By Rakesh Sood
Lt General (retd) Asad Durrani, who headed Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the early 1990s, is no stranger to controversy. Two years ago, along with AS Dulat, chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in late 1990s, he co-authored The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and The Illusion of Peace. The slim volume, based on their conversations on the Track II circuit (he describes this as a circus), covered India-Pakistan relations, Kashmir and cross-border terrorism, and got him into trouble in Pakistan. The ISI hauled him over the coals, a court of enquiry suspended his pension and other retirement benefits and he was barred from leaving the country. He has since been pursuing lawsuits to get his entitlements restored.
He has authored a novel, Honour Among Spies that describes the travails of a Pakistani Lt General Osama Barakzai (Zirak branch of the Durrani tribe) who gets into trouble with his parent organisation (Guards) ostensibly for co-authoring a book with Indian ex-spy chief Randhir Singh. However, as he plays cat and mouse with his interrogators and engages in verbal duelling with colleagues from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and MI6, Osama finds other plausible reasons for his troubles, pointing the spotlight at the establishment (a popular euphemism for the Army and ISI). Despite the disclaimer that “though inspired by some real events, this is a work of fiction”, such a book would be explosive at any time in Pakistan. But appearing as the domestic political scene heats up for Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan, Durrani may find that he has more than a bestseller on his hands.
Fiction: Osama Barakzai was appointed to head the Intelligence outfit in the Guards by the Chief Akram Moghul in 1990. Both came under a cloud in a case filed by Admiral Khan for using Yousaf Haseeb, a banker, for channelling slush funds to Naveen Shaikh to dislodge the incumbent woman PM. Part of the money is unaccounted for and Barakzai points the finger at Moghul who feels vengeful. The case lingers on through Pakistan’s courts and the current tribal chief, Jabbar Jatt, shares a sub-tribal loyalty with Moghul. He had been appointed by Naveen Shaikh (in power from 2013-17) but since switched loyalties to Khurshid Kadri.
Another thread in Barakzai’s ruminations leads to the female terrorist mastermind, Uzma bint Laden, who was living incognito in Jacobabad and killed in 2011 in a daring raid by United States (US) Navy Seals. Barakzai, who had long retired, and, after a couple of diplomatic assignments, is now active on the conference circuit and a sought-after commentator on TV channels, suggests on BBC about the possibility of complicity between the Guards and the US agency. The story passes as it absolves the Guards (under then Chief Raja Rasalu) of incompetence that they were unable to detect the incoming raid. The problem resurfaces as US investigative journalist Simon Hirsh uncovers a Pakistani mole, Baqar Bhatti, who had walked into the US embassy to inform them about the fugitive, indicating collusion.
Adding to this mix is the tricky relationship with India with the Narendra Modi government’s assertive policy of surgical strikes after Uri, the air strike at Balakot after the Pulwama attack and conversations between Barakzai and Randhir Singh to keep alive the hopes of the composite dialogue initiated by former Indian PM KL Gujjar and pursued by the opening up of Sardarpur shrine.
Fact: Lt Gen Durrani was DG (MI) and Gen Mirza Aslam Beg appointed him DG(ISI) in 1990. Both were interrogated in the case filed in 1996 by late Air Marshal Asghar Khan, accusing the Army of funding Nawaz Sharif in the 1990 elections against Benazir Bhutto through Younis Habib, CEO of Mehran Bank. General Beg and current chief General Qamar Bajwa both belong to 16 Baloch regiment.
Durrani has been critical of General Pervez Musharraf’s role in the Kargil war (described as the Pir Panjal pass fiasco where Gen Gulrez Shahrukh keeps PM Naveen Shaikh in the dark). In 2011, Durrani told BBC that the Pakistani authorities probably knew about Osama bin Laden hiding in Abbottabad but would have preferred to be blamed for incompetence rather than complicity. Seymour Hersh’s disclosures in 2015 confirmed this, pointing at Gen Ashfaq Kayani and identifying the Pakistani informant as Brig Usman Khalid, subsequently resettled in the US.
Enough parallels to whet any conspiracy theorist’s appetite.
A strange reality: Nawaz Sharif may have begun his political career with the blessings of the establishment but differences grew after Kargil and Musharraf’s coup in 1999. After returning to power in 2013, Sharif pressed treason charges against Musharraf. The Army was unhappy, Panamagate took its toll and Sharif was ousted in 2017, jailed, and has been in exile for a year. He has mounted a no-holds-barred attack on the selected PM Imran Khan and the selectors, General Bajwa and the ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, holding them responsible for his ouster.
An Opposition front of 11 parties, combining Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) under Bilawal Bhutto and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) under Maryam Sharif, led by veteran Maulana Fazlur Rehman who was close to the Army but currently unhappy, has begun a series of protest rallies last month culminating in Islamabad next month. It is a re-run of the process that ousted Sharif in 2017 with Imran Khan and the Maulana in the lead, with the tacit backing of the establishment.
Last year, Bajwa managed a three-year extension from Imran Khan, causing rumblings within the army. Into this mix comes a thinly-disguised novel calling out those manipulating democratic politics and hinting at internal differences within the establishment.
Only time will tell if Barakzai will reappear in a sequel — Honour Restored.
This commentary originally appeared in The Hindustan Times