In his foreword, Anatole Lieven, author of Pakistan: A Hard Country (Penguin, London, 2011), aptly describes General Durrani’s book as a ‘combination of memoirs and reflections’ by ‘Pakistan’s foremost military intellectual’, which he finds ‘enlightening, necessary but in many ways depressing.’
Asad Durrani was Director General, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) between August 1990-March 1992. Before then, he had been Director General, Military Intelligence (DGMI) for two years. He was brought into that post by the then Army Chief, Gen. Aslam Beg, shortly after Zia ul Haq’s death in the fateful air crash of August 1988, in which several other top Pakistani Generals and the American Ambassador to Pakistan were killed. After his ISI tenure, Durrani moved to a staff assignment in the Training and Evaluation Directorate. Thereafter, he was Commandant, National Defence College. He was abruptly retired compulsorily in May, 1993, three years before tenure, because he was found to be ‘dabbling in politics’. He never commanded a Corps, considered an acme of achievement for three star Generals in the Pakistan Army.
The compulsory retirement was a sequel to the destabilizing of Benazir Bhutto’s first PPP (People’s Party of Pakistan) government in September 1990, in what became known as the `Mehrangate scandal’. Durrani became involved in the collection of funds (Rs. 140 million), he claims, at the express behest of both President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Gen Aslam Beg. The main contributor was Younas Habib, a Karachi-based banker (Mehran Bank). The whole issue was raked up six years later (1996), in a case filed before Pakistan’s Supreme Court by late Air Marshal (retd.) Asghar Khan (he died in January 2018, aged 95). The case languishes to this day, though Beg and Durrani have had to appear in Court and file affidavits to explain their actions. Durrani deals with this uncomfortable phase of his career in Chapter 8 of the book, and also later, reminiscing ruefully that he need not have been so frank about his role, recording its salient aspects then, in a ‘for your eyes only’ secret missive to the Prime Minister.
Durrani’s phasing out happened during Benazir’s second premiership. Having learnt her lessons well after her first ouster, about not offending the Army brass unduly, she offered him the sop of an Ambassadorship to Germany. This seemed a sound enough step as Durrani had served previously as Pakistan’s Defence Attaché in Bonn, he spoke German and had friends in German Intelligence (Bundesnachrichtendienst—BND). Durrani does not let his gratitude show on this account and otherwise holds a rather indifferent opinion of Benazir and her husband, pointing out that`her second stint was marked by grave acts of corruption, not only by her husband but also by herself‘ (p. 103).
Quoting Lord Salisbury, Britain’s Foreign Secretary in the 1890s, on the main theme of his book, Durrani suggests that Pakistan’s Generals `lazily drifted downstream, occasionally putting out a boat hook to avoid collision’. He also cites lines from Mirza Asadullah Ghalib to philosophize at the outset, `Chalta hoon thorhi door harkat-e- zuru ke saath, pehchaanta nahin rehbar ko abhi main’ (`I drift a little with every fast current, but have yet to find direction’). Describing this approach, Durrani reflects, ‘Having taken a decision, even sometimes provisional because of a contingency, we tried to calibrate our responses to developments, some outside our control and others resulting from our own actions’. Musing further in this vein, he admits, ‘drifting with the tide may have had its conceptual and practical benefits, but there are a good number (of strategists and thinkers) who do not believe that things happen without someone, usually an invisible hand, pulling the strings.’
Durrani divides his narration into three parts: Part One gives the military practitioner’s `View from a Vantage Point’; in Part Two, he dwells, `In Hindsight,’ on various major problems plaguing Pakistan like `The Khaki Camouflage’, `Terrorism: A Political Tool or a Technique of War ?’, `Afghanistan: The Bermuda Triangle of the East’, `The Indo-Pak Conundrum’ and `The American Connection: Dangerous or Fatal ?’; Part Three provides a more detached `Overview’, where Durrani tries to reflect on his own `mea culpa’ in a fairly candid manner.
At each stage of his career, starting from writings and positions taken in interactions during various staff courses, Durrani claims he always unequivocally supported a case for civilian primacy and democracy.This understandably made his career path sometimes rocky, wherein he was often shifted to backwater assignments. Durrani observes tellingly here, ‘Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the military’s role .. is that every time it assumed political power, though it administered better, delivered on economic front and made the right impact abroad, it soon started losing traction.. on its exit it was replaced by the same forces it had tried to keep out…After lording over the country for 13 years, the Ayub /Yahya combine had to cede reins to Bhutto. .. Zia’s exit made way for the triumphal return of the Bhutto clan, whose Head he had hanged,…and Musharraf’s departure promptly brought back the two political forces (PPP & PML-Nawaz) that he considered to be most evil’ (p. 127).
A highlight of the book is the narration of views about the military dictators and Army Chiefs with whom Durrani had occasion to interact closely. Sample a vignette:
Referring to a gift Zia once gave him, which was borrowed from someone else, Durrani comments, `the man never gave away anything that he believed belonged to him, rightfully or wrongfully, as the regime he had installed under the new order was to find out too late’ (p. 5).
Zia’s putsch ousting Bhutto in 1977 was most unpopular among instructors at the prestigious Command and Staff College, Quetta, who considered themselves the crème-de-la-crème of the army. (Durrani was himself an Instructor there). When Zia spoke there, `the secret grade that he got from this snooty club of Lieutenant Colonels would have made him apply for early retirement’. His `double handshake and triple embrace’ might have charmed many within and outside the country but `in his home constituency it was considered unbecoming of a soldier’(p. 124). He practically dispensed with superior officers’ evaluation reports for his favourites. His successors`from Beg to Karamat, had to work hard to undo the damage that Zia did to our military skills’ (p. 125).
General Mirza Aslam Beg was perhaps the closest Army mentor to Asad Durrani. He was Corps Commander, XI Corps in Peshawar when Durrani headed a Brigade in Kohat. He later brought in the author as DGMI and then to ISI. Durrani describes Beg as `an enigmatic, effective Army Chief…and a trusting boss’ (pp. 34,243), who `relished the role of bringing Democracy back to the country’s polity.’ He tried to play `benefactor and guardian angel’ to Benazir but soon fell out with her. The trouble was, `that his favourite technique of communicating in signals had…begun to affect him. He actually started to believe that he was ordained to lead us all to a new epoch, guided of course by his strategic vision.’ Beg also wanted to do things in a hurry, without waiting to fully assess all the complex political ramifications. This caused him to err later. His stance on Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait annoyed the Americans. Beg also fell out with Nawaz Sharif and had to retire as a `lame-duck’ Chief, with his successor (Asif Nawaz) being named three months before his retirement.
Durrani holds mixed views about Asif Nawaz and Kakar—they were `not take-over types’. Asif Nawaz `overreacted to the Sharif family’s overtures to woo him in their power struggle against President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.’ Durrani regards Karamat highly as a `non-interventionist’ military professional.
Though offered the Saudi ambassadorship by Musharraf, the author is hardly laudatory of the latter. As a young officer, Durrani found Musharraf to be `smart and confident’ (p. 81) but later, he `shifted from extreme obedience to ultimate defiance’ (p. 234). When he became the all-powerful dictator, he seemed `too full of himself’, believed he was infallible and ` could get away with murder’ (p. 102). For him, `the standard of loyalty to the State was unflinching personal obedience, a trait he shared with his bête-noire, Nawaz Sharif’ (p.109) ‘Not many tears were shed when he left’ (p.102).
These descriptions of intricate civilian-military power machinations between Prime Ministers and Army Chiefs have not been disclosed hitherto in such detail and from such a close vantage point. Durrani presciently points out how ‘selecting an Army Chief in Pakistan is like launching a boomerang. If not done perfectly, it can do immense damage, even to the launcher.’
The book provides many more fascinating insights into reactions and nuances of Pakistan’s military establishment as they coped with important geo-strategic developments in Afghanistan, in Indo-Pak relations, including Kargil, the myriad ups and downs in relations with the United States, the post-9/11 U turns in the `war on terror’. Of particular note is his admission, that `in absence of clear guidelines’ the ISI’s handling of the militancy in Kashmir in the early 90s `drifted out of our control’ (pp. 246-247). He also rues `not giving his proper due’ to Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) leader, Amanullah Khan, then `housed’ in Rawalpindi.
In general, however, Durrani’s account on these sensitive subjects remains mostly factual, staying carefully within the confines of known official Pakistani positions.This could be the outcome of ‘a safety valve adjustment’ (reviewer’s quote), after criticism in the Pakistani media for his co-authoring of the book, Spy Chronicles, with former Indian Intelligence officer, AS Dulat. Though disparaging in his remarks on Track II meetings (‘Circuit or Circus?’pp. 207), Durrani mentions his friendship with the latter in adulatory terms as`my comrade in arms’ (p. 141).
The insights in Durrani’s book that add more value relate perhaps to lessons learnt by successive generations of younger Pakistan military officers. While most may not have shed their contempt for civilians yet, some of them may now entertain greater reservations about military rule being the panacea for Pakistan’s complex problems.
Coming from a deeply introspective, acerbic, even deeply cynical Army General, one can understand why Lieven finds the memoir eventually depressing. Nevertheless, Pakistan Adrift: Navigating Troubled Waters becomes a compulsive read for all serious students of Pakistan’s recent history.
Rana Banerji is Special Secretary (retd.), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi.