When I got Maj. Gen. Hamid Gul on the telephone at his home to ask if I could interview him, his reaction was guarded at first. "What's your nationality?" he asked. "American," I said. "Are you a Jew?" When I said I wasn't, he agreed to the interview. "I'm sorry to ask you that," he added. "It's just that Jews wouldn't understand what I have to say."
Indeed they wouldn't, and nor would most people. General Gul's basic message is that Osama bin Laden is innocent, and that the attacks on New York and Washington were an Israeli-engineered attempt at a coup against the government of the United States. He rattled off the proof: "You must look inside. F-16s don't scramble in time, though they had 18 minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Radar gets jammed. Transponders are turned off. A flight to Los Angeles turns to Washington and is in the air for 45 minutes, and the world's most sophisticated air defense doesn't go into action. I tell you, it was a coup [attempt], and I can't say for sure who was behind it, but it's the Israelis who are creating so much misery in the world. The Israelis don't want to see any power in Washington unless it's subservient to their interests, and President Bush has not been subservient."
If General Gul were anyone else, it would be easy to dismiss him as a crackpot. But here in military-ruled Pakistan, he remains an influential figure, even in semiretirement. And as the former head of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), its intelligence service, he had a key role in making Afghanistan what it is today. Gul is widely considered the architect of the Afghan jihad: the man who, with financial and logistical support from the CIA, engineered the fight of the mujahedin against the Soviet Union and its proxy government in Kabul in the 1980s. Now, he's a big fan of the country's ruling Taliban, even though they're fighting his former mujahedin allies.
And he's wondering why the CIA no longer comes calling to his comfortable home in an exclusive compound for top military brass in Rawalpindi. "Why don't these people talk to me?" Perhaps because they don't appreciate his view that all those Arabic names emerging as suspects are CIA inventions?
"Not your State Department, but the CIA and DOD [Department of Defense], he says. "They're the ones who count. Why don't they talk to me? They know me. They can trust me."
Putting our trust in Pakistan will take, at best, a mighty leap of faith. The country claims to be a partner in the war against terrorism, and the current military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has made such lip service ritually and repeatedly. After Tuesday's attacks, he condemned them as "brutal and horrible acts of terror" and called for the world to "unite to fight against terrorism in all its forms." But the Pakistani government has so far made no effort to bring any real pressure to bear on the Taliban to turn over bin Laden, and it has encouraged and facilitated Islamic extremist groups in the disputed territory of Kashmir, as well.
It's a truism that terrorists cannot function without the support of a state, and in the case of bin Laden he couldn't function without the support of Afghanistan-and at least the tacit support of Pakistan as well. Afghanistan is not only land-locked, but surrounded by enemies-with the exception of Pakistan. Pakistan is the only way in or out of Afghanistan for bin Laden and his supporters, and if, as is widely believed, he is commanding and financing some 3,000 Arab soldiers in the 055 Arab Brigade, he needs a line of supply and that can only go through Pakistan. (Alternative routes, such as Iran and Tajikistan, are out of the question). Even air travel depends on crossing Pakistani air space, and there's nothing to stop the Pakistanis from insisting on vetting the passenger rosters-something they have indeed done in the past.
Much is made of the fact that the Taliban has grown out of control and that Pakistan couldn't even get it to release a wanted Islamic extremist they sought, Riaz Basra. But that raises the question: did Pakistan, with its military and especially its security services infiltrated by Islamic hard-liners, really want to bring that pressure to bear? Similarly, did Pakistan really want to stop the recent destruction of the giant Buddhist statues at Bamiyan?
General Gul made his views clear. Jihad, he said, is not just a matter of realpolitik, as it is to the West in Afghanistan, but a matter of religious conviction. And when Gul visited Afghanistan in August, at the invitation of the Taliban, he didn't see the wrecked, impoverished, famine-stricken land that everyone else sees-but rather a place where women had regained Islamic inheritance rights once denied them, where Taliban police were disarming civilians, where roads were repaired, where the heroin crop had been wiped out and where peace was restored everywhere but in the north. Far from worrying, as so many do, about the Talilbanization of Pakistan, he says "the best way forward is for Pakistan to be more Islamic, which means more just, more tolerant, more honorable-those are Islam's values."
The old general thinks all this will blow over soon, and everyone will eventually forget about the hunt for bin Laden and the terrorists who hit Washington and New York. "They don't really want to find who did it," he says. And he's also certain the Americans will not make the same mistake the Russians and the British before them made, and intervene in Afghanistan. "You can easily go inside Afghanistan," he said, "but you will not come out easily. Afghans are Afghans. If they were not so obstinate, so crude, so uncouth, they would not have defeated two superpowers in 80 years' time. Why does America want to put its hand in that same hole again?"
Presumably Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who has been in a series of meetings with Gul's successor, Gen. Mahmoud Ahmad, has been having a more realistic set of exchanges-though don't bet on it. Mahmoud was on a visit to Washington at the time of the attack, and, like most other visitors, is still stuck there. "It isn't what you say," Armitage reportedly told him, "It's what you do." In the end, despite their inclinations and their raging prejudices, the Pakistanis may do what the United States wants. But they won't be terribly happy about it.