Honour Among Spies: A fictional account that reveals many uncomfortable truths about Pakistan and the Deep State

January 3, 2021 4:00 AM

A fictional account that reveals many uncomfortable truths about Pakistan and the Deep State while attempting to counter charges against the author

Lt General Asad Durrani with AS DulatLt General Asad Durrani with AS Dulat

By C Uday Bhaskar

This is an unusual book. Perhaps the word unusual begins with the first book authored by Pakistan’s former ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) chief Lt General Asad Durrani (retd), The Spy Chronicles, in 2018. For, this was co-written by Pakistan’s former spy chief with his Indian counterpart AS Dulat, who headed RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), and the text derived from an extended dialogue between the two spooks moderated by journalist Aditya Sinha.

The Durrani-Dulat dialogue was a first for the subcontinent and I cannot recall a similar volume by two professional spy chiefs who at one time were adversaries in the opaque and often murky domain of espionage, assassinations and devious statecraft, a la James Bond.

Interestingly, the title of the book under review is the same as the last in a trilogy on Ian Fleming, the creator of Bond, by Quinn Fawcett (published 2004), though that is where the similarity ends.

Durrani’s focus on ‘honour’ and its detailed, at times rambling, interpretation of the personal cross that a spy-master has to carry is more in the nature of presenting his side of a saga that followed the publication of his first book with Dulat. In India, Spy Chronicles created a mini flutter when it appeared and gradually receded from public memory, but in Pakistan it evidently set off a tsunami.

The Pakistani military establishment and the intelligence agencies, aka as the Deep State, were clearly incensed with what was ostensibly revealed (the bin Laden-Abbotabad deceit among other matters) and this resulted in stringent penalties being imposed on Durrani. In an unusually harsh step, not only was the author placed on an exit control list (meaning Durrani could not leave Pakistan), his pension was revoked as well. This apparently has since been restored.

Getting a sense of the vicious campaign against him, Durrani recalled a remark in a conversation with Dulat, where the latter had remarked that their shared memories were such that “no one would believe us even if we wrote it as fiction”. And this is when Durrani took the plunge to present his side of the story to counter the many charges levelled against him by writing a fictional novel, which, he claims, is “the figment of my imagination — at times even delirium.” What follows in the book is ostensibly fiction, but the veil that conceals ‘facts’ is so palpably thin that it is meant to reveal a reality that only Durrani could convey. Thus all the names of the characters in Honour Among Spies have a corresponding real-life figure and the choice of names ranges from ‘easy to identify’ to plain comical. Durrani himself becomes Osama Barakzai, Imran Khan is Kadri and Nawaz Sharif is christened Naveen Shaikh. Former military colleagues are given easy to recognise handles: General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Chief of Army Staff, becomes Jabbar Jatt, while Pervez Musharraf is easily recognisable as Gulraiz Shahrukh. Many such odd names recur among both Pakistani and Indian interlocutors and Dulat himself is introduced as Randhir Singh.

A total of 21 chapters constitute the book and the essence is one of Durrani pleading his case in the public domain to clear his name and reputation that has been sullied by the Deep State. The proceedings of the Shariat Court are very instructive, having a sub-text that will be of interest to those tracking the internal power dynamic of Pakistan and its transmutation from the Zia ul Haq period and the birth of the Afghan mujahedin to ‘contain’ Soviet presence in the region.

This was the phase when Osama bin Laden was the righteous warrior – Kalsahnikov in one hand and the Koran in the other – and billions of dollars and lethal arms from the USA were routed through the ISI, thereby enhancing the profile of the organisation that Durrani was to head in the crucial period when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union imploded.

The manner in which the Deep State went off the rails and compromised both professionalism and institutional integrity is documented in a manner that nails the top brass of the Pakistan army and both General Kayani (Rasalu is the nom de plume) and his coterie on whose watch the bin Laden Abbotabad episode took place.

In the last chapter, Barakzai addresses the lordships and says: “I may have started smelling a rat in the deal because of Rasalu’s well-known greed, but the ultimate confirmation was provided by Jatt’s blind adherence to tribal affiliations. Rasalu also belongs to the South Western Rifles and was once Jatt’s boss.” The Kayani-Bajwa-Baluch regiment linkage is obvious and deliberate.

Durrani’s account is a do-or-die stand that exposes the GHQ in Rawalpindi and the manner in which the army has become the kingmaker in the politics of Pakistan. Little wonder that this book has been totally blanked out in Pakistan and elicited much greater interest in India.

In a signed article that appeared in India, Durrani refers to his compulsions to take this thinly-veiled fiction route to clear his name. He notes: “I was still reluctant to write about the real events, but my hand was forced by a very damning paper handed over by the (Pak) Ministry of Defence’s council in the latest hearing on the ECL (exit control list) issue. Besides ‘spilling secrets and delving in national security’ — both aspects dealt with earlier in this account – I was accused of ‘being affiliated with R&AW since 2008’. Honour Among Spies too was alleged to have been supported by hostile elements.”

This is an uneven book with a marked streak of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ narrative that darts across the various chapters – some as small as four pages. Yet it is leavened by a tinge of sadness and impending tragedy that the author can discern within the venality and opacity of the world of espionage that he once inhabited with certitude. Durrani closes his case with a reference to Godot and one hopes that his own wait for ‘justice’ does not
become Sisyphean.

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi

Honour Among Spies
Asad Durrani
Harper Collins India
Rs 499 Pp 197

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