A tale of three books and a reluctant whistleblower: How Asad Durrani took on the Pakistan Army

'If any former heads of intelligence from chronically hostile countries ever undertook such a venture, I do not know; but indeed it had never been done on the subcontinent,' writes Durrani

Asad Durrani December 09, 2020 11:52:25 IST
A tale of three books and a reluctant whistleblower: How Asad Durrani took on the Pakistan Army

File image of Lieutenant-General Asad Durrani. Facebook Asad Durrani

'The pen is mightier than the sword" is the adage we were taught right from our school days. After sheathing the sword, this was in any case my only weapon. I'd had an interesting career — heading the Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence, as the icing on the cake — and then my retirement from the military was followed by some diplomatic brushes. That helped fine-tune my observations and provide enough substance for my first book, Pakistan Adrift. It was published by Hurst UK in September 2018 — obviously mentioning the Pakistan Army in dispatches, with all its glorious traditions and a few traits acquired by the broader social milieu.

In the meantime, I stumbled upon another writing project. In a track-two meeting I met Amarjeet Singh Dulat who had headed R&AW at the turn of the century. Besides being at ease with himself, it was his vast experience in Kashmir that made our exchanges more useful. Subsequently, we jointly wrote papers on intelligence and Kashmir and had them published on public forums. Shortly thereafter, he came out with a book, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years. His frankness and especially his empathy with Kashmiris may have earned him some criticism at home, but the book was well received in Pakistan.

These were all the good reasons why, when Dulat suggested that we could write a book together, I agreed. If any former heads of intelligence from chronically hostile countries ever undertook such a venture, I do not know; but indeed it had never been done on the subcontinent. Moreover, reminded time and again that Pakistan was not getting its narrative across, I thought it was best done through a book that was likely to make waves, perhaps even kick up a storm. With the help of a moderator it took us about two years to execute this venture that dealt with a range of issues affecting India-Pakistan relations — pretty complex, to put it mildly.

This book, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, was published by HarperCollins and launched in Delhi on 23 May, 2018. I was quite happy with our joint effort because it projected Pakistan's regional policies in a reasonable light. And then an awesome gathering — Dr Manmohan Singh, the former Prime Minister of India; the recently retired vice-president Hamid Ansari; the evergreen Dr Farooq Abdullah; two former Union ministers; a national security advisor; two other former intelligence heads and a galaxy of the Indian intellectual elite — approved the main recommendation of the book: India to address the Kashmir issue in cooperation with Pakistan.

It did ruffle a few feather in India, but the noise it generated in Pakistan was deafening.

It took me quite a while to make sense of this lunacy. Six days after the launch, I was summoned to the GHQ, ostensibly to defuse this cacophony. It didn't sound too ominous but I still could not rule out the possibility of getting quizzed on 'writing without clearance'. Perhaps because, besides treason and treachery, this was one accusation that was bandied about the loudest on the media. Revealing secrets could have been another possible charge, though rather difficult to stick.

Both the points were of course raised, but quickly dropped because many books had been written without permission and no secrets could be discovered in The Spy Chronicles. However, when the panel* started questioning my views as given in the book, I had reasons to smell a rat. Not only because I had often expressed them in writing or in public — and was in any case entitled to them — but also because some of their objections were either extraneous, for example, 'I took more space in the book than my co-author'; or factually incorrect, like 'whereas I had slated some of our actions, Dulat was more evasive'.

At least one of them was quite upset that the racket created by the book got Nawaz Sharif off the hook. To refresh our memory, the former prime minister had recently mocked the establishment for dragging its feet on the Mumbai 2008 terror attacks and was squarely in the crosshairs of the media, which now shifted onto me. It was only a formality. The decision to hold a court of inquiry and put my name on the Exit Control List (ECL) had already been taken. And I was told, for the third time in less than 24 hours, not to speak to the media that in the meantime, prodded by the ISPR, was firing on all cylinders.

A surreal scenario, but it was rationalised as the army's desire to be seen as even-handed: 'Not sparing even one from its own fraternity, suspected to have violated some amorphous code'. The Court of Inquiry held a few sessions in June and July. I asked them under which Act it had been constituted, and what was I accused of. "That would be decided after the inquiry," was all I could be told. It reminded me of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland: 'Hang him first, we will try him later'. Once again, the questions were mostly on the contents of the book — often twisting or distorting the text.

My criticism of Kargil and the Lal Masjid Operations, even though done publicly in the past, provided them the necessary ammunition. Some experts invited to comment on the book exposed the mala fide intent. A few glaring examples:
• 'The Book had given away top-secrets'. No one could name even a simple secret.
• 'It had demoralised the army'. Although hardly anyone had read it.
• 'R&AW was very happy with this book'. Besides how one assessed the happiness or the unhappiness of a foreign secret service, R&AW was unlikely to be happy with a book in which one of its former heads criticised many an Indian policy — notably on Kashmir.
• One of them was honest enough to concede that he had been tasked only to pick holes.

It was still a very useful exercise because in due course it helped me understand their real motives. Another session with the first panel however left me rather confused. The Spy Chronicles had advertised the forthcoming book, Pakistan Adrift, in which I had given my views from a certain privileged perspective. I was asked to provide its script, which I happily did, because even though a few institutional deficits were mentioned, the book presented a different narrative; largely helpful. In August, I was called again and told that the book's publication must be stopped and the GHQ was prepared to compensate the publisher for the cost and effort already invested.

The parts that had ostensibly upset them — the military's involvement in the real-estate business; some ostentatious habits that had infested the senior ranks; and poor generalship in wars versus good performances by junior officers and the soldiers — were so unremarkable that hardly an eyebrow was raised when the book eventually came out. It still extracted a cost. No publicity was permitted and hundreds of libraries that normally would have bought this book, did not. I suspect that someone got worried that Pakistan Adrift had the potential of becoming a popular read.

In early September, I asked the GHQ to have my name removed from the ECL, because I was invited to a conference in Afghanistan — and wanted to visit my grandchildren. When there was no response, I went to the court. Comments received from GHQ, summarised below, affirmed that it wasn't constrained by the finer points of law:
• The Act quoted under which I was investigated, did not apply in this case.
• That I had co-authored a "controversial book" with a former head of R&AW. It is not prohibited under any law, and in any case what good was a book if it didn't generate a bit of controversy, leave aside the fact that it was the GHQ that made it controversial.
• I had delved in matters of national security. Well, that’s precisely what I was doing for the past 25 years — also in the Indian and Pakistani defence journals.
• Due to a second book, the GHQ was thinking of expanding the scope of the inquiry and was facing problems getting the witnesses from other countries. No such efforts were made and in the very next hearing their council conceded that the name on the ECL was only to ensure my availability for the inquiry — which had now been completed.
• There was still no relief. The court passed the buck to the Ministry of Interior, which for nearly 21 months has dilly-dallied.

I finally got some clue what might have led the powers-that-be to manipulate this process.

Soon after assuming office, the incumbent Chief of Army Staff (COAS) got part of the Asghar Khan Case related to Aslam Beg and me transferred to the GHQ. In November and December 2018, another panel grilled me for two months to prove — what I had often stated in the Supreme Court — that before the 1990 elections, Beg was an important cog in the loop when money was dished out to some politicians. I provided them a copy of his April 1994 statement in which he had admitted that in September 1990 (Beg was the army chief at the time), he had receive PKR 140 million from Younus Habib and passed them on to the ISI.

I also handed over copies of Habib's affidavits, and told the panel that more proof would be provided if Beg, the first respondent in the Supreme Court's judgment, was produced for cross-examination. I never heard from them ever since — nearly two years now. I believe it's because Beg and Qamar Javed Bajwa were commissioned in the same unit, 16 Baluch. That also explained why the agencies had started hovering around my house after Bajwa became the army chief — and that was long before anyone had even heard of The Spy Chronicles. In January 2018 (the book was still nowhere on the horizon), I was told the evening before an event in the Army Auditorium — for which I was invited and had consented — to stand down because I had not been granted security clearance.

Before that, General Mahmood Durrani, mistaken to be me, was also denied entry to an army function. He rang up Bajwa and the mix-up was taken care of in quick time. At this stage, I could have yelled "Eureka" for having discovered the root cause of my pickle. But when shortly after getting the ECL case safely buried in a ministerial graveyard, the GHQ sent me a letter that the Court of Inquiry had found me guilty of grievous misconduct and therefore my pension was revoked, I had reasons to believe that something far more sinister than the regimental loyalty of their chief was at stake. No punishment can be administered after a Court of Inquiry, unless it was followed by a summary of evidence or a show-cause notice.

Beg's displeasure could have motivated his unit officer to get my foreign travel banned, but not to so blatantly violate all laws and conventions. I had already ruled out writing The Spy Chronicles as the raison d'être of this theatre of the absurd. After all, when no specific provisions can be found, there were always Acts that like a joker in a pack can be invoked to fit around an undesirable neck. The problem seemed to be that except for an odd charge, not applicable here by a long shot — someone who had retired decades back could only be tried in a civil court. And in this case, there was a good chance of acquittal.

It could be proven in an open court that the book did no harm to our interests.

In fact there is a fair number of senior officers, a few still in service, who conceded that it was very helpful. I therefore had to look for some other blast from the past, so serious that it had Bajwa come gunning for me soon after taking over, and at an opportune time — in this case, the "controversial book" providing one — pull out all stops and go for the jugular. And just when I needed it, I too got my lucky break. A well-wisher of mine accidentally met someone who was General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani's right hand man at the time of the Abbottabad outrage.

When asked what the problem was with The Spy Chronicles, the man went red in the face and said: "General Durrani should not have written about the Osama bin Laden incident". So much now started falling in place. I was attending an Afghanistan conference in Abu Dhabi at the time of the raid. Although I knew nothing beyond the press reports, I still agreed to take part in a special episode of the BBC's Hard Talk — because the other participants were a retired British army chief and a former deputy national security advisor from the US. In the self-assumed role of the sole defender of Pakistan, I gave my best spin to what might have happened: "Without our help the raid could not have been attempted — but we denied any role because of political concerns".

Back home I penned my thesis for which I had received plenty of accolades from some respected colleagues, and got it published in The Express Tribune. Soon thereafter another close friend of Kayani's reached out to me and said: "If someone with your intelligence background differed from the official version on so sensitive a matter; wouldn't it be taken as inside information?" Now, it just so happened that many like me were going around broadcasting their respective versions. The late Hameed Gul believed that Osama was not even present in the raided house; and according to Beg, he was brought there dead to be handed over.

Since this gentleman could never be suspected of any profound reflections, I didn’t take his argument seriously.

Maybe I should have, because when I next gave the same assessment there was a worldwide commotion. It was a high-profile event on Al Jazeera, Head to Head with Mehdi Hassan, recorded in February 2015 in Oxford. With an audience of around 400, most of them equipped with smartphones, as soon as I talked about our possible help, a tsunami of messages was launched into cyberspace: "A former head of the ISI has conceded that Pakistan was harbouring the world’s most wanted terrorist." Back home, my incumbent successor summoned me but wasn't quite satisfied with my explanation.

It took another three years till the inquiry on The Spy Chronicles and the accompanying hullabaloo in the media, provided some answers. The question by Kayani's friend that sounded silly when first asked seven years back, was propagated so often, both inside and outside the GHQ, that it wasn't difficult for me to infer that it was planted by someone uncomfortable with my thesis — not because like Gul's or Beg's, my take was different from the official account; but because I was not only talking about a likely cooperation, but also about a possible deal.

My assessments were reinforced when during the inquiry, an interrogator inadvertently indicated that we had some inkling of the raid — and in an officially-sponsored work, the author concluded that we preferred 'incompetence over complicity'. Cooperation in one form or the other — from providing information about the cell numbers to looking the other way — had been talked about by so many and so often that it didn’t seem to be a big deal. But I do not recall if anyone else ever suggested that we also might have made a deal. In the above-mentioned Al Jazeera episode, I did say that if we had someone like Osama, we would not have handed him over without a quid pro quo — elsewhere even suggested that in return we might well have asked the Americans to get the hell out of our region.

And during the inquiry, when someone said that the mere notion that we would have made deals in this business was outrageous, I could sense that some body up there was terribly worried that I might know more about it — and had reasons to feel nervous. I now had a problem — what to do with my discovery? I could go to the court, and indeed had a good chance to prove that the GHQ had acted unlawfully. I was not charged under any Act; punishment inflicted without trial was a blatant violation of rules; and since I do not come under the Pakistan Army Act, the GHQ had no jurisdiction to prosecute me, except under provisions not relevant in this case.

The bias against me too was evident.

Bajwa's boys came for me much before The Spy Chronicles made its appearance — and his regimental ancestor (Beg) who had been changing his statements in the Supreme Court and dumping his debris on me, was spared any cross-examination. It's also possible to produce evidence that during the investigations of this sordid affair, a defamation campaign against me was orchestrated by the ISPR. Considering however that the courts could be influenced on minor accounts — like the removal of my name from the ECL — and couldn't even start substantial proceedings on the revocation of pension for 18 months — a case in which the COAS was the main accused — had no chance of a fair trial, or perhaps even of acceptance for a hearing.

I still might exercise this option as a matter of right. Taking the story to the press could certainly create plenty of a rumpus. But there was always the chance of a backlash, and the desired effect may be contained by good media management. Or, one could write yet another book. Whichever route I took, it entailed risk to life and limb. In fact it had to be assumed that the GHQ would hit back. And then there was also the chance of an external reaction. On the Osama incident, the credibility of the US was on the line. If I still decided to exercise one or more of these options, I have a motive worth all the likely cost. For the past over two years, I have lived under the shadow of an alleged misdeed: Co-authoring a book with a former intelligence chief from India.

Although not proscribed by any civil or military law, I could have still been prosecuted for committing an undesirable act. But since the provisions of the Pakistan Army Act applicable to someone who retired decades back, did not cover this case, the GHQ used other means to defame me, restrict my rights of free speech and movement, and inflict an illegal penalty. It did so because in an open court it could be proven that its chief carried a bias that predated the book. Clearing my name was therefore important — but not as important as bringing to light a serious flaw, which if not corrected, can gravely harm a sacred institution.

Bajwa's desire to make life difficult for me on behalf of his Baluchi predecessors (Kayani too belongs to this group and was once Bajwa's boss) may be understandable, but what is even more disconcerting is that so many in the senior hierarchy, civil and military, fell in line when an army chief so desired. I am aware of the power of the gun and in Pakistan, of the special place its wielders enjoy. But that this power could be used for less than sublime purposes — to pressurise the press and arm-twist the judiciary — though common knowledge, had to be affirmed by someone like me for posterity.

I therefore opted to write a book. Honour Among Spies, though a work of fiction, does deal with a few events that actually happened. The main purpose was two-fold. Besides some of my former colleagues, many from within the institution too were trying to defuse the issue. An agreement was prepared to get my name removed from the ECL and the pension restored. In return I was to concede that I had not expected that the appearance of The Spy Chronicles could trigger the reaction that it did. But when I refused to abstain from attending conferences at home or abroad, the arrangement was put on ice.

Regardless of the consequences therefore, a message had to be out that this institution of our last resort must be saved from becoming a tool in the hands of a powerful few.

And since my guess about the Osama episode seemed to be closer to the mark than the official version — both the Pakistani and the American — I wanted the matter that had wrecked immense humiliation on Pakistan, to be more earnestly investigated. I was still reluctant to write about the real events, but my hand was forced by a very damning paper handed over by the Ministry of Defence's council in the latest hearing on the ECL issue.

Besides "spilling secrets and delving in national security" — both aspects dealt with earlier in this account — I was accused of "being affiliated with R&AW since 2008". Honour Among Spies too was alleged to have been supported by hostile elements. How these charges will be proven in the court is not for me to judge but even a layman could ask why no action was taken against me ever since the suspected links were "discovered" — or was the chargesheet prepared as a reaction to my fictional account. Indeed, I will have to defend the substance of the three books — and also explain that in this digital age, the geographical location of publishing house did not matter. The soft copies are available all over the globe before one can say "copyright".

I can also produce evidence that many publishers in the UK and USA were reluctant to print my novel, possibly because of the Osama bit. The GHQ paper also argued that if the ECL was removed, I would again be attending conferences abroad. Well, in times of COVID-19, I am doing it from home and also giving my views, even those critical of the civil and military leadership — as is my right under the Constitution. These days, the restriction on my travel abroad is only preventing me from visiting my granddaughters. Since someone in the press could access these grave accusations from the court and go to town with them, I had to pre-empt and make my version public.

Moreover, I have no idea how the GHQ would follow-up on such serious allegations. I have therefore instructed my lawyers to initiate appropriate legal proceedings to prohibit the authorities from taking any illegal action against me till such time the courts decide otherwise.

*Names have not been taken unless absolutely necessary, because one day the matter may have to be taken to a court of law.

PS: During the early days of this crisis when the media hounds had been unleashed on me, I was reminded of a number of quotes on barking dogs. I had no idea at the time that one day these howling herds would help me unravel one of the greatest riddles of our times. In the memory of Sherlock Holmes, I nearly titled this piece “the dogs that barked”.

The author is a retired three-star rank general in the Pakistan Army and served as the director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence and former director-general of the Pakistan Army's Military Intelligence. He is currently a commentator, speaker and author

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