 9/11 attacks, the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan witnessed a steep rise in religious militancy. What, in your opinion, were the causes for this, and how do you see the situation developing in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the coming years?
[Gul] The primary cause is the presence of such a large number of foreign occupation troops in Afghanistan. This is such a huge conflict and it certainly had its repercussions. When a bomb falls on the ground, the shrapnel flies in all direction and become very harmful [to everybody]. This was not our fight; this was the fight of the Americans who [former Pakistani President] General Musharraf brought to our homeland. General Musharraf first divided the Pakistani nation through his policies. He pitted enlightened moderates against extremists. Have you ever seen a leader who divides his own nation in this manner? General Musharraf’s policies created a reaction in the people who name themselves Islamists. They thought that both their own government and the American government were against them. This reaction led to an upheaval within Pakistani society.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You previously claimed that Pakistan and Afghanistan, supported by China, will emerge as a powerful international bloc, however the Pakistani ruling elite today are pro-US, so how is this possible?
[Gul] We have to take the new situation in Pakistan into account. The Pakistani military has now started taking firmer positions on different issues regarding our national interests. What they are saying [to Washington] is “friends not masters”. This explains the whole history of Pakistan’s relations with the US. They start by making Pakistan a friend but in the end we realize that in fact they are our masters…and that they are treating us like subordinates. This is something that begins to fester in the mind, and so Pakistan has now started to take a stand against Washington. Now they (the US) are desperately asking Pakistani army to start an operation in North Waziristan. They want to create a situation in Karachi to embroil the Pakistani army in. In fact, there a tussle taking place between the will of the Pakistani people and the US agenda in the region. In addition to this, the Americans are asking Pakistan to accept Indian hegemony in the region. Our problem was that we didn’t have any alternative [to the US]. Luckily we now have an alternative in the form of China.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How can Pakistan help to stabilize Afghanistan following the US withdrawal?
[Gul] The Afghans are quite capable of handling their own affairs. Pakistan should not even try to poke its nose in the affairs of the Afghans. Look at history; they [the Afghans] have repeatedly defeated superpowers on their own territory. Nobody has ever succeeded in controlling Afghanistan. They defeated the British three times; the Russians once; and now they are on the verge of defeating the Americans. History tells us that they are capable of resolving their own disputes, so what advice can we give them?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But surely Pakistan will play some future political role in Afghanistan?
[Gul] This is a very complex situation, because if we play a role in Afghanistan, then Iran will demand to play a role. If Iran plays a role then many in the Arab world will also demand a role in this situation. So in my opinion nobody should play any role in Afghanistan’s situation.
Americans want to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. They are demanding that they be given bases in Afghanistan. Let me tell you, even [Afghan President] Hamid Karzai will not be prepared to give them [permanent] bases in Afghanistan. When they asked for this, he told them that this was not his decision; it is the decision of the [Afghan] parliament. Secondly he presented three conditions to the American; firstly, that US bases will be under Afghan law, secondly, that US bases will not be used as a base for an invasion of any kind against a third country, and thirdly that the Americans will provide weapons to Afghan troops. The Americans have lost; they will never to be able to achieve their objectives. But yes, I still say that the people of Afghanistan are ready to declare that they will not allow their territory to be used against any other country, whilst they also require additional time for the reconstructing of their country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the fears that Afghanistan may be transformed into a battleground between Pakistan and India?
[Gul] India has played a very negative role in Afghanistan. If India is assigned any role in Afghanistan, then Pakistan will definitely get involved in Afghanistan [as well]. It will be a very bad situation. I think nobody should have any role in Afghanistan. If Pakistan doesn’t have any role, than Indian should also similarly not have any role.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the attempts for reconciliation in Afghanistan succeed?
[Gul] The Americans are working towards the Taliban joining the coalition government. I think it is impossible. The Americans want the Taliban to distance themselves from Al Qaida, however that is a misconception. Al Qaeda has a different objective from the Taliban. Al-Qaida trapped the Americans in Afghanistan and now they have shifted their interest to the Middle East. A broad-based government in Afghanistan is a possibility only after the US withdraws from the country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that there are details about the Abbottabad operation, which resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden, still to come to light?
[Gul] Yes, definitely. Osama Bin Laden died, however the CIA had [previously] shut down the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in 2005, and during the next three years of his presidential term, George W. Bush didn’t even once mention Osama bin Laden in his speeches. When Obama came to power he wanted to bring the war to an end. He wanted to be a president of peace and after it was discovered that some members of Osama Bin Laden were living near Abbottabad they [the US and Pakistani] planned this operation. However during this period, the issue of Raymond Davis (the American CIA contractor who killed two Pakistani citizens in Lahore) occurred. This led to tensions between CIA chief [Leon] Panetta and ISI chief Lt General [Ahmed Shuja] Pasha. This resulted in the CIA announcing that they didn’t trust the ISI, and the Americans then carried out this operation unilaterally.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you read the statements by Osama Bin Laden’s wives and daughters regarding this operation? These statements were made by the Bin Laden family members to Pakistani intelligence officers, and were later leaked to the media. What is your opinion of these statements?
[Gul] These reports are not worth commenting on. I don’t trust these reports.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe new Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is hiding out in the Pakistani tribal area?
[Gul] No, I think he has gone to Yemen. I don’t think he is in Pakistan. He did get married in Bajaur [in the Pakistani tribal area] but I think Al Qaeda’s center of gravity has shifted to the Middle East. There is not a heavy Al Qaeda presence in Pakistan; there are only a couple of dozen [Al Qaeda] members here only.