x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Abdullah is best chance for peace, says former Afghan spy chief

Hamid Gul, who headed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency between 1987 and 1989 during the late stages of the Soviet occupation, said it would take a fighter, not an academic to secure peace for Afghanistan.

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan // He trained Afghan resistance fighters against the Soviets and helped create the Taliban, but today Pakistan’s former spymaster Hamid Gul says the Islamist group’s long-time foe Abdullah Abdullah has the best chance of securing peace.

Widely viewed as a “godfather” figure for Pakistan’s strategy of using Islamist proxies to exert influence in neighbouring countries, the 77-year-old retired general is still seen by some observers as offering a window into the mindset of the country’s powerful military establishment.

As Afghanistan prepares for a run-off election on Saturday between Mr Abdullah and his rival Ashraf Ghani, Pakistan – which backed the Taliban regime that was removed in 2001 and is often accused by Kabul of supporting their insurgency – has maintained a resolutely neutral stance.

But Mr Gul, who headed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency between 1987 and 1989 during the late stages of the Soviet occupation, said it would take a fighter, not an academic to secure peace for Afghanistan – as long as he refused to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States.

Mr Gul said Mr Abdullah’s past as a resistance fighter together with his shrewd choices of running mates made him uniquely placed to negotiate with those he called the “Afghan opposition” – the Taliban.

Mr Abdullah draws his main support from ethnic Tajiks in the north, while Mr Ghani is a Pashtun like the majority of the country and the Taliban.

But, Mr Gul said: “Abdullah has a distinct advantage for future peace in Afghanistan – if that is the objective and it should be – that he is a jihadi.

“And the other people with him are also jihadis,” he continued, referring to running mates Mohammad Khan, an ally of the powerful Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who has traditional ties to Pakistan, and Mohammad Mohaqeq – a member of the Persian-speaking Hazara community seen as closer to Iran.

“Ashraf Ghani is not a jihadi,” Mr Gul said about the former World Bank economist who spent the 1980s in the United States. “And for a jihadi to open a dialogue with a non-jihadi would be very difficult.”

Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the country slid into anarchy, and Taliban fighters trained in Pakistan gradually prised control from the Northern Alliance of commander Ahmad Shah Massoud – a national hero who was also Mr Abdullah’s mentor.

During this period, Mr Gul maintained contacts with both sides in an unofficial role as a mediator. “At that time I used to live in Ahmad Shah Massoud’s guesthouse and Mr Abdullah was deputed to look after me so I met him almost every day” during trips from 1992-1995, prior to the Taliban’s ascent to power, he said.

Since leaving the army, Mr Gul has remained in the limelight, and is viewed with deep suspicion by India for his alleged links to Kashmiri militancy, as well as by the United States, which worked with him during the 1980s but later lobbied for his inclusion on a UN list of international terrorists.

Stridently anti-American, Mr Gul warned that war would continue if the next Afghan president signed a long-awaited security pact allowing about 10,000 US troops to remain in the country in non-combat roles until 2016.

“If the Americans pull out then a deal is possible through intra-Afghan dialogue, that means with the opposition, mainly Hekmatyar and Taliban,” he said, referring to Pakistan’s old Islamist allies.

“Contingent on this situation arriving is the Americans’ pull-out. There can be no compromise because this is the spirit of the Afghan nation. The earlier the Afghan people see the back of them the better,” he said.

* Agence France-Presse