Pakistan witnessed its latest storm in a teacup soon after the publication in May of the book ‘Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace’ (Harper Collins India, 2018), co-authored by former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt. General (Retd) Asad Durrani and former head of Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) Amarjit Singh Dulat. The storm has since subsided but not without the Pakistani military – which nowadays refers to itself as ‘the institution’ – having made its displeasure over the book clear to the world.
There was nothing in the book that was not already known to most knowledgeable observers of Pakistan’s internal and foreign policies. But that did not stop Pakistan’s hyper-nationalist media from raising an outcry about Durrani having imperilled national security by co-authoring a book with a former Indian spy chief.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif demanded an emergency meeting of the National Security Committee just to get even with the army that had called for a similar meeting over Sharif’s remarks acknowledging Pakistani support for Hafiz Saeed and others responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Durrani was subsequently summoned to the GHQ by the military, and a formal Court of Inquiry was ordered to probe the matter.
The head of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) and army spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor, felt compelled to clarify that “the institution itself took notice” of the book, not in response to the media outcry or on Sharif’s suggestion. Apparently, a serving Lieutenant General of the Pakistan Army will conduct the inquiry against Durrani, as if the retired general has committed a crime or breach of national security.
General Durrani might have overlooked a regulation that requires army personnel to seek a no-objection certificate before publishing books that discuss military matters even after retirement. But considering the Pakistan Army has overlooked violations of the constitution by coup-making generals on a regular basis, a Court of Inquiry over a book devoid of any secrets seems out of place.
In any case, serving generals should be devoting their time and energy to current deployments securing the country’s borders. Asking them to set time aside to interrogate a 77-year-old, who retired from the army a quarter-century ago, about his ruminations on war and peace would be deemed a waste of time anywhere else in the world. Surely, 25 years is a long enough time for any secrets he might know from his years in service to have become redundant.
No endgame plan for Kashmir
So what, if anything, was General Durrani’s ‘crime’ that merited so much attention? The mere fact that an ex-ISI chief co-authored a book, however bland, with an equally out-of-touch Indian spy chief runs contrary to the controlled narrative in Pakistan (and, increasingly, India). After all, if spymasters Dulat and Durrani can engage as friends and tell everyone about it, how would the average Pakistani or Indian remain suspicious of his acquaintances from across the border?
Durrani’s ‘transgressions’ in Spy Chronicles include admitting Pakistan’s role in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. He recognises the ad-hoc nature of Pakistan’s approach to the Kashmir issue, and recognises that Pakistan has no endgame plan for either Kashmir or Afghanistan.
At the beginning of the Kashmir uprising in 1989, Durrani notes the absence of adequate Pakistani expertise on Jammu and Kashmir politics.
“The deficiency on our side,” he says, “was that those who got involved were surprised, they weren’t experts, maybe ignorant, and their assessment was not up to the mark.” Most of the time, Pakistan “dealt with the development from event to event, as a person saw fit, not clear till late what actually happened, how far it would go”.
General Durrani also notes that Pakistan has repeatedly upset its Afghan neighbours just as India manages to rile Nepal. Pakistan is “much smaller than India, and Afghanistan much bigger, more potent and more problematic than Nepal. Yet Afghan generals come and say, ‘you think we are your fifth or sixth province, kya baat kar rahe ho’? Some of our people say, ‘you are our younger brother’. They immediately respond: ‘Younger brother? We were there 200 years before you came along. We had never heard of you in Afghanistan’”.
Regarding Osama bin Laden’s death, he agrees with the conspiracy theories of Seymour Hersh, which I (among others) have methodically questioned. According to Durrani’s conjecture, “At some stage, the ISI probably learnt about” Bin Laden’s presence and “he was handed over to the US according to a mutually agreed process. Perhaps we are the ones who told the Americans ‘isko le jao, we are going to feign ignorance’. If we denied any role, it may have been to avoid political fallout. Cooperating with the US to eliminate a person regarded by many in Pakistan as a ‘hero’ could have embarrassed the government.”
Considering that Durrani was nowhere near decision-making at the time of the 2011 US raid in Abbottabad, his embrace of an unsubstantiated theory he read in the newspapers is just the opinion of one of the many commentators. The same applies to his explanation of why Pakistan does not act against Hafiz Saeed or the Afghan Haqqani network – that the “political cost” would be too high and going after them would be a “suicidal act”.
Best intelligence organisation
None of Durrani’s observations seem like punishable revelations. If anything, these are reminders of the inadequacy of Pakistan’s military-led decision-making. Governance requires broader consultation and genuine debate about policy choices. Soldiers are good at some things but must defer to civilians on others.
His statement to the effect that the ISI is an autonomous institution inside Pakistan, which operates with little interference or constraints, is also a widely known truth. He says that describing ISI as “larger than life” was “a little exaggerated”, but he takes pride in its efficacy, which is not very different from the ISI’s self-created image for itself.
If anything, the ISI should be grateful to Durrani for creating an opportunity for a former R&AW chief to praise the Pakistani agency. Dulat, who does not come across in the co-authored book as particularly knowledgeable or wise, says that the “best intelligence organisation because of its influence is ISI”.
The ISI’s efficiency and cleverness is the result of the circumstances faced by Pakistan, its defenders assert. In Durrani’s words, “India is big enough, Afghanistan is hot enough, Iran is experienced enough and sometimes independent enough, and the US also still meddles in the region’s affairs. The ISI had to juggle many balls.”
But the praise for the ISI was not enough to save Durrani from rebuke from his own service – ‘the institution’ – which is deeply invested in maintaining conformity in the way Pakistanis understand various issues – ‘the narrative’.
It is this obsession with ‘the narrative’ that makes the army of a nuclear-armed country react to every tweet, social media post, website, article, or book that offers a different account of what might be Pakistan’s national interest and how events, contemporary or from the past, might have unfolded.
Although the military’s objective is to enhance Pakistan’s security, its unwillingness to tolerate diverse analyses, views, and stories creates an air of insecurity that might not exist if the responses and reactions were milder. How secure can a country be if its security is seen to be jeopardised by every unauthorised sentence?