Spy versus spy: Review of Adrian Levy's and Cathy Scott-Clark's new book - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 13 October 2021

Spy versus spy: Review of Adrian Levy's and Cathy Scott-Clark's new book


Spy stories: Inside the secret world of the R.A.W. and the I.S.I

By Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark

Juggernaut Books, 2021

340 pages

Rs 699


Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, both former journalists and now wildly successful authors, have translated their expertise, experience and network of contacts in the US and South Asia into seven riveting books. All but the first two relate directly or indirectly to the troubled geo-politics and the potholed security landscape of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.


Deception” told the story of how the infamous nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, in cahoots with the Pakistan Army and with a blind eye turned by the US Central Intelligence Agency, set up the world's largest clandestine network that sold nuclear technology and raw materials. That was followed by “The Meadow”, the story of four backpackers, kidnapped by jihadi radicals in Kashmir. Then came “The Siege”, their reconstruction of the Lashkar-e-Toiba strikes on Mumbai on 26/11. Their fourth book, set in this region, is “The Exile”, a fascinating account of the flight of Osama bin Laden after he left Afghanistan in 2001.


With this extensive background, Levy and Scott-Clark have now written “Spy stories”, an account of the decades-old, but undiminished, tussle between Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency -- the Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.) – and India’s more discreetly named Research and Analysis Wing (R.A.W.). The I.S.I. was established in 1948, soon after independence, and R.A.W. was born two decades later, resulting in a significantly different ethos and operational culture. Both sides agreed on one thing when the authors proposed this book, however: There would have to be institutional buy-in. This was agreed to at the highest levels in India – which meant having to obtain the personal imprimatur of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. With official backing obtained, the authors interviewed not just multiple political leaders and intelligence chiefs, but also managed multiple sittings with each.


They interviewed Benazir Bhutto twice in 2007, General Pervez Musharraf five times between 2009 and 2017, Ajit Doval in 2009 and Lieutenant General (Lt Gen) Hamid Gul – a legend even amongst I.S.I. chiefs – eight times, between 1999 and 2014, in Rawalpindi and Dubai. They interviewed leading Kashmiri insurgent, Kuka Parray thrice, Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Abdul Majeed Dar twice, and had briefings with Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafiz Saeed. In addition, their footnotes cite multiple interviews and briefings with operational level intelligence agents, who are usually better sources for detail and colour.


A predictable hazard that arises from using interviews and conversations, unsubstantiated by official documents, as a book’s primary source material is that the narrative tends to reduce itself to a raconteur’s collection of spy stories. At places in the book, the recounting of stories – both complimentary and self-exculpatory for the interviewee – brings in a dizzying cast of characters that tends to confuse the viewer. In the chapter “9/11 and its long shadow”, in just the first two pages, the reader finds herself juggling the actions and movements of Colin Powell, Pervez Musharraf, Ilyas Kashmiri, Mullah Omar, Masood Azhar, Sajjad Afghani and R.A.W. officers Syed Asif Ibrahim and Rajinder Khanna and a mysterious, raven-haired female R.A.W. agent called Monisha.


To their credit however, Levy and Scott-Clark manage to retain perspective through the accounts of beatings and torture – such as the two-day, violence-filled interrogation of the key mastermind, Afzal Guru. They cite I.S.I. officers who point out that such “enhanced interrogation techniques” of the kind that the C.I.A legally employed on suspects in the war on terror, too often resulted in the striking down of statements thus obtained, on the grounds that they were obtained under duress. In India, however, there was nothing to prevent such statements being used to convict and hang parliament attack convict, Afzal Guru.


One of the most interesting side-stories that threads through the book relates to the corruption of Pakistani intelligence agencies by the short-cuts that became institutionalised during the war on terror. Under the C.I.A’s so-called “black programme”, prisoners were denied the protections of American laws by the process called “extraordinary rendition”, in which prisoners were sent for custody and interrogation in countries where the rule of law was a minor inconvenience – such as Egypt, Jordan, Poland and Pakistan. One of the moderate I.S.I. chiefs, General Enam-ul-Haq, worried that if these quick, off-the-books fixes became common in Pakistan, there would be a bleeding out of the state’s moral authority and an end to checks and balances. One Pakistani brigadier notes that, when C.I.A. operatives visited Pakistani detention and interrogation facilities, there was no longer any talk about adherence to human rights.


Amongst the most interesting parts of the book is the vivid description of two assassination attempts on Musharraf at the end of 2003 – clearly recounted by Musharraf himself. The first person accounts provide unprecedented detailing, not just of the violence of the attack but also the consternation caused by the discovery that a section of the Pakistan military was behind the attack, including a small body of commandoes from the elite Special Services Group.


Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark are known for their detailing and their latest book will not disappoint their readers. In many places, it provides a useful counter-point to a similar work, “The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace”, written in 2018 by former R.A.W. chief Amar Singh Dulat and former I.S.I. chief, Lt Gen Asad Durrani. Nevertheless, the new book bears reading on its own merits and will certainly find a place in the book shelf of all South Asian scholars.

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