Old soldiers warn against America, the fickle friend

Pakistan's dilemma
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"It is very dangerous to be America's friend," said Hamid Gul. "They do not want an equal partnership, but a master-slave relationship. I know, because they clipped my wings." Old soldiers never die, they say, but in Pakistan they do not fade away either.

If Islamabad is the country's civil capital, neighbouring Rawalpindi is its military headquarters: here, every stone and the base of every tree is whitewashed. Housing estates are filled with retired officers like General Gul, still keeping an eye on their serving colleagues. As has happened often in Pakistan's 54-year history, one of their caste, General Pervez Musharraf, is running the country.

At 64, General Gul lives in a walled enclave of modest homes, which do not reflect the power he once had as head of Inter-Services Intelligence, the ISI, which remains a force in Pakistan.

He was appointed in 1987 by another military president, Zia ul-Haq, and worked with American and British intelligence to channel money and arms to the Islamic mujahedin fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. "My opposite numbers in the US and Britain were my friends," he boasts.

Now, however, he finds himself frozen out. He was removed from the ISI – "on George Bush senior's orders" – and retired early after General Zia's death in an unexplained air crash. His former collaborators in the CIA and MI6 do not want to know him, and last year he received a letter from Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, saying he was not welcome in Britain.

General Gul still shares the zeal of the mujahedin and their successors, the Taliban. "I am a jihadi," he says: a holy warrior. While the West realised that it had created a monster in Afghanistan, he sees an international fellowship of idealists.

So who was behind the attacks in New York and Washington? "In my opinion it was Israel," said General Gul.

"Why did none of the four hijacked aircraft activate a warning transponder? Because they were seized on the ground before take-off. Only Israel could have done this. Mossad was responsible for the east African embassy bombings in 1998 as well. Every time the US shifts in favour of the Palestinians, something like this happens."

In the light of such beliefs it might seem ludicrous for General Gul to cast himself as the West's candid, though spurned, friend. But some of his points are more persuasive. "When George Bush junior talks of a crusade and says he wants Osama bin Laden dead or alive, he offends Pashtun tribal pride, which for some Taliban followers is stronger than Islam," he said.

He met Mr bin Laden once, he says, at a conference in Sudan eight years ago. "At that time nobody considered him a terrorist, just someone who had fought bravely alongside the mujahedin, using his money and engineering skills to help their cause. The CIA used to speak well of him."

Another ex-general agrees that Mr bin Laden was not involved, though Mirza Aslam Beg differs from Hamid Gul in most other respects. As chief of staff from 1988 to 1991, he oversaw the sidelining of the former ISI chief, and reversed some of Zia's attempts to Islamise the military.

The former army chief accepts that "young, angry, educated Muslims" were behind the attacks in the US. Both men, however, see President Musharraf's predicament the same way. It is one thing to promise the US co-operation, quite another to allow them to station forces on Pakistan's soil, or use Pakistan as the launch point for an invasion of Afghanistan.

"They can use our air space, and they can even dock in Karachi," said General Gul. "But if they establish bases in Pakistan, the body count will go up." But in return for the benefits being offered to Pakistan, it will have to give more than token help. "America is blackmailing Musharraf," he said. "If he allows himself to be used, it will destabilise Pakistan politically and possibly even territorially."