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Gul: Godfather of the Taliban

Shamil Shams
August 16, 2015

The former head of Pakistan's ISI has died of a brain hemorrhage near Islamabad. Known as the "godfather of the Taliban," Hamid Gul remained an Islamist ideologue until his death. He leaves behind a dangerous legacy.

Hamid Gul, former director-General of the Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), speaks to the media on October 31, 2014 in Islamabad, Pakistan (Photo: Metin Aktas / Anadolu Agency)
Image: picture-alliance/AA/M. Aktas

"Hamid Gul is not dead; he is alive in the form of numerous jihadist organizations, including the Taliban, and in the Islamist narratives of the Pakistani state that have persisted since the 1980s Afghan War. He will live on as long as the Pakistani military continues its anti-India policies and meddles in the Afghan affairs," a friend of mine said to me over the telephone after the news of Gul's death broke on Pakistan's TV channels on August 15.

Lieutenant General Gul, the former chief of Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) spy agency, was a controversial figure in Pakistan and Afghanistan for his role in the Afghan war against the Soviets and his support of the Taliban. A number of historians called him the "father of the Taliban," but godfather would be more accurate: He didn't create the group - just nurtured it. In Afghanistan, Gul was sometimes called "the butcher of the Afghans."

While the Afghan and Pakistani liberals rejoice in Gul's death, many in Pakistan are mourning his demise. He was not just a former ISI head, he was also an ideologue to Pakistan's conservative sections, right-wing journalists, the madrassa clerics and students, and a powerful faction of the Pakistani army.

"Hamid Gul is relatively lesser known than General Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator at the time of the Afghan war, but his role was as damaging as Haq's," Arshad Mahmood, an Islamabad-based activist, told DW. "He was responsible for destroying Afghanistan, and his legacy for Pakistan is equally pernicious. The Afghans hate him, and rightly so."

Gul's role in spearheading an Islamist insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir is also well-documented. New Delhi holds him responsible for diverting militants and arms from the Afghan war to Srinagar toward the end of his job as spy chief in 1989.

A territorial dispute over the northern Kashmir region has been going on between India and Pakistan for over six decades, with both nuclear-armed countries claiming the territory in its entirety. India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir since their independence from Britain in 1947.

Following his retirement, Gul became a security expert and could be seen on television defending both the Taliban and Kashmiri militants. He was frequently invited by the Islamist parties to their anti-West rallies.

"A man responsible for much chaos and bloodshed in the world has passed away, yet his legacy of helping transform Pakistan into a terrorist haven will live on," Ghaffar Husain, a UK-based counterterrorism expert, wrote on Facebook.

Gul and the Taliban

Gul served the ISI as its chief from 1987 to 1989, when the US-backed Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union was in its last stages. The Islamists hail him as an Afghan war hero who led the mujahedeen, or holy warriors, to a historic victory over the Soviets. While the US turned its back on Afghanistan and Pakistan after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, Gul and his ISI continued to work to install a Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul. As a deadly civil war broke out in Pakistan's neighborhood, the ISI backed a number of Islamist groups to fight against pro-India or pro-Russia factions.

"Gul and the ISI did not let any Afghan government to succeed after the departure of the Soviet forces," Farooq Sulehria, a Pakistani researcher and journalist in London, told DW. "It was one of the worst periods in the history of Afghanistan, and Gul was its architect."

The situation had deteriorated to an extent that when the Taliban emerged as a force, most Afghans had no choice but to welcome them, Sulehria added.

Sulehria said, however, that Gul was not the founder of the Taliban: "Gul was supporting the warlord Gulbeddin Hikmetyar against former Presidents Dr. Najibullah (1987-92) and Burhanuddin Rabbani (1992-96). He only started backing the Taliban when they became stronger as a movement," he said, adding that it was the former civilian prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her interior minister, Naseerullah Babar, who were behind the creation of the Taliban.

'Taliban are our people'

Gul became active in Pakistani politics in the late 1990s. His relations with his former institution deteriorated after General Pervez Musharraf decided to side with the US effort to topple the Taliban government in Kabul after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

"Pakistan's alliance with the US against the Taliban irked many former army generals who had supported the Islamists," Sulehria said. "These divisions within the army still persist. While some military generals think that a 'double game' with the West - kill some Taliban and save some - is a good strategy, people like Gul wanted Islamabad to support Islamists wholeheartedly."

The ISI's relations with the United States and its Central Intelligence Agency further deteriorated after the assassination of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in 2011. The ties had remained difficult throughout the past decade. The United States repeatedly accused the Pakistani military and the ISI of backing some factions of the Taliban, a charge Islamabad has always denied.

Taliban fighters hold their heavy and light weapons before surrendering them to Afghan authorities in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)
Hamid Gul remained close to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban until his deathImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. Gul

Till his death, Gul remained a fierce critic of US policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As an Islamist ideologue, he put his weight behind numerous jihadi organizations and believed that Pakistan and Afghanistan needed an Islamic regime for a lasting peace in the region.

"The Taliban are our people. They are angry at us, but we can get them back on our side," Gul once said in a TV interview.

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