Navigating Troubled Waters
Lieutenant General Asad Durrani, a former head of the Inter Services Intelligence
(ISI) of Pakistan, was in the news recently as co-author of a set of conversations with a former head of India’s external intelligence agency — RAW. The novelty of this, a serious but cordial conversation between RAW and the ISI, gave that book a wide readership and for many, in both India and Pakistan, a certain notoriety. His new book Pakistan Adrift
will certainly be of value to those interested in knowing how the army as an institution works, its interface with the rest of Pakistan and of its various pathologies and paranoias — vis-à-vis India, Afghanistan, the US and so on.
Mr Durrani was appointed Director General, Military Intelligence, soon after General Zia-ul-Haq
was killed in an air crash in 1988. The elections that were held soon thereafter led to Benazir Bhutto
becoming prime minister of Pakistan. She was, not unnaturally, deeply suspicious of the Pakistan army and, most of all, of Hamid Gul, then head of the ISI.
He was removed from the post and Benazir Bhutto
insisted that his replacement be a retired general. This was the first time this had happened and heralded, in Mr Durrani's words, a “running battle between the Government and the Army High Command”.
Amongst the many consequences of this contest was one that concerned Mr Durrani himself. Since the ISI
chief was not a serving officer and, therefore, suspect, Mr Durrani, although head of the more professional Military Intelligence, found himself also discharging political tasks customarily handled by the ISI.
Benazir Bhutto's dismissal by the President was followed by the rout of the PPP in the elections that followed.
Mr Durrani, in the meantime, was appointed head of the ISI.
He stayed on in the post for the next 18 months till frictions between the new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the army saw him being transferred out. Mr Durrani was later compulsorily retired for "dabbling in politics" although amends were made and subsequently he went on to serve as ambassador to Germany and Saudi Arabia.
The book covers the broad sweep of Pakistan history post 1989, but it is an insider's account of the inner workings of the army for the three-and-a-half years from 1989 to 1992 that Mr Durrani was head of Military Intelligence and then the ISI.
That period is, of course, a rich cross-section of Pakistan and sub-continental history. It coincides with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the end of the Cold War, the beginning of insurgency in Kashmir plus serious tensions with India and almost continuous civil-military friction in Pakistan. For the cognoscenti, therefore, the sections of the book that delve into this period are of value since the author was at the heart of both the devising of policy and its implementation.
Mr Durrani's revelations in themselves are, however, few and many of his reflections have been in the public domain for some years. Some remain of value, although their authenticity may well be disputed by others. In Afghanistan, Mr Durrani's recollections bring out how Najibullah's administration crumpled under the onslaught of an ISI-cemented concert of major Mujahideen groups. The resistance that the Afghan government put up was, however, considerable and much more than Pakistan had possibly expected. What is also interesting is how much Afghanistan itself was the stage for a power play between the Pakistan government and its Army headquarters. A setback in Jalalabad in 1989 for the Mujahideen alliance led to its ISI
Director General Hamid Gul's removal by Benazir Bhutto.
In Mr Durrani’s account “the failure at Jalalabad was just the right opportunity to remove him…”.
The year 1989 and early 1990 saw also the quietude of Kashmir broken and the beginning of a long-drawn insurgency in the Valley. In Mr Durrani's account, the uprising in January 1990 “took us by surprise” and the “broad consensus was that the turbulence would soon fizzle out”. This point has been made by others too but Mr Durrani goes further and would have us believe that the ISI
stepped in “primarily to ensure that the turmoil did not spin out of control and ignite a war with unpredictable consequences”. This is disingenuous at the very least.
More interesting is Mr Durrani’s account of how the ISI’s Afghanistan experience of cementing a coalition amongst the Mujahideen groups to topple Najibullah was also used in creating the Hurriyat in Jammu & Kashmir. For Mr Durrani, both instruments were blunter than were needed for the task at hand. In part, this may well be the professional soldier's distaste at having to operate through a ragtag bunch of religiously charged militants. Evidently, in the three decades since, the distaste has faded and militants are now at the centre of the ISI's standard operating procedure.
Outside of the period 1988-1992, details in the book are not those of an insider but rather of an informed non-participant observer. If there is a central theme, it is of an assessment of politicians that is at once dismissive and often deeply contemptuous. It is not as if Mr Durrani is not critical of the army and its major errors of judgment and implementation. However, it is Pakistan’s political class that for Mr Durrani, constitutes the real problem. His descriptions of the premature end of Benazir Bhutto’s first term show the central role the army played in her dethronement. At the same time, he appears on occasions genuinely puzzled as to the judgments made then and later on this role.
In any event, Mr Durrani's own part in one specific episode has been exceptionally well-documented over the years and for many sums up the role of the army in Pakistan's politics. This was in October 1990 and the army's self-set priority was to ensure that Benazir Bhutto
not win the general elections called after her dismissal. Mr Durrani then collected some Rs 70 million from businessmen in Karachi and distributed this to parties and individuals opposing Benazir Bhutto
in the elections -- principally Nawaz Sharif. What gave this particular lasting value was that at a later time Mr Durrani, half-coerced and half-manipulated, put all this down in a legal affidavit that found its way to the Pakistan Supreme Court, where it remains. The case is important if only because the army's shadow games in Pakistan's domestic politics have otherwise rarely left such a paper trail.
The book is part reflection, part memoir, part analysis and in part real introspection. Mr Durrani writes with wit and flair and has an understated, often dry sense of humour. His introspection also brings the almost reflexive attitude of many military officers in Pakistan to get involved in non-military issues. Mr Durrani would no doubt protest this takeaway, for he is often at pains to underline how the army gets sucked in unwillingly rather than march in triumphantly. But the problem lies in the self-belief that nobody except those in uniform either fully understands or will fully safeguard Pakistan’s interests. In any event, Mr Durrani’s book certainly brings out that while the Pakistan army may like the abstract idea of democracy, it does not like democrats. Perhaps Pakistan itself is close to Weimar Germany — a democracy without democrats.
The reviewer is a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan