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Book Review

Spies who came in from the cold

The Spy Chronicles brings the former spy masters of two hostile, nuclear-armed, and neighbouring nations together, who give an insider’s accounts on several contentious issues. However, after building up the anticipation, the book falls short on facts and relies more on gossip


THE book, jointly authored by India’s former Indian Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) chief Amarjit Singh Dulat and the Pakistan’s former Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) chief, Lt. Gen. Muhammad Asad Durrani, was released amidst fanfare by a galaxy of Indian leaders. The august gathering included former Vice-President Hamid Ansari, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, and leading politicians and former ministers from different political parties such as Kapil Sibal, Yashwant Sinha and Omar Abdullah.

The co-author from Pakistan could not be present as he did not get an Indian visa (later, travel restrictions were imposed on him by his home country). Published by Harper Collins and edited by journalist Aditya Sinha, who moderated the discourse between the authors, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, eludes any startling revelations.

It is a compendium of gossip between the two former spy chiefs conducted over three sessions held at Istanbul, Bangkok and Kathmandu. They couldn’t have obviously met on their respective home turfs. The book throws light on the careers of the co-authors, but is opaque about their exploits. It does, however, chronicle their perceptions about the RAW, ISI and other agencies such as the CIA (US), MI6 (Britain), BND (Germany), Mossad (Israel) and the erstwhile KGB (former Soviet Union).

The dialogue, which emerged as a book, was facilitated by the Track-II effort sponsored by Canada’s University of Ottawa, in which former Canadian diplomat, Peter Jones, acts as the pivot. This Track-II initiative has three compartments: nuclear, military and intelligence. It is the last component which brought Dulat and Durrani together in the process named Chao Praya dialogue (named after a river in Thailand). In this, the former top functionaries met at picturesque locations to seek the illusive peace between the two South Asian neighbours, whose post-Independence histories are a saga of confrontation. Twenty-four sessions have been held so far. The date of the 25th is not yet fixed.

The trust deficit between the two governments extends to these extra-government sessions too. In a recent article, retired Lt. Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain, who commanded the Indian Army in Kashmir, commented that the trust deficit in Track-II dialogues makes the participants non-committal. Parallely, a Track-I dialogue between the National Security Advisors (NSAs) of the two nations is attempting to break the deadlock.

While the NSA-level talks yield some results (though they don’t prevent a Pathankot or Uri-kind of incidents, or cause cessation of hostilities across the LOC), the tangible result of Track-II is yet to emerge. The official establishments on both sides have taken a dim view of the Dulat-Durrani joint-venture. While Pakistan reacted openly and put restrictions on Durrani, the Indian establishment choose to keep mum. However, former sleuths that this reviewer spoke to were critical of the book. They felt that it was mere gossip and not generous on facts.

The current Indian NSA, Ajit Doval, figures in the discourse. Durrani, recalling Doval’s stint in Pakistan, is not very comfortable with his persona. But Dulat heaps praises on Doval. However, Intelligence Bureau (IB) hands, who worked with Doval and Dulat, do not recall any great chemistry between the two. Former RAW hands recall that when Dulat headed the agency, after a lifetime in IB, he had hinted that he would prefer if Doval, who handled Kashmir in IB those days, be kept out of the loop on some operations in Kashmir, especially centring around the Hurriyat.


The official establishments on both sides of the border have taken a dim view of the Dulat-Durrani joint-venture. While Pakistan has reacted openly and put restrictions on Durrani, the Indian establishment has chosen to keep mum

IN the book, while talking positively about Doval, Dulat confesses that he has not met the former in his present NSA days. Apparently, while Dulat was pow-wowing with Durrani in Istanbul, Bangkok and Kathmandu, he did not feel the necessity to brief Doval in New Delhi.

Dulat is open about discussing the Indian security establishment, including fissures between the IB and RAW. Durrani remains defensive about the Pakistani establishment and does not divulge much in his guarded answers. Dulat has no reason to worry in India as he is respected for the work he did in Kashmir and for his book, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, in which he has emphasised that “empathy is the key to understanding Kashmir”, which is echoed in this book as well.Durrani had reasons to be guarded. He is being probed in Pakistan for what is known as “Mehrangate”. It’s alleged that the ISI chief, along with the then Army chief, Mirza Aslam Beg, used funds procured from Mehran Bank to influence the 1990 election to the detriment of the late Benazir Bhutto.

As in India, the judicial process in Pakistan moves at its own pace. In 2012, the Pakistan Supreme Court held the duo guilty in the case filed by retired Air Marshal Asghar Khan in 1996. It was alleged that Rs 14 crore was spent by the Army and ISI to influence the 1990 elections in which Nawaz Sharif ousted Bhutto. The book has given the Pakistan establishment a reason to look at the case closely now, and led the Pakistan GHQ to summon Durrani.

Sharif’s revelation that the ISI had a hand in 26/11 has put Pakistan on the back foot. The Durrani-Dulat book is the last straw on the camel’s back. Ironically, nowhere in the book Mehrangate finds a mention. Post-launch, Dulat hogged the headlines, but he was silent on Mehrangate. Incidentally, he admits that money was used in Kashmir when he worked for the IB. But, unlike Durrani, there are no charges against his probity. While being critical of this book, his former colleagues in IB and RAW vouch for his straightforwardness.

The ISI was formed soon after independence in 1947, while the RAW was bifurcated from IB in September 1968. The ISI has been referred to as Pakistan’s “Deep State”—Dulat prefers to call it “a State within a State”. RAW, though looked at with awe and suspicion in India, has not been ever accused as a “Deep State”. Unlike the ISI, which is controlled by the military, RAW is a civilian setup, and reports to the Cabinet Secretary.

In its formative years, as the 1969 Congress split followed within a year of its formation, the opposition in India viewed the RAW as Indira Gandhi’s Praetorian Guards. This led Morarji Desai to cause irretrievable damage to the organisation when he became PM in 1977.

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In the book, Durrani admits that while in 1965, Pakistan had intelligence on the Indian Army, in 1971 the ISI was taken by surprise at the outbreak of war in the erstwhile East Pakistan, which was won by the joint forces of India and Bangladesh liberation fighters. Perhaps, the 1971 war was the finest chapter for any intelligence organisation in the world. Led by RN Kao, Shankaran Nair and IS Hassanwalia, RAW in its third year of its existence, outwitted the CIA and its ally, ISI, in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

Former RAW hands recall that when Dulat headed it, after a lifetime in IB, on some operations in Kashmir, especially centring around the Hurriyat, he had hinted that he would prefer if Doval, who handled Kashmir in IB those days, be kept out of the loop

UNFORTUNATELY, while Durrani admits ISI’s lapses, Dulat does not flag this singular achievement of RAW, of which he was the only “outsider” head, having been seconded from the IB in 2000, where he served for 18 months. Durrani was the ISI head a decade earlier, after a stint as the head of Military Intelligence. Dulat was a career sleuth; Durrani was an artillery officer deputed to spying.

The dialogue recorded in the book therefore is not between two counterparts but two spy chiefs who had brief tenures separated by a decade. Throughout the dialogue Dulat is reverential, referring to Durrani as “Sir”.


Durrani, who worked closely with the CIA, feels that the American agency is “overrated”. He cites the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, when ISI had more specific information compared to the CIA. He feels the CIA depends too much on technology and less on Humint (human intelligence gathering on the ground). “They set the place on fire, bombed it,” he says, and is sceptical of the CIA’s discovery of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Saddam Hussain’s arsenal. “They only provided excuse for US military action,” he laments. He asks where were the US satellites, which spotted WMDs in Iraq, when India carried out its nuclear tests in 1998.

Dulat echoes the importance of Humint. “You may listen in but unless you have people on the ground you can’t interpret the context. Often, you land with misinformation.” He has a good word for the British MI6, which analyses the technical inputs assiduously and they “talk the least, do their jobs quietly,” he says. As for the CIA, Dulat recalls his conversation with an American operative during his posting in Kathmandu in 1979. The latter was certain that Babu Jagjivan Ram would emerge as PM in India, while Indira Gandhi was sweeping back to power. “They often back the wrong horse,” he says.

Dulat feels the Russians are crude but tough. Vladimir Putin’s days as the KGB head shaped his style and he is trying to push Russia back to the days when Moscow was a dominant power. Durrani recalls that once the Mossad had warned the US on the futility of hostilities with Iran. He praises the German BND, but points out that the BND failed to predict the collapse of the German economy post reunification.

The unrest in the Kashmir valley sparked off during Durrani’s tenure as the ISI chief. He says Islamabad did not anticipate that the disquiet will last this long. They were expecting it to subside within “six months”. However, both the spies are full of praise for Farooq Abdullah. They feel he could be the best interlocutor in the valley. Durrani even says that Abdullah could make a good foreign minister for India.


But they overlooked the fact that the youth turned towards militancy in the valley after Abdullah’s failure in the late 1980s. He carried the reputation of being a “Disco CM”, and his golfing and motorcycle rides with a Bollywood starlet caused much humour to the chagrin of the local people.

In a recent book, retired Jammu & Kashmir cadre IAS officer, Sonali Kumar, recalled her experiences in J&K. She says that all elections in the valley prior to 2002 were unfair. Abdullah lost the 2002 poll as the Chief Minister.

Durrani makes a revelation about the cause of the Kargil intrusion. He says the then Pakistan Army chief, Pervez Musharraf, was keen to regain the Kargil heights from India, which it had claimed in 1965, but withdrew after the Tashkent pact was signed between Lal Bahadur Shastri and Ayub Khan (as it did in Haji Pir pass).

In 1971, India again captured the heights, which are of strategic importance, but Musharraf wanted to recreate the 1965 situation. The infamous wiretap on Musharraf regarding Kargil also features in the dialogue. Dulat laments that as India rushed to the media with the story, an important source of intelligence gathering was lost forever.

THE book refers to an incident in which Dulat went out of his way to ensure that Durrani’s son, Omar, a tech professional based in Germany, who had strayed from his visa routine while on a visit to Kerala and was held up by immigration in Mumbai, was allowed to board a flight back to Germany. Dulat, then retired, sought the help of his former IB and RAW colleagues, who were happy to help saying, “After all he (Durrani) is a colleague.” This bonhomie between the spymasters across the borders is highlighted throughout the book.

Durrani makes a revelation about the cause of the Kargil intrusion. He says the then Pakistan Army chief, Pervez Musharraf, was keen to regain the Kargil heights from India, which it had claimed in 1965, but had withdrawn after the Tashkent pact was signed between Lal Bahadur Shastri and Ayub Khan

However, the solutions suggested in the book are utopian. At one point it is suggested that a South Asian Union on the lines of EU should be formed with New Delhi as its headquarters. The experience of the SAARC, perhaps, does not augur well in this context. Akhand Bharat too figures in the discourse. Durrani suggests that the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) be allowed to open branches in India to facilitate trade, since the SBP is the counterpart of the Reserve Bank of India. The wakefulness of this and, many other suggestions made in the book, need closer scrutiny.

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