That is a question that has haunted me through my quarter century in diplomacy and later as a parliamentarian and commentator on foreign affairs, particularly on Kashmir and Pakistan. I rather hoped I would find the answer in the conversations recorded and moderated by journalist Aditya Sinha between former ISI chief Asad Durrani (1990-91) and former RAW chief Amarjit Singh Dulat (1999-2000) in a book that is making waves in both India and Pakistan: "Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace".
At the end, however, I am left with my question unanswered, perhaps because every time the mountain heaves between Durrani and Dulat, it produces little more than a mouse, and perhaps also because both were chiefs for only a year and a few months each, and that too three and two decades ago, respectively. But most importantly, I suspect, it is because their oaths of office put severe constrictions on their much-vaunted candour. The reader is left wondering whether spies really do make a difference.
What impresses one is not the spookery but the fact that they are both thoroughly decent gentlemen, with the brains, the background, the experience, the sensitivity, the empathy and the required compassion to understand the alleged "enemies of the nation". It is this that makes their approach so sensible, so constructive. I have had the pleasure of knowing both of them.
Asad Durrani I met long after he had shed his uniform and retired from Track I to Track II. He gives me a cameo appearance in the book by saying that Ajit Doval, who, like me, spent three years on a posting to Pakistan, "is no Mani Shankar Aiyar!" My first meeting with Asad Durrani was at a seminar in Lahore in 2010 where I mixed him up with Mahmood Durrani, the general who loaded the case of exploding mangoes on to Zia's plane in Bahawalpur in 1988. I kept teasing my Indian colleagues about what they would do if Asad Durrani were to present them with a box of fruit to take home. In the event, just before leaving for the airport, it was I who ran into him carrying a somewhat pathetic plastic bag of a few fruit that he held out to me. I had little alternative to accepting the gift and lugging it on to the Delhi flight thinking, "This is the bravest thing I have ever done". Or so I thought until I learned later that I was apprehending the wrong Durrani!
Dulat too I had not known when he was in service. I met him first at the same 2010 Lahore seminar where he first made Asad Durrani's acquaintance. We then started meeting fairly frequently on the Delhi seminar circuit, especially when the topic of discussion was Kashmir, on which we seemed consistently to be on the same side - I on the basis of ideology, principle and hypothesizing; he because he was highly knowledgeable about Kashmir, putting his intimate hands-on experience over years in the Valley to really good use, thoroughly imbued with the truth that no military force or show of force is going to cow down the Kashmiri, and, therefore, the only way to win hearts and minds in that troubled vale is to reach out to all discontented Kashmiris (which is virtually every section of the population), including, of course, the Hurriyat. They can be brought around only by earning their trust through dialogue, followed by instant action, a trust that we, as a nation, have forfeited over the seventy years following the Maharajah's accession.
As this is not a book review, I am leaving the book itself for you to read. Instead, I would like to reflect on the relationship between intelligence agencies and political decision-making. Durrani dismisses the CIA as a "third-rate" agency. It is not difficult to see why. The really spectacular failures of intelligence have been those of the CIA, spectacular perhaps because American democracy enables concerned Americans and others to publicly establish, without attracting the charge of treachery, the extent of intelligence failure through thoroughly researched and well-documented investigation, authenticated by open interviews with lead personalities and the common soldier. Thus, it is primarily from American sources that we learn of CIA disasters ranging from the Bay of Pigs, Cuba, 1960, to the ignominious disaster of "The Best and the Brightest" in Vietnam in the '60s and '70s, to the fiasco over WMDs in Saddam's Iraq, to the even greater on-going fiasco in Afghanistan. Intelligence agencies seem to compound the lack of intelligence in decision-making circles.
Equally, the KGB was everywhere in Afghanistan during the ill-fated Soviet invasion of that country, but could do little to forestall the tail-behind-the-legs retreat of the Soviets to behind the Amu Darya. Soviet intelligence failure also contributed signally to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. In India, excessive reliance on faulty intelligence assessments, combined with amazingly poor political statesmanship, led to humiliation and ridicule being heaped on us in 1962.
RAW's single biggest achievement was arguably the role they played in the run-up to the war in East Pakistan that brought about the Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Yet, even there, PN Haksar's solitary intelligence sitting in his office contributed more, I suggest, to that peerless victory than all the intelligence gathered by RAW. So, while I readily grant that intelligence is indispensable in a situation of war or the prospect of armed conflict, in peace-time or in the process of establishing peace, as far as I can see, the intelligence agencies merely duplicate the inputs of diplomacy rather than substantially adding meaningfully to policy inputs collected by more conventional means. Diplomacy, at its best, involves high-level interaction with opposite numbers, and discussion on the cocktail circuit with personalities of all political hues, military personnel if possible, media mavens, columnists, academics, and mingling with the aam aadmi and other above-the-board entities, followed by intelligent analysis of the inputs so gathered. Intelligence agencies, on the other hand, tend to rely more, and cherish more, what they gather from dodgy characters willing to sell their country for the proverbial thirty pieces of silver. As Dulat remarks (and one can almost hear him smacking his lips), nothing pleases an intelligence officer more than recruiting a double agent! Should any government then, as Modi's more than any predecessor has been doing, outsource foreign policy to the Indian Police Service?
Dulat perceptively remarks that retired Indian Foreign Service officers on Track II tend to behave rather pompously, as if they were still Foreign Secretary or High Commissioner, plugging a line, and rarely letting themselves think out of the box. I quite agree. Yet, if this 300-page record of the lengthy Durrani-Dulat conversations were to be taken as par for the course, it would appear that retired intelligence officers on Track II tend to cover the same issues in much the same manner as other has-beens. Is that why Track II is excellent for taking a break in exotic locales, but contributes little - or, more often, nothing - to actual decision-making?
In A Legacy of Spies, his latest and 24th novel, John Le Carre has his fictional creation, Master Spy George Smiley, ruefully confessing of himself, "An old spy in his dotage seeks the truth". Until Dulat or Durrani or other intelligence men break their omerta and tell us the truth of what undiscovered facts of telling significance they found on their secret networks, how they fed it into the system and what action was taken (or not taken) on their inputs, I am afraid my opening question will remain unanswered: "Does intelligence gathering lead to intelligent decision-making?"
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)
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