The Lost Narrative in midst of cacophony: Book Review

Former head of the ISI and MI writes about his latest book, Pakistan Adrift: Navigating Troubled Waters, where he argues that most of Pakistan’s foreign policy emanates from reactions to keep its head above the water and not from any grand design.


A book I co-authored with a former RAW Chief, The Spy Chronicles, was launched in Delhi on the 23rd of May 2018. My video message opened the proceedings of what turned out to be a spectacular event.

An illustrious audience — Manmohan Singh, the former Indian prime-minister; recently retired vice-president Hamid Ansari; the evergreen Dr. Farooq Abdullah; two former union ministers; a national security advisor; and a galaxy of Indian intelligentsia — approved the leading thesis of the book: “cooperation with Pakistan was India’s best policy option, especially on Kashmir”.

At home, however, there was an uproar for which I media-surfed to make some sense of what had caused it. A statement from Nawaz Sharif who had been barred to hold any political office — “aur wo jo kitabain likhte hain!” (And what about those who write books) — I found rather amusing.

For someone who had never read a book, writing one was indeed a serious matter. A little while later, Raza Rabbani, recently unseated from the Senate’s chairmanship, was heard furiously asking: “how would the Army react if a civilian had undertaken a similar joint-venture”.

A few illustrations in the book explain how our image has been superficially influenced by our relations with the US.

This too was hollow because former foreign secretaries and politicians from both countries had written books together. Sharif was under flak, as he had mocked the establishment for not expeditiously bringing Mumbai 26/11 to a closure; I realized that these statements on my book were only to give vent to their anger against the Army that was ostensibly masterminding the plight of these political icons.

For the next few days, there was pandemonium in the media about this book — fuelled by the ISPR that was passing judgments, while the investigations were still afoot. The discourse was vengeful, even pathetic. To illustrate it was not about what I said but about the fact that I spoke more than my Indian counterpart. A few sane voices pleaded for calm but were drowned in the din.

In India on the other hand, in a debate at the prestigious Observer Research Foundation, when a participant-defined the Spy Chronicles as an “apologia” for Pakistani policies, I felt sorry that a helpful narrative, and that too launched from an Indian platform, was ignored in my home country. This set the stage for more serious damage — at least from my point of view.

Read more: Spy Chronicles: Chronicles of Durrani, Dulat, Nawaz & Rabbani..

After my retirement I had been working on a book — first ever by a former head of the ISI — about my life in the “corridors of power” and the perspective it had provided me; Pakistan Adrift was published by Hurst London and co-published by Amazon Delhi. After getting some decent reviews in India, it arrived in Pakistan in September, coming on the bestseller list.

Though some media houses and acclaimed academics had been sent advance copies for comments and publicity, hardly anyone dared. In the aftermath of the tumult raised by the Spy Chronicles and the views expressed by the military spokesman, the potential discussants seemed terrified. In due course, some lukewarm reviews did appear but no dialog on media or on any other public forum took place.

If the work threw any positive light on the country or otherwise, is for the reader to judge. But the deafening silence has robbed the public of yet another opportunity to view a range of issues, in and around Pakistan, from a different outlook. The main argument of the book is that contrary to the widely held belief, neither the state nor any of its institutions had a grand design.

The regional and the domestic affairs were so complex that keeping our head above water and trundling along was the best available option. To console the audience, I have cited examples of some of the more successful countries that did the same — and of the US that ran out of steam sooner than expected, because it did not.

Propaganda and gimmickry may fool some of the people in passing but have never been an alternative for sustained efforts to improve the reality that alone determines “image”.

Rightfully, the civil-military balance forms the pivotal thread of the book. I may have tilted in favor of my institution, but did not shy away from highlighting its limitations and conclude that it ultimately fails in un-military missions despite good intentions. In the process, it loses institutional ethos.

A glaring proof of its ignorance of how the equation works is what follows its direct rule, has always been succeeded by the very same forces that the military tried to keep out of power. Understandably, the uniformed hierarchy is unhappy with such views because one from its own fraternity is being critical, while the rest of the nation has expressed gratitude; that I have acknowledged their role in containing militancy is not good enough.

Because I argue that even if the military was to carry out its task to perfection, the success is only assured if the non-military part was carried out in tandem. Ironically, most of the reviews in India and in Pakistan have accused me of being biased towards the Army.

Probably a more useful contribution of this book is that it sets the stage for a more vigorous dialogue on matters that would continue to engage us for times to come. I had to deal with issues like Afghanistan, Kashmir, insurgency and our relations with India and the US.

Since a practitioner’s grasp of intricate developments, especially in their embryonic stage, is limited—and so is our competence to address them—I have postulated that we calibrated our responses to the change, and improved upon them with experience. Indeed, the issues still hang fire because our ability and capacity have not matched their complexity.

Read more: Pakistan military says ex-spy chief will not be allowed to leave…

Though modified and refined over the last twenty-five years, there is no claim that any of my assessment is now perfect. And that’s my answer to the question most frequently asked: “why didn’t the wisdom dawn on us right at the outset?” After spending a couple of years on a diplomatic assignment, one cannot claim any profound insight in a foreign country.

I still have included my understanding of Germany and Saudi Arabia where I have had the good fortune to be assigned. More important for the reader may be my perspective on Pakistan from an external vantage point. Then there are narratives that are recycled so often that they not only become part of our vocabulary but are also used to rationalize acts and policies that are otherwise difficult to defend.

In the chapter on terrorism, I have suggested that this nebulous concept–with no absolute definition – has been used to block any debate on steps taken under its cover. The U.S. kept its military presence in Afghanistan for the past 17 years, touted it as the key to prevent terrorists from targeting America again.

Since no serious efforts were made to question its rationale, the policy got the necessary support. Now that this presence is no longer politically sustainable, it is likely to be vacated after an agreement with the “terrorists”. Certain narratives are invented to avoid hard work and take painful decisions. The book briefly discusses a few of them.

Certain narratives are invented to avoid hard work and take painful decisions. The book briefly discusses a few of them.

Propaganda and gimmickry may fool some of the people in passing but have never been an alternative for sustained efforts to improve the reality that alone determines “image”— at home and abroad. A few illustrations in the book explain how our image has been superficially influenced by our relations with the US. No one has ever denied the pivotal role of (good) education.

But despite the culpability of our predatory elite, it holds the illiterate masses responsible for ills of the society which is outright hypocrisy. And of course, all governments believe that a positive projection in the media could spare them the grind of good governance. I was trained in the art of hardnosed and coldblooded assessments.

Read more: Spy Chronicles: A one-sided narrative

One of them, however, comes back to haunt me every now and then. Dared by the BBC to give my views on the Abbottabad raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed, I did so on the 3rd of May 2011. The principle I applied was that if I were in the decision-makers’ shoes, how I would have acted. Details are in the book that has not amused many of my former colleagues.

And I keep wondering: if some other former DG ISIs or Army Chiefs can give their opinion that is not in sync with the official view; why can’t I? It is essentially a personal account and therefore dotted with anecdotes that I witnessed or in which I was involved. That should give the narrative credibility, but may also taint it as subjective.

And therefore this book is not meant to be an “apologia” for our policies but only a possible explanation of what happens when we drift with the tide. Indeed, a better option is not only available but has also been often suggested: “create an inclusive national security structure; forge the minimum essential consensus; and then muster the courage to follow through”. If even the Military itself being the sponsor could not implement the concept in its letter and spirit, perhaps muddling through —as long as it is done well — may not be too bad a policy.

Asad Durrani is a retired Lt Gen who headed the MI and then the ISI in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany and Saudi Arabia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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