It is a much spoken truism that there is honour among thieves. But is there honour among the spies too? Is such a thing even possible between professionals trained and conditioned to use deceit, lies, even violence and deniability, in fighting their silent wars? Wars in which no uniforms are worn, no rules, no Geneva Convention, no prisoners taken, of war or of any kind.
The history of espionage is filled with stories that will tell you that such things can, and do happen more often than we would think, even during the Cold War. Rival antagonists meet, talk, develop mutual respect and do sometimes display personal affections as well. This happens especially when they are drawn into behind-the-scenes negotiations on behalf of their principles.
The reason we explore this unusual area this week is that Indian and Pakistani media have been abuzz over revelations in a truly commendable joint effort by the respective spy chiefs of the two sides, RAW chief AS Dulat and ISI boss Asad Durrani, who served in different periods. The sutradhar, or the anchor, of these remarkable conversations is journalist Aditya Sinha.
It is known that the spy chiefs (or national security advisors who happen to be former spy chiefs) of the two countries at various points meet secretly at distant places (Thailand is as convenient for Indians and Pakistanis as Vienna used to be for the Americans and Soviets). In this book, The Spy Chronicles, there is the touching story of how RAW helped Asad Durrani’s son when he was caught by Bombay Police at the airport for visa violation and they never even let it be known that he was a former ISI chief’s son. Durrani had long retired by then. But he had his “goodwill” with Dulat, who spoke with the then RAW chief Rajinder Khanna.
There were secret conversations even while some of our spy chiefs were in service. Not long before he passed away, Anand Verma, director of RAW in the Rajiv Gandhi era, made stunning revelations in an op-ed in The Hindu of his secret negotiations with the more notorious Lt.Gen. Hamid Gul, then ISI chief. In negotiations, mostly conducted overseas, and later on public phone lines using code words and signals, he said they came close to settling the Siachen dispute and also de-escalating Kashmir.
He also revealed that to build confidence, Gul handed over to India, in a covert operation, four soldiers of Sikh units who had deserted in the mutinies following Operation Blue Star in 1984 and defected to Pakistan.
The negotiation process, he wrote, was initiated by Pakistan and had the direct blessing of Rajiv Gandhi and General Zia-ul-Haq. He wrote that for the first meeting, Rajiv sought the good offices of Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan. He was a personal friend of Rajiv’s (remember the controversy then of India allowing traffic rights to Royal Jordanian Airlines and the prince gifting Rajiv a fancy car). Hassan had great goodwill in Pakistan too (his wife was of Pakistani origin).
The movement stopped as Zia was assassinated. Verma suspected his assassination may have had something to do with his own army commanders’ disapproval of his peacemaking. Gul was moved out of the ISI not long after and became a lifelong, freelance jihadi. And the only civilian at the other end, then former foreign secretary Niaz Naik (we had known him well as Pakistan’s high commissioner to Delhi), was also found dead in mysterious circumstances in the course of time.
It all adds up to a neat conspiracy theory. Certainly, Verma, a very cautious and understated spook as most Indians of the pre-Dulat/Raman generation were, waited nearly three decades to make this revelation. He was also evidently provoked by Gul’s death and criticism of him then, including by this writer.
I do believe Verma to have been truthful in his recollections. I attended a series of such Track-II meetings. One of these, called the Balusa Group also had one round hosted by Crown Prince Hassan in Amman. It included one former Indian chief, Air Chief Marshal SK Kaul, his brother and former cabinet secretary and India’s ambassador to the US, PK Kaul, occasionally Lt.Gen. Satish Nambiar, former Pakistani army vice-chief General KM Arif, top industrialist and philanthropist Babar Ali (he hosted one session in Lahore at Pakistan’s finest management institute, LUMS, that he had helped set up).
In another Track-II group (not Balusa) that I joined, we also had former Indian and Pakistani army chiefs - Generals Sundarji and Jehangir Karamat - Jaswant Singh (later in the Vajpayee cabinet), the founder of Indian strategic thought K Subrahmanyam, and now India’s finest strategic mind, C Raja Mohan.
Of course, one of the most sincere members of the group was retired Maj.Gen. Mahmud Durrani, (no relation of Asad) by far the most sensible, pacifist and soldier-like Pakistani general you’ve ever met. No surprise that commando-comic Pakistani commentators gave him the pejorative “General Shanti”. Later, in 2008, as Pakistan’s national security advisor, he showed the moral courage and honesty to admit that Kasab was a Pakistani and there was no point denying that fact. He paid for it with his job.
That he was a Pakistani patriot, and a tough soldier, nobody could doubt. He fought India as a young tank commander in defence of the Sialkot sector, particularly the viciously contested battles of Philora and Chawinda where India’s strike corps, led by 1 Armoured Division, advanced. At one of the Balusa meetings at Lake Bellagio in Italy on a long evening walk, he recounted to us his story of 1965.
It was a mindless slugfest, he said, as generals on both sides lacked tactical dash or initiative. Except in one case. He said the only truly brilliant and audacious tactical move from your side was made by Lt.Col. A.B. Tarapore who led his regiment in assault but was killed in artillery shelling. He was awarded one of the two Param Vir Chakras of that war. Mahmud Durrani had found Tarapore’s body and still held him in fellow cavalry-man’s respect.
There was much talk then of India having escaped a “near-thing” not once but twice in 1987-88. Except that the first was a war, during Brasstacks in 1987, and the second, peace in 1988. It was “common knowledge”, though never officially stated or confirmed by any of the players, that a Siachen deal was almost clinched. Again mostly through these behind-the-scenes, “spooky” contacts. This is why this mood had turned so dramatically from war to peace and then status quo.
I do agree with the suggestion Verma made then that the Pakistani deep state got rid of Zia as he was seen becoming soft. But I also believe that rather than a peacenik-come-lately, Gul was more likely part of that plot. A president and military dictator were killed under Gul’s watch as ISI chief and he continued in that job for a year afterwards, removed by Benazir Bhutto. Not fired, just moved to command a vital corps in Multan.
Postscript: I first met Lt.Gen. Asad Durrani at a Track-2 type India-Pakistan conference organised in Maldives’ Kurumba Village Resort (near Male) by the reputed London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. It was the winter of 1998 and it seemed as if some calm had returned in India-Pakistan relations under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif. Why has the rhetoric gone down so dramatically on the Indian side, Durrani wondered aloud. I said because almost total normalcy and peace had returned on the ground in Kashmir. I saw the general look up, forehead creased, and give me that career spook’s laser look. And he said: “That situation on the ground can change in no time.” This was precisely when the Pakistanis began their first incursions into Kargil. Six months later, and exactly 19 years to date, the two armies were fighting there. Durrani had been retired for five years. But once the ISI boss, you are always in the know.