Tutoring the Taliban?
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Tutoring the Taliban?

Leaked documents say that Hamid Gul, a former Pakistani general, is the man who supplied bombs to the Taliban, plotted the kidnap of UN workers and hatched the plan for a suicide mission in Afghanistan. Karin Brulliard writes.

world Updated: Jul 31, 2010 23:07 IST

From the deluge of leaked military documents published on Sunday, a former Pakistani spy chief emerged as a chilling personification of his nation's alleged duplicity in the Afghan war, an erstwhile US ally turned Taliban tutor.

Retired Lt Gen Hamid Gul seems little short of delighted. He dismissed the accusations against him as "fiction" and described the documents' release as the start of a White House plot. It will end, he posited, with an early American pullout from Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama "is a very good chess player. ... He says, 'I don't want to carry the historic blame of having orchestrated the defeat of America, their humiliation in Afghanistan,'" said Gul, 74, adding that the plot incorporates a troop surge that Obama knows will fail.

That sort of theory makes Gul an incarnation of some of the United States' greatest challenges in dealing with Pakistan. Here, prominent figures closely linked to the security establishment not only trumpet what they view as vast American scheming but also, as US officials and the leaked documents allege, provide support to Afghan rebels.

Gul did that in an official capacity as head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency from 1987 to 1989, when he helped the CIA funnel Islamist fighters into Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Eloquent and polished, he was viewed by his American partners as pro-Western and moderate, while his Saudi benefactors saw him as a pious, conservative Muslim.

The leaked documents depict American views of Gul as a murderous terrorist agent. According to some of the documents, he possessed dozens of bombs for Taliban fighters to detonate in Kabul, instructed militants to kidnap United Nations workers, hatched a plan for a suicide bombing in Afghanistan to avenge an insurgent and assured fighters that Pakistan would provide them haven.

The reports are unconfirmed. But they are hardly surprising to those closely following the Afghan war, or to Gul himself. On Monday, he described himself as a "whipping boy" for the United States.

"There's no doubt where his sympathies lie," a US official said, echoing the views of many Pakistani defense analysts.

"Even though Gul may not be a card-carrying member of a terrorist group, he stays in touch with militants, offering his insights and advice on their activities."

Gul, one of several former Pakistani military officials whom the United States accuses of fuelling the Afghan insurgency, has deemed the war a "war against Muslims." He has acknowledged being a member of a militant organisation banned by Pakistan.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who had fired Gul as ISI chief on suspicion that he wanted to overthrow her, fingered him as a threat shortly before her assassination in 2007.

Gul and a senior ISI official say he cut ties with the agency upon retiring two decades ago. But he remains a major figure in Pakistan, where he regularly airs his anti-American views on talk shows. Gul said talking to the media is one of his hobbies, as are horticulture and trying to lower his golf handicap of 18.

His support for the Taliban is purely "academic," he said. "There is no physical input to it. I don't have the means. I don't have the will," Gul said, speaking in his living room in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. "I am not an enemy of America. I am against their policy, much as many very patriotic Americans are against the policies."

To that end, Gul said, he holds Taliban leader Mohammad Omar in high regard for his "resistance" to US invaders, though he said he has never met the man. He readily acknowledged that he has maintained friendships with former mujaheddin such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, a onetime CIA-backed fighter whose network is now viewed as the coalition forces' most lethal foe.

"The Americans dropped him like a hot brick," Gul said.

"Why should I discard him just because he is doing the same thing ... that they did against the Soviet occupation? They are fighting for the liberation of their country."

A conversation with Gul is a journey into the dense web of suspicion in this region, where Americans detect Pakistani and Iranian involvement in attacks in Afghanistan, Afghans see the ISI under every rock, and Pakistanis sense nefarious Indian designs all around them.

In Gul's version, India is where the leaked documents implicating Pakistani aid to the Taliban originated. The reports, he said, were fed by Indians to Afghan intelligence agents and intelligence "contractors" who are paid for each report they file. The reports are meant to pressure Pakistan to toe the American line, he said, a view widely shared here.

Gul said he was singled out in the reports because of American fears that he will expose US "cavities" of corruption and complicity in the opium trade in the Afghan conflict. Pakistan's cooperation with the United States, he said, has "ravaged" its economy and social fabric.

"My future generations are going to be proud when they read about their ancestors," Gul said.

"What about the American children, when they read about this that a retired 74-year-old general brought about the defeat of America in Afghanistan? What were their generals doing?"

But Gul reserved praise for Obama, who, he said, was expertly playing this game of intrigue. The document leak was orchestrated to indict Bush-era war policy, and the troop surge to expose Pentagon follies; soon a massive antiwar movement will rise, Gul said.

"I am sitting here understanding your politics better," he said, almost giddily. "Obama has been given the Nobel Peace Prize, in anticipation of what he is going to do. Somebody has read his mind. And I have read his mind, too."

Staff writer Peter Finn in Washington contributed to this report.

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First Published: Jul 31, 2010 23:01 IST