Talk, Talk And Talk
In his recently published memoir Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, former R&AW chief Amarjit Singh Dulat provides a riveting account of his long years of engagement with Kashmir and its people.An excerpt on why the ISI and RAW must talk to each other.
The one person I never met while I was R&AW chief was my Pakistani counterpart, the ISI chief, a position held by two successive people during my tenure: Gen Ziauddin Butt and General Mahmud, who was burned by the fact that in 2000 we turned Majid Dar around. It’s not that I was overly keen to meet the ISI chief, but it is strange that I met the CIA chief, the Mossad chief, the Russian intelligence service chief—and even the inscrutable head of the Chinese secret service.
Meeting other chiefs was a part of the job. One needed to maintain liaison with other services. What didn’t make sense was liaising with the ISI chief. The CIA and the KGB never stopped talking to each other even during the worst days of the Cold War; it is documented that during the Cuban missile crisis at the height of the Cold War, US president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev were writing and talking to one another. Whereas we, at the drop of a hat, stop talking to the Pakistanis.
After I left the government altogether I continued to advocate this in the various Track Two dialogues between India and Pakistan that I joined (these are non-official meetings of retired soldiers, academics, bureaucrats, journalists and others which help in generating out-of-the-box ideas to better bilateral relations that can’t otherwise be taken up at official meetings). It wasn’t as if a R&AW chief had never met the ISI chief—in the late 1980s, one of my predecessors, A.K. Verma, had two meetings with his counterpart, Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul. Thus it wasn’t a heretical idea, and could hold some benefits. I even wrote a paper about it with former ISI chief Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani, whom I often met at meetings of retired intelligence chiefs.
The Pakistanis have been keen to meet. During my tenure at R&AW, we used to forever be getting these messages from friendly intelligence agencies: why don’t you meet the Pakistanis, they are keen to meet. Sometimes, we would hear it from the Saudis; sometimes from the Iranians; and sometimes from the Sri Lankans. And once, someone even as innocuous as the South Africans said: why don’t you and the Pakistanis talk? The thing was, the Americans and the British would stay out of all of this though they were the ones who actually wanted this meeting of the secret services. It must have been one of their ways of trying to get things going.
One day I went and told the national security advisor. “Sir, yeh messages aate rehte hain,” I said. “Mil ke toh dekhte hain, isme harz kya hai. Dekh hi le.” (Sir, these messages keep coming. Why not meet them and see, there’s no problem with that.”)
“Nahin-nahin,” Brajesh Mishra responded. “Abhi time theek nahin hain.” (No no. The time is not right now.)
Perhaps he thought I wasn’t hawkish enough to be talking to the Pakistanis.
Eventually, the R&AW chief was dispatched to meet the ISI chief to firm up details for the ceasefire that Pakistan announced in November 2003; C.D. Sahay and Ehsanul Haq met in July-August of that year, and according to Sahay, it really helped the situation in Kashmir as infiltration plummeted in October 2003; along with the successful and fair 2002 assembly election in J&K, it led to the deputy prime minister starting a dialogue with the separatists in January 2004. The ISI also acknowledges that timely intelligence provided by R&AW about a likely Jaish-e Mohammed attack may have saved President Musharraf’s life in 2004. Musharraf himself is said to have acknowledged it. Incidentally, two of the Jaish militants involved were hanged in Pakistan after the attack in a Peshawar school in December 2014. And there was another meeting, between Sahay’s successor P.K. Hormis Tharakan and his counterpart Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, who later became the army chief.
Letting the R&AW chief and the ISI chief meet is an idea that makes sense. There’s no question of a hidden agenda, and in any case we know each other’s agenda—it is simply each other. From the Pakistani point of view, if the intelligence chiefs meet then the leaders can also meet; the army chiefs could meet and then you could have a summit meeting, for one thing follows another.
Also, if I go by Assad Durrani’s way of thinking—which is how intelligence people think—then intelligence chiefs can do so much for their governments and their leaders which can remain non-attributable. It always helps the political process.
In fact, making one of R&AW’s Islamabad posts an open post on a reciprocal basis would be a good idea.
An open post is one where the host country knows you’re an intelligence man and that you’re there for cooperation and collaboration. As opposed to the open post, of course, is the undercover posting, which is supposed to be secret and unannounced. In New Delhi, the CIA has an open post, as does the British MI6; their representatives interact with our agency people here. We have open posts in Washington DC, in Moscow, in New York and in Paris.
Yes, Paris sounds odd since there isn’t much to do there, and there was a move in my time to give it up. We had been asking for more undercover posts, and the geniuses at the Ministry of External Affairs said if you want any new posts you’ll have to cut down on existing ones. One of our bright guys suggested we give up Paris. Though I had never served in Paris and was leaving the organisation in six months, I felt Paris should not be lost; it was a good reward for services rendered to the organisation. And now with the current shift in the global security scenario it would seem the retention of high level intelligence liaison is absolutely essential. However, I was aghast at the suggestion to close down Paris.
Pakistan, on the other hand, is no ball. It’s not an easy posting; there is watertight surveillance, much of it open and meant to scare off fellow Pakistanis, even those who just want to socialise. One of our guys—who did good work there—mentioned an incident where he invited several Pakistani acquaintances to lunch at a restaurant in Islamabad. It was a fun lunch, but afterwards when the guests came outside, they found a whole bunch of plainclothes men standing beside their motorcycles, waiting for them; and all of them stood in menacing poses with their arms folded. Each of the guests looked deflated, not looking forward to the prospect of being grilled about their meeting with the Indian.
Many diplomats, including some of ours, have even been physically manhandled by their Pakistani hosts. And to top it all, often the posting has been filled arbitrarily—you just pick somebody and say, go to Islamabad, which led me to suggest that Islamabad should be declared an open post. It would not only make life comfortable for the person posted there but also yield greater output if we were interacting directly with the ISI. Since we don’t talk to Pakistan, how can we ‘open’ anything; the status quo continues. This has been an opinion about postings in the recent past, which led me to tell the chief of the moment that the Islamabad posting is a waste and that there should be an open post.
This is something that would be very hard for a lot of people to swallow but let’s face it, the most important work R&AW does is in the neighbourhood, besides maintaining its relationships with Washington and Moscow. There is no point in looking at Tokyo or Johannesburg, for instance. And in our neighbourhood our most important relationship, if it were to get started and institutionalised, would be the R&AW-ISI one because it is out of this relationship that you could get positives. Also it would rid us of the “hauwa” of the ISI. We make it out to be much bigger than it is. As a former militant commander who spent considerable time in Pakistan told me, “There are some very fine officers in the ISI, but no one of Doval’s intellect or C.D. Sahay’s operational acumen.” I have found them not very different from us except that they are from the army, which calls the shots in Pakistan, the reason why ISI is called a state within a state. During my visit to Karachi in 2011, a TV channel asked me what I thought about the ISI and I said I would love to be DG ISI.
Other relationships are merely cosmetic. Take the relationship with the CIA, for instance: you meet them, have a meeting where you follow a script saying this is what we are doing, this is what is happening. And they reciprocate with their worldview. But none of it gets you anywhere, because in the end, every country, every agency has its own agenda.
Hence if both India and Pakistan could get past their cynicism and their huge distrust, there’s a lot that the two intelligence agencies could do together.
Such is our mindset and obsession with Pakistan that we shy away even from so-called ISI agents; that’s what makes handling Kashmir so much more difficult. Their agents should be first targets. Whatever they could do we could do better. We had the upper hand because Kashmir and Kashmiris were a part of India. Even Kashmiris living across have needed our help. Double agents are the best agents; the business of intelligence is about sinners, not saints. And that is where the ISI scores over us professionally; they never give up on a target even if reckoned to be the most Indian. That was how they assiduously pursued Sajad Lone despite his participating in the 2000 elections when Geelani wanted his party, the People’s Conference, boycotted by the Hurriyat. That was how they got Majid Dar’s wife to Pakistan despite killing her husband and maiming her for life.
Instead, we have to work through others, like the Americans. In Chapter 2, I mentioned the meeting with CIA chief George Tenet, who was easy to get along with; at a dinner the night he arrived held at my official residence, he knocked back a few glasses of whisky and made a big show of what a pal he was. (He and his wife invited Paran and me to accompany them to the Taj Mahal the next day, in his private jet; we went, but in our own R&AW Gulfstream.) Tenet had come and told me that we needed to check General Musharraf out ourselves, and that Musharraf was somebody with whom you could do business. Remember at that time we still had the bitter aftertaste of Kargil. You could say that this was one of the steps that led to the India-Pakistan summit the following summer at, by coincidence, Agra.
Similarly, we had another American drop in: the head of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Centre (CTC), Cofer Black. Black was a veteran CIA hand whom al-Qaeda tried to assassinate when he was the head of station in Sudan from 1993 to ’95. He was also blamed by the 9/11 Commission for not informing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the entry into the US of two of the plane hijackers, who were under CTC surveillance along with other members of al-Qaeda.
Cofer Black had come to India to visit Brajesh Mishra, and he was passed along to R&AW. We had a formal meeting with some of my guys, during which he asked for a private one-on-one with me. During this chat, he said that his agency was putting heavy pressure on the ISI to reduce the violence. He then said that we, meaning the Indian agencies, had to reciprocate and not indulge in any violence. So I told him: “Us? We never do such stuff.”
There were several times, though, when we were frustrated with the violence; particularly when we were working out a relationship with someone in Kashmir, and that person would get bumped off by the ISI. It happened with too many Kashmiris, and in the previous chapters I have mentioned Abdul Majid Dar and Abdul Ghani Lone. Each time someone was killed by the Pakistanis there was huge frustration and there were discussions, at times, of the need for a tit-for-tat policy. But it remained only an informal discussion because no government in Delhi would approve of it. That the ‘Bub Jihad’ is still alive and kicking despite all the mayhem that he has been responsible for is a tribute to our liberal traditions. Whether or not this helped us in Kashmir is a debatable matter. I am of the firm belief it did because, as Mufti said, making Geelani a martyr would be counterproductive. Farooq would have been quite happy and willing to roll him down the Jhelum.
The issue of retaliation came up also in the context of harassment of our diplomats in Islamabad. In early 1990 when there was extreme tension in J&K, both MEA and R&AW favoured more aggressive surveillance of Pakistani diplomats in Delhi. But from the counterintelligence viewpoint it09 would be counterproductive. Following someone when he knows he is being followed may be a crude deterrent but serves no intelligence purpose. For the same reason I believe making public the taped conversations of Musharraf and Aziz Khan during the Kargil war, whatever political purpose it served, was a mistake. It dried up a crucial channel of information.
Even the talk of killing Dawood Ibrahim—the underworld don who is said to have masterminded the 1993 serial bombings in Mumbai, and who subsequently fled Mumbai and is said to be hiding in Pakistan—has taken place outside of the government and has not been sanctioned by any government of the day.
Hence in Kashmir, although counter-insurgency operations have exacted a heavy toll, and though there are many takers for bumping off unsavoury characters, we have not adopted a policy on extra-judicial executions. As Lone Saheb’s son Sajad once said to me in a pique, justifying why it was too risky for a Kashmiri to cooperate with India rather than Pakistan: ‘What’s the most you can do, throw us in jail? The ISI-walas will shoot us dead.’
That brings up the question that if we didn’t have a tit-for tat policy to kill, then how did we get people on our side. And the simple answer is: selling peace through a sustained dialogue. There is no better way. People may find it difficult to believe that the reputed Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy, who incidentally was my contemporary and whom I met in Tel Aviv in 1999, was a firm votary of dialogue. He understood that the Palestinian militant faction, Hamas, could neither be demolished nor cowed down and that talking was the only way out. This is what some sensible people do and that is what we did: talk, talk and talk almost endlessly. In the end it is all about human relationships; little gestures, like a surprise birthday cake, go a long way in building friendships. Operations require sensitive human judgement and a feel for the quarry.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is, all in all, a reader-subscription-backed business model and in order to make sure we build a media platform with only the best interests of India at heart, we need your backing.
And in challenging times like this, we need your support now more than ever—to continue bringing you stories that are often shrugged off.
For us to invest in quality reporting and continue bringing you the right stories, it takes a lot of time and money.
Partner with us, be a patron or a subscriber. We need your support, throughout.