The Spy Chronicles. Read it between and around the lines
In his autobiography entitled My Life with the Taliban (2011, Oxford University Press) Abdul Salam Zaeef, senior Afghan Taliban leader, non-state combatant, Guantanamo-returned prisoner, ambassador and author makes a memorable comment on coping with the reality of state intelligence agencies. They must, he says, be tackled without being so sweet as to be swallowed whole or so bitter that you are spit out. In other words, without being coopted nor liquidated.
How, then, ought one understand a collaborative book between two former spy chiefs? Surely with a fistful of sugar and another of astringent. The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace (2018, Harper Collins) by A. S. Dulat of India and Asad Durrani of Pakistan is a conversational account by the two former adversarial spooks, moderated by the senior journalist Aditya Sinha. Any revelations, however, are less than sensational. That said, this politically gossipy and personally opinionated account with authoritative access does provide some information on the recent history of the State of J&K.
There is much in this chatty book about the bilateral stunts played out between India and Pakistan in the last three decades. The seven section-titles and thirty-three chapters say it all: India and Pakistan: 'Almost Friends, Kabuki, Surgical Strike, Akhand Bharat Confederation, Hafiz Saeed and 26/11, Kulbhushan Jadhav, The Politics of War and the Second Oldest Profession – just to mention some of the more colorful. A section entitled "New Great Game", includes some thoughts on India and Pakistan and their relationships with the greater powers: Russia, the United States and China.
Kashmir has one section with six short chapters devoted to it. But it is never far from the surface throughout. Mr. Dulat literally closes the book with that admission. "…one of the motivations is that this book is also about the Kashmiris." This review is restricted to that enterprise.
The conversations in the book confirm much of the spy-gaming that Kashmiris suspected, but are unable to verify. Mr. Dulat's first book, Kashmir: the Advani Years (2015, Harper Collins), also co-authored with Aditya Sinha, was similar. In Spy Chronicles the admissions by the duo are bitter-sweet for Kashmiris. Some examples: Pakistan intelligence was caught off-guard in its assessment of the intensity of the antipathy in J&K State after 1987; they also underestimated the depth in the endurance of the armed revolt that followed it; both protagonists admit that the rebellion was indigenous, not Pakistan initiated; and the acknowledgement that Pakistan was responsible for the formation of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference as a political front.
Some omissions in the book reveal the anatomy of the convergence between Delhi and Islamabad regarding the former princely State of J&K. As is well-known, Gilgit, Baltistan and Ladakh form 75% of the territorial expanse of the state, although barely 8% of the population. The contiguity of these three regions with the Eurasia landmass is arguably the nub of the geostrategic relevance of state, both in history and in the present. However, none of these sub-regions are discussed by authors, except in passing, making it either an uninformed or a disingenuous conversation. In this omission, the authors betray a desire to cut the cloth of the dispute to fit their agendas. It is food for thought. Some commentators characterize the insistence in including Gilgit, Baltistan and Ladakh in the dispute over the state as "romantic nostalgia". A full rebuttal to this argument must await another column, but for now indulge me by heeding a brief historical explanation that is also organic.
The seed for the conundrum that is the former Dogra State was not sown in 1947, 1931 or even during the several rebellions in the late nineteenth century. It was sown in 1846, when a Dogra-British alliance stitched the region's constituent parts together during a spasm of state-formation exercises in Central Asia and South Asia from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. They were done to counter the growing chant of the Great Game: "The Russians are coming!" In South Asia, the full impact of those artifices was not felt until a hundred years later, when the British withdrew in 1947, even as it facilitated other artifices. The logic for taking 1846 as the starting point for today's conundrum that is the State of J&K is simple: to solve a dispute it must be defined honestly, at its root. Pruning the problem's branches at the convenience of the (current) status-quo states only postpones the solution and, worse, will create new ones. The protagonists of the book concern themselves with the branches.
Some unintended revelations
For the citizens of the state, the book often drips with condescension. They are not unnoticed. The most egregious of these is Mr. Dulat advising Kashmiris to "take what you can get" and, basically, be happy. Mr. Durrani endorses this view and consoles us with further advice on how to prolong the dispute, presumably for strategic reasons: "You never have to say it is over. Khattam, chhutti". He goes to give more gratuitous advice: "And everyone must remember the conventional wisdom: you don't always get what you want." But, to paraphrase the celebrated Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, the trouble with conventional wisdom is just that: it is "conventional".
The book must be read carefully as to detail. Some errors reveal much. In his Introduction, Mr. Dulat cites the well-known author Ahmed Rashid's observation that "if Kashmir were resolved, Afghanistan would be a cakewalk". However, towards the end of the book Mr. Dulat repeats the same Rashid quote but after turning it around: "…if India and Pakistan can sort out Afghanistan, then Kashmir would be a cakewalk". Which of the two statements is the meant one? Moreover, the error reveals the disturbing nonchalance with which key actors in the status quo ante states regard their "lesser" neighbors!
Failure of the "Intel" approach
The book also reveals a fundamental error of an exclusively "intelligence agency" approach to conflict management. In his first book, Mr. Dulat spent considerable ink talking about how Shabir Shah, whom he had patronized back in the day, had wasted several opportunities to be made a "leader". Without, for obvious reasons, accusing Farooq Abdullah of the same weakness, in this book he expends critical space promoting the former Chief Minister as the savior for the dispute. Similar is Mr. Durrani's regret at not having taken seriously the independent J&K creed of the late Amanullah Khan Gilgiti, founder of the JKLF. The penchant of reducing the Kashmir dispute to management of state supported individuals – and not as the result of systemic dysfunctionality, discounted legal principles or political injustice – has been at the root of the failed attempts at "resolution".
At the risk of sounding clichéd, the truth has mattered little when it comes to Kashmir. The authors are aware of it, as implied in one of Mr. Dulat's statements: "We have tried to stay as close to the truth as we believe it to be even if some of it is regarded as fiction. The reality is that there are normally more than two sides to most stories. Truth is a kaleidoscope." If truth is what you are looking for, then compare Mr. Dulat's wisdom to the one spoken by the epic, lucid and relentless twentieth century Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918 – 2008), who said: "Everything you add to the truth, subtracts from the truth." Another maxim is even briefer: "The truth is mathematically elegant".
Blunt brevity and lucid logic, it can be safely said, is not a quality of Spy Chronicles. But read it between and around the lines and you will understand the governmentality of states.