Review: The Spy Chronicles by AS Dulat, Asad Durrani and Aditya Sinha
From the beginning of insurgency in Kashmir in the 1990s to the killing of Osama bin Laden, The Spy Chronicles provides an insider’s view on topics that two former spy chiefs of India and Pakistan, ISI’s Lt Gen Asad Durrani and RAW’s AS Dulat, chose to speak about
Sometimes, books take on a life of their own because of the way they capture the zeitgeist or tap into a subject that is central to the lives of millions of people.
In the case of The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, it is a bit of both. Let’s face it, there will never be a dearth of books about India-Pakistan relations and a fascination for the subject among people of both countries.
Even more so at a time when things seem to be going disastrously for the relations between New Delhi and Islamabad, given their failure to deal with the fallout of the 2008 Mumbai attacks and more recent incidents such as the terror attacks in Pathankot and Uri and the surgical strikes on the LoC.
What sets this book apart is the men behind it – former Research and Analysis Wing chief AS Dulat and Lt Gen Asad Durrani, a former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence. This is, to my mind, the first time two men from rival spy agencies that are loathed and dreaded by people on the “other side” have sat down to collaborate in such a fashion.
What emerges from four meetings between Dulat and Durrani during 2016-17 – at locales as varied as Istanbul (a fantastic choice given its use a backdrop for so many spy stories), Kathmandu (a city that has witnessed numerous cat and mouse games between Indian and Pakistani operatives) and Bangkok – is a free-flowing conversation that dwells on topics such as spycraft, Kashmir, Afghanistan, terrorism, the killing of Osama bin Laden and even the emergence of Trump and new power equations in the region.
Those who approach The Spy Chronicle as a trove of jaw-dropping secrets will be disappointed. Dulat and Durrani have spent decades protecting secrets and assets and this behaviour continues in the book, despite their having had ringside seats for key events in India-Pakistan relations.
What the book does provide, however, is tremendous perspective and an insider’s view on all the topics the two spy chiefs chose to speak about. Journalist Aditya Sinha, who acts as a ‘sutradhar’ and helps steer the conversations in the right direction, says he took on the book more as a “journalistic assignment”.
“This was a unique project. It has no great revelations, and it was more about perspective. It’s also a metaphor for the actual relationship between the two countries,” says Sinha.
“Look, if the two spy chiefs can get together and talk, there’s the potential for what India and Pakistan can achieve if they do decide to talk.”
Durrani, who would often attend parties thrown by Indian diplomats based in Islamabad and has been a key participant in Track II meetings, provides some interesting insights. Such as Pakistan “giving up (the) handle on the movement” it had created in Kashmir in the early 1990s and “letting the factions do what they bloody well wanted to”.
Or his admission that after the 2008 Mumbai attacks that were blamed on Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, he had decided he would be available even to the Indian media to say that “whoever has done this, be it state-sponsored, ISI-sponsored, military-sponsored, should be caught hold of and punished”.
Both Dulat and Durrani also believe the Pakistani military was in on the US raid that killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad in May 2011. They use nuggets of information that are already in the public domain to buttress their contention that such a spectacular raid could not have been carried out without some form of Pakistani involvement or support.
But it is their insights on the handling of Kashmir and other issues such as sharing of river waters and terrorism that are bedevilling India-Pakistan relations which should be the subject of dispassionate study for policy and decision-makers in New Delhi and Islamabad.
Durrani clearly appears not to be convinced that things could change under the current dispensation in New Delhi, including National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, while Dulat emerges as unusually optimistic about the chances of all or any form dialogue – be it between the two countries or between them and the Kashmiris.
More than anything else, the most striking aspect of the book is the sense of hope that pervades many of the conversations between two deft practitioners of hard-nosed, cold-blooded analysis and espionage whom, one would have thought, would be more willing to throw up their hands and walk away from it all, given the numerous ups and downs that have buffeted the relationship between India and Pakistan in recent years.
Also visible is the sense of comradeship that seems to have formed between Dulat and Durrani, who come across as great raconteurs.
Read more: The Village of Spies
The book has already created ripples in both countries, more so in Pakistan, where the 77-year-old Durrani was summoned to the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi last month to explain his position on violating the military code of conduct and later had a formal court of inquiry instituted against him. Dulat says he is disturbed by these developments as the book was written in good faith and without any hidden agenda.
The General, as Dulat refers to Durrani, has said the agenda for the book was inspired by what India’s former vice president Hamid Ansari once said to him: “Yeh dewaangi kaab khatam hogi? (When will this madness end?)”
“We need to move forward, talk about things that are doable. There’s no point endlessly squabbling about things,” says Dulat. “This book is about looking at how even issues like Kashmir can be a bridge.”