Barack Obama memoir says a lot. But it’s ex-ISI chief Asad Durrani’s book that needs attention
Two books this week have lent a frisson of excitement to our normally sombre, Covid-infested lives, commenting on leaderships past and present, and persuading us to reflect not just on what has been, but also what could be.
The first, of course, is Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, whose respectful description of former prime minister Manmohan Singh as a man of “uncommon wisdom and decency” contrasts startlingly with his understanding of Congress’ Rahul Gandhi as someone with a “nervous, unformed quality about him…”. Along with the deeply perceptive line in the book about the Congress party’s dynastic tradition and whether it will preserve its dominance over the “divisive nationalism touted by the BJP”. As if Obama’s wondering, which less-bad version of democracy will India choose?
But it is the second book that is, surprisingly, far more interesting. Honour Among Spies: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace is a work of fiction by Pakistan’s former ISI chief Asad Durrani, but a barely disguised one. Durrani has been widely known in India for some decades, sending Pakistani militants into Jammu and Kashmir in the early 1990s to stoke the home-grown insurgency, setting up the Hurriyat as soft separatists and asserting Rawalpindi’s presence in any potential peace bargain with India.
A thinly veiled autobiography
Lately, Asad Durrani has tried to cast himself in the role of a South Asian elder promoting brotherhood and conjoined cooperation. In 2018, he and A.S. Dulat, the former head of India’s external intelligence agency, Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), co-authored and launched a book called The Spy Chronicles in Delhi.
Honour Among Spies is a sort of sequel. It is touted as a work of fiction, but Durrani — used to running rings and leveraging shadows with the world’s great powers since they first used Pakistan in the mid-1980s to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan and later, post-9/11, tried to bribe it to shut down those terror training camps – looks like he’s writing a thinly disguised autobiography.
Of course, he plays the main character, which is himself – an ageing spy called Osama Barakzai, who has just written a book with the spymaster of the enemy country, called Randhir Singh. His own intelligence agency summons him to an interrogation; the line of inquiry is both bureaucratic and stodgy, so Barakzai sets about finding out why he’s really in the doghouse.
Of course, Barakzai is smart as hell, with a sense of humour to boot. He tears into the luxurious living his own defence establishment takes for granted, turns the knife into their imagined birthright that they must and will rule Pakistan – especially since elected politicians are not just corrupted but co-opted as well by the establishment – and, irony of ironies, turns to a Sharia court for redemption.
In real life, Durrani was denied permission to leave Pakistan as well as deprived of his pension benefits – ostensibly because of the book he wrote with Dulat. In Honour Among Spies, Durrani cleverly uses literary licence to discover that in several interviews to the media, Barakzai has spoken at some length about the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leader’s discovery in a house in Abbottabad, within spitting distance from the Pakistani military academy and a mere two hours away from the capital.
In this book, bin Laden has been turned into a woman, called Usama bint Laden, who lives in a town called Jacobabad and whose cover is blown by a Pakistani whistle-blower who walks into the US embassy and tells all — to show that the Pakistani establishment helped the US find the world’s most-wanted terrorist.
So the ISI wants to know — how could Barakzai have known? And since he collaborated with a foreign country to pass on state secrets in the guise of a book, surely he is guilty.
It’s not clear whether this is what has come to pass in real life, although the references to other real-life characters stand up – Gulrez Shahrukh or Pervez Musharraf didn’t tell Naveen Sheikh or Nawaz Sharif “everything” when he launched the Kargil or Pir Panjal conflict; former ISI and then army chief Ashfaq Kayani is Raja Rasalu, a “rare, thinking general” who is nevertheless vulnerable to temptation; well-known American journalist Seymour Hersh is Simon Hirsh who confirms Barakzai’s fears that his military interrogation is because of Osama and not India; while Indian PM I.K. Gujral, who sought to change the character of India-Pakistan relations since Partition, is K.I. Gujjar.
An act of courage
Durrani’s book is hardly likely to stir the tea-leaves on crisp Islamabad-Rawalpindi mornings such as these — there’s too much happening in Pakistan already — except as a topic of excitable conversation in the Islamabad club, which also features in the book. The question of who helped kill Osama bin Laden was, after all, convincingly settled by Steve Coll in his 2017 book, Directorate S, although Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark in The Exile say that the Pakistanis didn’t know Osama lived in Abbottabad.
Certainly, as spy chief, Durrani did everything in his capacity to undermine the will of the people – anything he writes, therefore, will always be measured against that yardstick and he may never measure up. But this book may also be seen as Durrani’s own mea culpa, a sort of repentance that things came to pass as they did and now that he’s seen the bigger picture, he wished it hadn’t.
Except, history ain’t so forgiving. A Pashtun himself, Durrani must know that thousands of Pashtuns are on a non-violent Long March to Miramshah in North Waziristan these days – except that the march has been blacked out by the media under pressure by his own former agency.
Meanwhile, there is the front-page news that the fundamentalist, Right-wing Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan group has demanded that the French embassy be shut down and Pakistan withdraw its ambassador from Paris in protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s defence of the anti-Prophet cartoons.
It is in this vortex of different demands that the Durrani book must be seen – a nugget that forces one to look within, painful warts and all.
At the end of the day, it was easy for Barack Obama to write A Promised Land – he must have signed a hugely lucrative deal for it. But for Durrani, to use the knife instead of the pen to lacerate an institution of which he has been a big part and which he knows has diminished Pakistan, calls for courage.
Probably that’s why the book is a work of fiction. Naming names would have been too unsafe – including for himself. This veneer works.