Talking shop: On the track-two circuit, Durrani possibly had met retired R&AW officers and may have occasionally conversed with some serving officers, too

by Vivek Katju

Lt GEN Asad Durrani (Retd), a former Director General of Pakistan’s ISI, continues to be hounded by the army he served with distinction, though not without controversy. The saga of charges against him and counter charges by him against the army leadership, past and present, is riveting. More importantly, for the Indian strategic community, including participants in track-two processes, this matter confirms that senior generals of the Pakistan army expect that former members of their fraternity would be guided by prescribed scripts, especially in their interaction with Indians.

Serving generals may ‘respect’ a retired brother but will never tolerate his cooperating with an Indian in an unsupervised joint intellectual venture. That is the ultimate sin and that is what Asad Durrani did when he collaborated with Amarjit Singh Dulat, who was head of the R&AW for a couple of years in the late 1990s. They put together an unusual, though not earth-shaking, book (The Spy Chronicles) on the basis of a series of conversations which covered a range of subjects, including India-Pakistan ties. That embarrassed the Pakistan army as it provided its critics, especially Nawaz Sharif, to claim that the force had double standards to assess the patriotism of its former colleagues and others. For this reason, among others, action was initiated against Durrani and penalties and disabilities were imposed on him. He was also put on the exit control list which prevents Pakistanis from leaving the country. That impediment continues and Durrani has approached the courts against the inclusion of his name.

Some 10 days ago, the government filed para-wise comments to Durrani’s petition. According to Pakistani media reports, it opposed the relief sought by Durrani on the ground that he had been ‘interacting with hostile elements’, including R&AW, since 2008. In a paper which Durrani had widely circulated some months ago, and which had found its way to the media, he had noted that earlier government counsel had told the court that he was ‘affiliated with RAW since 2008’. Now ‘interacting’ and ‘affiliated’ have vastly different connotations. It would therefore appear that the army has chosen now to water down the charge to ‘interacting’. Apart from R&AW, other hostile elements have not been named. While it has been mentioned that Durrani was interacting with R&AW, it is highly unlikely that he was doing so with the agency as an institution. What is probable is that he had met with retired R&AW officers on the track-two circuit and maybe had occasionally conversed with some serving officers as well.

The key word in the government response is ‘interacting’. The nature of the interaction has not been spelt out but a few logical inferences can be made. If Durrani was interacting with ‘hostile elements’, especially R&AW, in a malignant manner, he should have been charged under Pakistan’s criminal laws and not merely for unbecoming conduct or violating pension rules. ‘Interaction’ is different from either direct or indirect ‘espionage’. The latter would mean working for ‘hostile elements’, including R&AW, and passing on classified information collected either directly or through agents. It is a criminal activity. On the other hand, interaction generally consists of an exchange of ideas, impressions, information available in open sources, experiences. It enables interlocutors to gain a better understanding of motivations and characteristics and greater insights into the working of systems. These are sometimes helpful in removing suspicions and abating anxieties. However, often such interactions are sterile and fail to accomplish even this little for the long-standing attitudes and reflexes of the participants of such interactions do not easily go away.

Now all governments have rules for their officials relating to their interaction with foreign officials. This is to ensure that even inadvertently they do not pass on current information that would jeopardise interests. But that is not applicable in Durrani’s case, for he retired almost a decade and a half before he is said to have begun interactions with R&AW. In sum, therefore, the Pakistan army is so paranoid, especially regarding India, that it does not want officers, even if they retired long ago, to meet ‘hostile elements’.

Durrani claims that among the principal reasons for the army’s unrelenting hostility arises out of his view that the US had kept Pakistan in the loop on its Abbottabad operation to kill Osama bin Laden in May 2010. Pakistan chose to deny its complicity and preferred that it be accused of incompetence. Durrani has offered little by way of credible reasons, leave alone information, to support his hypothesis. The US had of course entered into a bargain with Pakistan, under which they handed over hundreds of low-level Al-Qaeda operatives for large sums of money. However, it is prima facie difficult to believe that the US would have had sufficient faith in the Pakistan system on Osama bin Laden. Perhaps what has outraged the generals is that a former ISI head is alleging that those who consider themselves as the ultimate guardians of the ‘izzat’ and ‘waqar’ of Pakistan were capable of humiliating compromises.

Durrani has also bitterly complained about the current army chief Qamar Bajwa acting on account of regimental sympathy with former chief Aslam Beg. Durrani and Beg had used funds to intervene in Pakistani elections three decades ago. A case against the two goes on and Beg has been willing to save himself at Durrani’s cost. It is unlikely though that the case will ever reach a conclusion.

Durrani notes, ‘Whichever route I took, it entailed risk to life and limb. In fact it had to be assumed that the GHQ would hit back’. Is there a difference then between the Pakistan army and the Cosa Nostra with its omerta codes?