Asad Durrani | The spymaster who touched a ‘raw’ nerve

Asad Durrani | The spymaster who touched a ‘raw’ nerve

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Pakistan’s Defence Ministry says the former ISI chief has been ‘affiliated’ with hostile elements, including India’s intelligence agency

The first and only encounter this reporter had with Mohammad Asad Durrani, a former chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, currently facing the ire of his own Army establishment, was at the sprawling residence of an Indian diplomat in Islamabad. Lt. Gen Durrani (retd), who served as the ISI chief in 1990-92, had returned from a stint as the country’s Ambassador to Germany (1994-97). At the reception, the former spymaster seemed reluctant to talk. In 2000, Gen. Pervez Musharraf sent him as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, possibly one of four key assignments for Rawalpindi/Islamabad. In short, Gen. Durrani was a pillar of the Pakistani establishment.

For Indians, Gen. Durrani has been in the news because he co-authored along with A.S. Dulat a former Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) chief, and journalist Aditya Sinha a book, Spy Chronicles – RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace in 2018. But it landed him in trouble in Pakistan.

On May 28, 2018, the Pakistani Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Directorate announced on Twitter: “Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani, Retired was called at GHQ today to explain his position on recently launched book ‘Spy Chronicles’. A formal Court of Inquiry headed by a serving Lt. Gen. has been ordered to probe the matter in detail. Competent authority approached to place his name on ECL.”

The ECL, or the Exit Control List, was a list of persons prohibited from leaving the country that is usually reserved for out-of-favour politicians, criminals and other sundry offenders.

Born in Rawalpindi on February 7, 1941, Gen. Durrani joined the Pakistani Army in 1959. According to a short biography on the ISI website, “during his 34 years with the Army, he served in a number of command, staff and instructional appointments”, and took part in the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971. Besides heading the ISI, Gen. Durrani, a graduate from the General Staff Academy, Germany, had held posts such as Director General of Military Intelligence; Inspector General, Training and Evaluation at General Headquarters (GHQ); and Commandant, National Defense College. He retired in May 1993.

On January 27, Pakistan’s Defence Ministry informed the Islamabad High Court that Gen. Durrani had been “affiliated/interacting with hostile elements, especially the Indian RAW, since 2008”, in response to a petition filed by the former ISI chief, challenging the decision to place him on the ECL. The Defence Ministry submitted before the High Court that The Spy Chronicles contained “certain contents [sic] concerning [the] national security of Pakistan, being in contravention of the provisions of the Official Secrets Acts, 1923”.

“It is further highlighted that there are [a] number of such publications on the way, supported by hostile elements which contain content to create misperception, confusions, [sic] question marks against the top leadership circles at country level and to target the common people,” the Defence Ministry stated.

So, what was earlier an innuendo is now out in the open. It’s clear that the Pakistani establishment can’t tolerate the “collaboration” of even retired spymasters on book projects. Both Gen. Durrani and Mr. Dulat are experienced practitioners of the game — much too embedded in the narrative of their own State to give anything away even to sell their book.

The Defence Ministry, in its reply, has also given away a key reason about why Gen. Durrani was placed on the ECL: the former spymaster was raising questions about the “top leadership” of the country. That’s possibly the nub of the issue — that Gen. Durrani has rubbed some very important people in Pakistan the wrong way.

Osama bin Laden raid

In a December 2020 interview to BBC Urdu, Gen. Durrani candidly admitted that the Pakistani Army does interfere in politics — something that is well known but rarely admitted in public by even retired pillars of the Pakistani establishment. Pointing to the public perception about the Army’s interference in domestic politics, Gen. Durrani said: “Even if they [the Army] are not there, it appears that they play a role.” Raising questions about the current leadership of the country, he said their credibility was in question — they tend to go back on everything. “I have touched a raw nerve,” he said, tongue firmly in cheek.

Gen. Durrani added that many retired officers had written books without permission, but it was he who had been targeted by the Army establishment.

He is also aware that he ruffled many feathers when he told Al Jazeera in 2015 that it was more probably that the ISI knew about Osama Bin Laden’s presence in Abbotabad. “I cannot say exactly what happened but… it is quite possible that they [the ISI] did not know but it was more probable that they did.” Gen. Durrani also stated in the interview that Bin Laden was handed over to the Americans in exchange for an agreement on “how to bring the Afghan problem to an end”. Bin Laden was killed in a May 2011 operation in Abbotabad by American special forces acting on their own.

On whether Bin Laden’s hideout in Abbotabad was an ISI safe house, Gen. Durrani responded: “If the ISI was doing that, then I would say they were doing a good job. And if they revealed his location, they again probably did what was required to be done.”

It will be interesting to see how the Islamabad High Court will rule on Gen. Durrani’s request to get himself off the ECL, but the fact is that he is clearly out of favour with the current establishment and Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. Any observer of the Pakistani scene will be aware that the Army has a mysterious way of managing court verdicts without seeming to have done so. The Court’s ruling will be closely watched.

Violence in Kashmir

From an Indian perspective, Gen. Durrani was the ISI chief at the time when Pakistan unleashed one of the worst mayhems possible in Jammu & Kashmir — kidnappings and killings were rampant and a whole array of terrorist outfits were created and fostered by the ISI. It is also true that his co-author of The Spy Chronicles, A.S. Dulat, was in the Indian Intelligence Bureau at a time when the IB was trying to blunt the militancy that was being exported to India by the ISI in Jammu & Kashmir.

The fact is that the Pakistani establishment has a thin skin when it comes to statements that deviate from the “line” to be taken on television talk shows and newspaper articles.

Track two dialogues serve the purpose of bringing foes to the same table. Even behind closed doors, this type of dialogue generates much noise and disagreement between Indians and Pakistanis and is often moderated by Americans or Europeans.

Still, it is a meeting point to at least hear the other perspective directly. It becomes all the more important at a time when the last time an Indian Prime Minister met his Pakistani counterpart was more than five years ago — when Narendra Modi arrived almost unannounced — at Nawaz Sharif’s massive Raiwind home on Christmas Day in 2015.

Retired spies may be collaborating, but their governments are not.

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