Former ISI chief Asad Durrani’s latest book, ‘The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace’, marks an interesting turn in the history of books on espionage written by former practitioners of what is called the second oldest profession

Worldwide, memoirs by former spies, peppered with nuggets, and hitherto unknown histories are becoming more and more commonplace, especially in the US and UK.

Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) has an appalling global reputation—murder, abduction and honey-traps don’t even begin to describe its roster of reported misdeeds and sins.

To Indians, its biggest transgression lies in its support to extremists and terrorists bent upon destabilizing India.

There was Kashmir first, then Punjab, and then Kashmir again. It is blamed for training, paying and inspiring terrorists to commit murder and arson in India, such as when 10 terrorists took over the streets of Mumbai for four days in November 2008, an act of unprecedented evil that left 164 people dead and more than 300 wounded.

It is an image that has endured and is imprinted in the Indian mind, just as the Indian spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (or RAW), is thought to be sinister in Pakistan, blamed for the insurgency in Baluchistan.

So, when the former chief of ISI, Asad Durrani, came out with a book this month co-authored by A.S. Dulat, former head of RAW and a Kashmir specialist, it created publishing history.

It was a bit like the heads of the CIA and KGB cobbling together a book on espionage in the middle of the Cold War.

This book appeared amid a prolonged and deadly spell of silence between India and Pakistan.

With Kashmir on the boil once again, India had called off talks with Pakistan, blaming it for spreading militancy. They hadn’t even been playing Test cricket against each other, for years.

The book, titled The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, is the outcome of a series of conversations the two spy chiefs had in 2016 and 2017 with the Indian journalist, Aditya Sinha, who actually wrote the book.

It marks an interesting turn in the history of books on espionage written by former practitioners of what is called the second oldest profession.

Worldwide, current affairs books and memoirs by former spies, peppered with nuggets, hitherto unknown histories and skeletons from the cupboard, are becoming more and more commonplace, especially in the US and UK.

So we know, for instance from former MI5 chief Stella Rimington’s 2001 autobiography, Open Secret, that she was drafted into the British spy agency while on a posting in India in 1967.

The Spy Chronicles was interesting for another reason. Dulat is known to be a moderate on Kashmir, a strong advocate of New Delhi talking to militants in order to find a negotiated settlement to a problem that has been bleeding the Indian exchequer for decades. He is not a controversial man and it is likely he would have sought the permission of the relevant authorities—probably the RAW chief—before agreeing to do the book.

Durrani, on the other hand, is a maverick. He was once accused by former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif of seeking to fund covert military operations through drug money. And in 2008 he told the BBC he had taken personal responsibility for “distributing money to the alliance against Benazir Bhutto” during the 1993 election. “After seeing the period that she had ruled, I thought it would be better if the lady did not come to power,” he said.

There isn’t much of a tradition of open public debate on the role played by intelligence agents. The reason is obvious—we don’t know enough. And when they do let out information, it is often seen as suspect because spies are notorious liars with agendas. Sometimes, however, the reaction of governments is interesting to watch.

Immediately after the book’s publication, for instance, Durrani found himself being targeted by Pakistani authorities. He was banned from travel and will face a formal inquiry, which may mean he didn’t bother to take anyone’s permission for the book.

Sharif has called for an inquiry, and Indian authorities refused him a visa to attend the book launch in India.

On 28 May, Durrani was summoned by the Army, according to a tweet by Inter-Services Public Relations director general Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor. “Will be asked to explain his position on views attributed to him in book Spy Chronicles. Attribution taken as violation of military code of conduct applicable on all serving and retired military personnel,” he added.

It is hard to decipher what upsets the Pakistanis. There is nothing particularly brutal in what Durrani says in the book. He repeats his claim that the Pakistanis were on board when US Navy Seals took out Osama Bin Laden on the night of 2 May 2011. “For political reasons, I said it will not go down well in Pakistan that we cooperated with the US to eliminate someone many Pakistanis considered a hero… I said we probably found out at some stage and cooperated, handed him over in a way that they got all the credit.”

He also hints at a deal over Bin Laden, but claims he doesn’t know the terms of it. “I didn’t know, but I presumed it must have been about (the Americans) exiting Afghanistan.”

According to Durrani’s version of the events, once the Americans found out where Bin Laden was holed up—in Abbotabad—they told the Pakistanis that now that they knew, courtesy of a Pakistani doctor, they were going to take him out and that it was up to the Pakistanis whether they wanted to cooperate or not.

Durrani also talks of the role played by another man other than the Pakistani doctor (who is in jail), which may have upset his former bosses. “I have no doubt that a retired Pakistani officer who was in intelligence walked in and told the Americans. I won’t take his name because I can’t prove it and also I don’t want to give him any publicity. How much of the $50 million he got, who knows. But he is missing from Pakistan. I should know.”

Durrani also makes extremely disparaging remarks about Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, which again may not have gone down well with the authorities in Pakistan.

It’s where the former spy chiefs start talking about their vision for a peaceful subcontinent that their ideas seem to fall apart—a confederacy with soft borders on both sides of Punjab; and both sides of Kashmir; RAW and ISI working together; an integrated armed force; an “Akhand Bharat” with Delhi as the capital of this confederacy.

It’s like the spymasters have suddenly found a cloud nine to smoke their peace pipe on. Now, if they could only get the Test series going again…