From his former incarnation as strategic adviser to Pakistan’s politico-religious parties, the one-time Pakistani intelligence chief Hamid Gul has resurfaced as de facto minister of propaganda and disinformation for the Taliban insurgents. In a dramatic reincarnation for the “meray mutabiq” (“my opinion”) program on Geo television, Gul said the Taliban has 88,000 troops and 35,000 civilian police in Afghanistan ready to take over when U.S. and NATO forces leave. U.S. estimates range from 20,000 to 30,000 Taliban insurgents, many of them jobless youth looking for food. Few Americans are dying, Gul explained, as they get their Afghan puppets to do the fighting.

Gul’s warped strategic thinking is now presumably at the service of the Taliban as it was before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Evidently, he has convinced Taliban leaders the U.S. strategic plan is to turn Afghanistan over to India as U.S. forces phase out. The disinformation is designed to keep the Taliban tied to Pakistan, whose intelligence service originally crafted and trained the student movement to put an end to Afghanistan’s civil war in the early 1990s. The Pakistan-Afghan link was designed to give Pakistan defense in depth to the west in case of an Indian invasion from the east.

Gul ran Pakistan’s all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency as the Soviets conceded defeat in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. ISI, the Saudi intelligence service under Prince Turki al-Feisal and the CIA worked closely to fund and arm the mujahedin insurgents. But no sooner had the Soviets withdrawn than the United States also pulled out before turning against close ally Pakistan for what was then its secret nuclear weapons program that strongman President Zia ul-Haq kept denying.

Gul was close to the Taliban when they ran Afghanistan from 1996 until U.S. forces kicked them out, along with their protege Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida camp followers. In Afghanistan for two weeks immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, Gul told this reporter that the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were a Mossad-CIA conspiracy that also involved the U.S. Air Force. “Witness the fact that no U.S. fighter jets were scrambled to intercept four aircraft that had suddenly abandoned previously filed flight plans.” Since then, this Gul “exclusive” has convinced most Pakistanis Sept. 11 was a trompe l’oeil to justify the invasion of Afghanistan that, in turn, was to become a U.S. base for invading Pakistan and seizing its nuclear arsenal.

Gul told this reporter in 2001 that he was never particularly pro-American during the war against the Soviets. America’s subsequent punishment of Pakistan with all manner of draconian sanctions for the country’s constantly denied secret nuclear arsenal convinced Gul the United States was the new enemy. Today, an alarming number of Pakistanis share Gul’s wild fantasies about U.S. skulduggery against Islam, which, in turn, give a surreal hue to Pakistani politics.

President Asif Ali Zardari, for instance, relinquished “National Command Authority” over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which he never had to begin with, and transferred it to Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, who won’t have control either. The country’s nuclear trigger remains safely secure — for the time being — in the hands of Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and his top three-star generals. In Pakistan, militarily secure is not necessarily totally secure. “Long beards,” as Islamists are known in the army, represent one Islamic chaplain per battalion since the 1980s.

At the present rate of political decay, it can only be a matter of time before the army, for the fifth time in six decades, reluctantly steps back into an ever widening political vacuum. President Obama’s freshly minted plan to begin moving out of a pacified Afghanistan by 2011 is almost entirely contingent on the Pakistani military’s continued willingness to eliminate the Taliban’s safe havens in the mountainous tribal areas on the Afghan border. The current military campaign in South Waziristan has slowed operations to a crawl as the winter’s first layers of snow blanket trails and foot paths.

With the end of a political amnesty program, Zardari and his political cronies, and 8,000 government bureaucrats and political hacks, could face potential corruption and criminal charges. Their names, including former defense and interior ministers, were released to the media. Zardari’s many enemies are sharpening political knives for the kill. First, they are planning to strip away his presidential powers by restoring parliamentary democracy. If successful, they will have reduced Zardari to a ceremonial role. Since the country’s birth 62 years ago, no Pakistani civilian leader has served a complete five-year term.

Political turmoil may then facilitate the return to power of Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League, twice Prime Minister in the 1990s (’90-’93; ’97-’99). He was the first to order Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998 that were then a response to India’s. Overthrown by Army Chief Pervez Musharraf in 1999, he spent seven years in exile in Saudi Arabia before he, and his arch rival Benazir Bhutto, were allowed back into the political fray.

Sharif is now identified with the 2007 Saudi attempt to mediate a rapprochement between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and “moderate” elements of the Taliban. Talks about possible negotiations between the most powerful tribal warlords, the Kabul government and the Taliban are seen as the least unpleasant alternative to protracted conflict.

U.S. emissaries, armed with bundles of serious cash, making hard-to-refuse deals with warlords, would be more bang for the buck than 30,000 more U.S. soldiers — at $1 million per soldier per year. In Iraq’s Anbar province, the United States managed to turn Sunni insurgents against al-Qaida. And in Afghanistan today, America’s only strategic interest is in keeping out Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization, estimated to be no more than 100-strong. Given America’s economic weakness, waiting for Godot in Afghanistan is a luxury we can’t afford.

As a Niall Ferguson quote on the cover of Newsweek says, “Steep debt, slow growth and high spending kill empires — and America could be next.” The Taliban sans al-Qaida in Afghanistan should be the least of our geopolitical concerns. Deficit funding in the trillions, $1 trillion of overdue obsolete infrastructure at home, $1 trillion for the Iraqi distraction, almost $300 billion for Afghanistan thus far, and the modern-day empire is at risk.

Arnaud de Borchgrave, a member of the Atlantic Council, is editor-at-large at UPI and the Washington Times.  This essay was previously published by UPI as  “Gulled by Gul.”