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When the two spies speak

3 14

In one of the most unusual books to be published in recent times, Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani, who was chief of Pakistan’s all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the 1990s, has collaborated on a set of espionage dialogues with A.S. Dulat, the former head of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

India and Pakistan are bitter adversaries whose relationship is defined by short bursts of friendship punctuating prolonged periods of violent conflict and tension. These are countries that have officially gone to war four times and remain locked in asymmetric warfare for decades. So the idea that the erstwhile captains of their covert agencies should even talk amiably, leave alone co-author a book, is unimaginable. It’s like having the retired bosses at the CIA and KGB signing on for a joint project in the heat of the Cold War. Durrani and Dulat’s book, “Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace” has garnered enormous scrutiny on both sides of the fence.


The conversations between the two men, mediated by journalist Aditya Sinha, take place in different corners of the world. They cover the tricky issues that have more than once brought New Delhi and Islamabad to the brink of war.

Terrorism, the Kashmir conflict, the Mumbai attacks, trade wars, the power of Pakistan’s shadowy deep state — this is the “happy hour” roster of subjects. The surprising conviviality between the two includes effusively complimenting the other for being professional. “RAW is at least as good as we are,” Durrani said at one point.

The book’s central premise is that old political formulas have failed, civilian governments in Pakistan are hardly empowered, and it is time to allow an institutional line of dialogue between spies on both sides. Dulat, whom I have known to be an indefatigable optimist, opened secret talks with militants and secessionists in Kashmir and later admitted to me in an interview that both India and Pakistan paid money to try to influence them, conceding wryly that “corrupting someone with money is more ethical than killing them.”

Now, he said provocatively, India should issue a formal invitation to Pakistan’s army chief to visit: “There is a global inflection taking place. Who could have imagined the Koreas getting together or conceived that President Trump might meet President Kim? Yes, it’s time to roll out the red carpet and invite General Qamar Bajwa who has been talking nothing but peace in the last fortnight. There is no better way of checking out Pakistan’s intention than this.”

Although they do not spill classified secrets, the chronicles do challenge several conventional narratives about regional events and lift the veil off other issues that are rarely spoken about in public.

Contrary to official accounts in both his country and the United States, Durrani claimed that Pakistan directed the U.S. Navy SEALs to Osama bin Laden’s hideout in 2011. “I have been giving my assessment right from the 3rd of May, 2011, just a day after the raid,” Durrani told me in an interview. “It just so happens that most of the investigative journalists — at home and abroad — came to nearly the same conclusion. I also believe that at the time conceding incompetence was politically more convenient for Pakistan than claiming collaboration.” He referred to a meeting that took place between Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief at the time, and Gen. David Petraeus just three days before President Barack Obama signed the orders for the raid on bin Laden. “I don’t know (what the deal) was but I presumed it must have been about exiting Afghanistan.”

Durrani’s other big reveal was about the Kashmir conflict. India has long documented how Pakistan has patronized terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-a-Mohammed to create unrest in the Kashmir valley.

Intriguingly, when asked in the book to say what he thought was the biggest failure of the ISI, Durrani replied: “When the Kashmir uprising happened we did not know how far it would go. We didn’t want it to go out of control, which would lead to a war that neither side wanted…. ISI’s leverage on the Kashmir insurgency turned out less than successful.” Durrani was ISI chief in 1990-1992, during the insurgency’s early years. When I asked him whether the direction Kashmir has taken has proved difficult for both nations, he said, “True, it wasn’t easy to keep a handle on it — as the Indians too must have concluded over time.” But taking a swipe at India, he added sarcastically, “Oh, I think Pakistan knows what to do with it; sit back and watch.” Dulat’s answer to the question of RAW’s failures with Pakistan was just as candid: “That we have not been able to turn an ISI officer at a level where it counts.”

There are other valuable nuggets for watchers of a region that President Bill Clinton once called “a nuclear flash point.” Dulat shared how a border cease-fire was brokered in 2003 as a result of secret meetings between the head spooks of either side. He revealed that a tipoff from RAW saved the life of former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf and said Musharraf had even conveyed his gratitude. As army chief, Musharraf pushed Pakistani soldiers into India in 1999 leading to the Kargil war. His hard-line statements and actions made him a deeply contentious figure in India. Yet, Dulat insisted, “There has been no more reasonable Pakistani leader than General Musharraf.”

But it’s the no-holds barred description about key officials in both countries that’s got everyone talking. “Get Doval to Lahore; he loves Pakistan,” said Dulat of the Indian National Security adviser, Ajit Doval, regarded as a hard-liner in Pakistan. Durrani was less than complimentary about Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who he said has the “acumen of a camel” on international relations. And on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Durrani said: “A fox. Modi is smart.”