Memoirs of a spy chief

Azaz Syed reviews an unprecedented publication: the candid memoirs of former intelligence chief Lt. General (r ) Asad Durrani

Memoirs of a spy chief
Lt General (r) Asad Durrani, former chief of Military Intelligence (MI) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) respectively, discloses that the Soviet Union’s last Ambassador to Pakistan Victor Yakunin, shortly before the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, had threatened the then Army Chief Gen Mirza Aslam Beg:

“Right now, Najeebullah (of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan who headed the regime installed by the Soviets) is extending his hand of friendship towards you. Let us hope it will not turn into a fist! The hand that mimed this change, of course, belonged to the ambassador. Whether the arrogance that made it difficult for him to ask politely was a Russian trait or that of the ego of a big power, I do not know but Yakunin was assured that the resistance forces would not disrupt the Soviet withdrawal”

This is just one of several anecdotes related by Durrani in his 273-page “personal account from a vantage point,” titled Pakistan Adrift, Navigating Troubled Waters.

The book, which hit shelves in the second week of September in Pakistan, is published by Hurst UK and co-published by Amazon-Westland Delhi. Anatole Lieven, the author of Pakistan, a Hard Country, has written the foreword. A.S Dulat a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing of India (RAW) has written a blurb describing it, “This is an unprecedented memoir, the first by a Director General of ISI, providing an outstanding and candid insight into the political intrigues of Pakistan and the region.”

Although he writes carefully and avoids some details at some points, Durrani has brought to light many new facts about the era during which he remained a key player in Pakistan

The book has appeared soon after the controversy over his earlier venture The Spy Chronicles, co-authored with Mr. A.S Dulat. Indeed, it is unprecedented – being the first by an Intelligence Chief in Pakistan. The book contains a firsthand account of many incidents and events from Pakistan’s political history of late 80’s and early 90’s.

Although he writes carefully and avoids some details at some points, Durrani has brought to light many new facts about the era during which he remained a key player in Pakistan.

Durrani has “disclosed” (pages 135-6) that differences between the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the ISI surfaced as soon as the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan.

While providing his own account, he adds, “When I joined the ISI in August 1990, they were coming to the fore. Some of the key ISI operatives were vilified, allegedly for having favoured the more radical of the Afghan groups. Doubts that the agency was infested with rogue elements have persisted ever since.”

Asad Durrani further tells us that, “Twice, under American pressure, there were major purges in the ISI’s rank and file. Whether these ever led to a change in policy is another matter.”

Durrani also offers his assessment about the change in US outlook after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. He notes, “In the early 1990’s, we in the ISI understood this shift in the American attitude as its desire to establish hegemony and, more crucially, now that the Soviet Union after its exit from Afghanistan had ceased to exist, to cut this upstart service to size.

The CIA was clearly at odds with our declared objectives to help the Mujahedeen lead the new dispensation in Kabul, especially if individuals like Hikmatyar were to play any role in it. And the US was indeed unhappy with Pakistan’s efforts to seek Iran’s cooperation after the Islamic Republic had made peace with Iraq. But what seemed to have caused the most anguish amongst our American friends was the prospect of an increasingly confident ISI, vain enough to throw a spanner in the works of the sole surviving superpower.”

ISI’s former Chief also discloses that the US Ambassador of the time, Robert Oakley, often shared his discomfort about the close links of some ISI operatives with jihadists.

“Robert Oakley, the US ambassador to Pakistan, often complained to me about some of my operatives, ostensibly because of their infatuation with the Jihadists in Afghanistan and Kashmir. In 1993, the ISI was subjected to a major reshuffle, described by an old colleague as the demolition of its memory bank.”

According to the author, the purge may have helped a few careers, but when it came to taking decisions and making policies, the new guard had no choice but to support the Taliban that had emerged as the only group with a chance to reunify the war-torn country. This was the inviolable – and, in principle, the only – condition for Pakistan’s support for the endgame, with no ideological or geo political caveats.

Asad Durrani while providing some brief background on the Iraq-Kuwait crisis of 1990-91 also mentions, “General Brent Scowcroft, a former national security advisor to US presidents Ford and George H. W. Bush, reportedly conceded that the ISI’s assessment of Saddam’s forces was closer to the mark than their own, and that they themselves had highly exaggerated Saddam’s capacity.”

Durrani also refers—despite some of the ISI’s achievements that earned it worldwide fame — to a few problems with the organisation. He writes on page 137:

“The ISI does, however, suffer from many ailments, most of them a corollary of its being essentially a military organisation and of the army’s exceptional role in the country’s politics. Whether the army was in power or not, the military secret services fell short when tasked to pursue its political agenda. All their projects failed or provided only temporary relief. The creation of the MQM to offset the PPP’s domination of the Sindh province in the 1980’s may have given the estranged migrants from India a platform, but did not erode the PPP’s vote bank. More importantly, the schism between the two communities, the Urdu and the Sindhi speakers, though not instigated by the ISI or the MI, became more acute.”

Nevertheless, the former spy-chief insists that the military’s intelligence agencies maintained their professionalism when carrying out their “primary tasks.”