The legacy of Pakistan’s loved and loathed Hamid Gul

Pakistan’s late jihadist spy master garnered mixed sentiments with his expansionist politics.

Hamid Gul
Gul's loyalty to his institution, the army, was total, and he never publicly criticised it, writes Nasir [Getty]

In the passing of retired Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul, the division and fissures in deeply polarised Pakistan were exposed again as vehemently divergent views greeted the news that the once-feared, 79-year-old former spy master has died on Saturday night.

There was no ambiguity about what the late general stood for. He was loved and loathed for the same reason.

His commitment to jihad – to an Islamic revolution transcending national boundaries, was such that he dreamed one day the “green Islamic flag” would flutter not just over Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also over territories represented by the (former Soviet Union) Central Asian republics.

After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, as the director-general of the Pakistan’s intelligence organisation, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, an impatient Gul wanted to establish a government of the so-called Mujahideen on Afghan soil.

He then ordered an assault using non-state actors on Jalalabad, the first major urban centre across the Khyber Pass from Pakistan, with the aim capturing it and declaring it as the seat of the new administration.

The dream of a militarised, conservative society

This was the spring of 1989 and a furious prime minister, Benazir Bhutto – who was kept in the dark by both her intelligence chief, Gul, and the chief of army staff, General Mirza Aslam Beg – demanded that Gul be removed from the ISI.

Beg reluctantly complied, but gave Gul the command of the strategically-important armoured corps in Multan, southern Punjab. Gul was returning to Multan, where some of his greatest career highpoints transpired at the hand of his mentor and ideal, General Zia-ul Haq.

Having served directly under Haq – who had an ideology of conservative Islam dominating Pakistan and beyond – Gul would continue to promote Haq’s ideal even after his mentor was killed in a plane crash in August 1988.

It was Haq who had promoted Gul to major general and entrusted him as the key military intelligence directorate, and later appointed him as the head of ISI.

Apart from sharing the dream of a significantly militarised and conservative Islamic society, Gul followed in the footsteps of his mentor in his loathing for the then secular and progressive Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

Haq overthrew the founder of PPP and prime minister of the day, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1977, and ordered his execution after a sham trial in 1979 (acknowledged as such by one of the judges who ruled against Bhutto).

Following Haq’s death in a plane crash, Gul took up the anti-PPP mantle, encouraged by his army chief.

Paving the way for Nawaz Sharif

As the 1988 elections approached, unknown to the general public, Gul took it upon himself to block the path of Benazir Bhutto, whose tumultuous homecoming from exile in 1986 had rattled the military and its intelligence establishment, which had deluded itself into believing the party was dead and buried.

In 1988, apart from working the electoral machinery to PPP’s detriment, the ISI chief also clubbed together an alliance of almost all the parties opposed to Bhutto’s party, so as to present a unified platform against it.


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passion for Afghan jihad was such that he continued to try and have a direct say in the Afghan policy beyond his ISI years.”]

He subsequently made a public admission of having formed the so-called Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (Islamic Democratic Alliance) among whose leaders was one Mohammad Nawaz Sharif.

Nonetheless, Benazir Bhutto defied all odds to become the prime minister after her party emerged as the largest single entity in the election, though falling short of an outright majority.

Because of Haq and Gul’s patronage and their promotion of such an Islamist ideology, the liberals of Pakistan – who like to see themselves as the voice of sanity in the country today – along with the now dwindling progressive political elements, blame them for the rampant intolerance and sectarianism in the country.

This criticism extends to even terrorism, as it is seen as a logical consequence of the officially pursued policy of jihad via non-state actors.

The hero Gul

On the other hand, many in the army – where anti-India sentiment is part of the DNA – still see him as a dashing hero, a true patriot who left no stone unturned to defy India and other “hostile” powers, such as the United States.

As for the religious elements, he was a comrade-in-arms who worked tirelessly for the glory and spread of Islam.

His passion for Afghan jihad was such that he continued to try and have a direct say in the Afghan policy beyond his ISI years.

He put up his papers for retirement, choosing to leave the army, but not giving up on his dreams. He was an admirer of Afghan Taliban and its leader, Mullah Omar, and didn’t even mask his affection for Osama bin Laden.

Where once he had worked with the US and CIA in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets, the US’ disinterest in the region – after the Soviets’ exit and later sanctions against Pakistan on account of its nuclear programme – turned Gul into a die-hard critic of Washington.

Gul’s loyalty to his institution – the army – was total, and he never publicly criticised it.


But when the army, led by General Pervez Musharraf, decided to cede to US demands seeking close cooperation following 9/11, Gul was vocal in his disagreement with his former student (Musharraf) for not “standing up” to the US which, in his view, was hell-bent on destroying Islam and all the good it could represent.

However, the former intelligence chief was never asked, nor did he explain the contradiction between his vision of the religion’s glory and the complete code it offered for running the state and the narrow fundamentalist-sectarian forces he often aligned himself with.

Even then, his appeal extended beyond these circles, as was evidenced in the reaction to his passing. He was hailed as a hero and lamented, not just by these forces and his fans in the military, but also by many others.

On the other hand, his detractors pointed to the over 50,000 Pakistani casualties at the hands of the terrorism, which the general may have blamed on foreign powers but many people believe was the direct result of the policies such as the one pursued by him.

His legacy will continue to cast a shadow over Pakistan well beyond his lifetime.

Abbas Nasir is a former editor of Pakistan’s English language newspaper Dawn and former executive editor at BBC Asia Pacific region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.