National Security: A Conversation With Former DG ISI General Asad Durrani
General Asad Durrani, after retirement from Pakistan’s premier security agency ISI, served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany and Saudi Arabia. He has authored the book, Pakistan Adrift, and co-authored the book, Spy Chronicles, with the head of India’s intelligence service. Both are fascinating and packed with insights into the workings of the national security apparatus in Pakistan.
If anyone knows the ins and outs of Pakistan’s history, it’s General Durrani. He joined the army a year after General Ayub had taken over as the first military ruler. A common friend introduced me to General Durrani recently and that gave me an opportunity to discuss the issues Pakistan has faced in managing its national security since it gained independence in 1947.
I began the dialogue by saying that right from the beginning, Pakistan’s national security policies seem to have been wrapped around two issues: India and Kashmir. How much of Pakistan’s chronic tension with India is India’s fault and how much is Pakistan’s? The general stated wisely that apportioning blame or accusing someone else for creating your problems is not helpful in understanding the issue.
He added that the way in which the British partitioned the Subcontinent in 1947 unleashed political dynamics that “inevitably led to friction and heart burning.” Kashmir is the starkest manifestation of the congenital rivalry between the two siblings. Durrani said that after the partition, both countries tried to make the “best of a bad situation.” India was able to that better than Pakistan.
Turning to Kashmir, I said that there does not appear to be a military solution to the problem. Why does Pakistan not accept the Line of Control as the international border? Durrani said that there was no compelling reason for Pakistan to do so. To me, the compelling reason is to reduce military expenditure and focus on issues of economic development, health, and education.
He said: “More importantly, the Kashmiris would not accept it.” He added that such important issues take decades to resolve. The solution will “ultimately depend upon how well the contenders synthesise all elements of their national power. Though an important one, the military is just one of them.”
I asked him what did Pakistan, under the military rule of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, achieve by sending “freedom fighters” into Kashmir in 1965. He said the invasion “was poorly conceived, hurriedly planed, and indifferently executed. It did not endear us to the Kashmiris, gave heart to India, and diminished Ayub Khan’s standing.” I thought that was very well stated, even though it’s totally counter to the conventional wisdom in Pakistan, which says that Pakistan won the war.
The Pakistani army’s lack luster performance in the 1965 war is objectively described in Lieutenant-General (retired) Mahmud Ahmad’s history. The book has been suppressed by the army and is not available anywhere. Does the army not want to learn from its experiences? Durrani said that “[E]stablishments are paranoid, and the militaries are rather reluctant to concede any shortcomings; especially on leadership issues. That’s our Achilles’ Heel.”
Then I asked him what did Pakistan, under yet another bout of military rule under General Yahya, achieve by annulling the results of the 1970 general elections and launching a civil war in the East in 1971? He said that Pakistan “lost the war against India, and our eastern wing.”
I turned to 1999 when the Pakistani army, under the command of General Pervez Musharraf, attacked Indian positions in Kargil, Kashmir. I asked, what did that achieve? General Durrani said that “Kargil was badly timed.” It was at best a contingency plan designed for a different setting. It did not make any sense to launch it “on the heels of the two countries going overtly nuclear. It should have been called-off when Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee had planned and executed his ‘Bus Diplomacy.’ Kargil was a disastrous undertaking.”
Why has the military governed Pakistan for much of its history? General Durrani said, “The force of arms has historically been respected or feared in large areas that are now part of Pakistan. During and after the Partition, the military played a significant role in the country. It protected the refugees who had come from India. And it sought to resolve the Kashmir issue. It also played a significant role in cementing relations with the US. The relationship was largely a military pact which helped correct our imbalance against India. That pact provided a significant boost to the role of the military in Pakistan. An additional factor was the inability of the civilian leadership to govern the country.”
Why has the Indian military never intervened in politics? He said, “The civil establishment in India is very strong. Additionally, India is too diverse to be easily subjugated by the military. India’s polity is less militaristic. Prime Minister Nehru was ideologically a pacifist and socialist. His stature in India was equivalent to that of Governor General M. A. Jinnah in Pakistan. He remained at the helm from 1947 to 1964 and that allowed him to ‘embed military’s subservience to the state.’ Jinnah might have done the same if he had not passed away in 1948, just a year after the Partition.”
How is that Osama bin Laden was “hiding in plain sight” within a mile of the military academy without being detected? General Durrani said that he had always felt that Pakistan had come to know about Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan at some stage but did not want to take him out. Pakistan was more than happy to let the US to take him out. It feigned ignorance about Osama in Laden’s presence for political reasons. This confirmed what a military attaché in Riyadh had told me once, that the terrorist was regarded as a hero by millions in Pakistan.
I asked further, Do you think Pakistan is spending too much of its scarce resources on maintain a military that is roughly half the size of the Indian military? The general said, “We are maintaining it at far less than half of the Indian Defence Budget. Though admittedly, it’s always possible to achieve a more effective structure within the same allocation.”
Finally, I asked him if the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides had made war in the Subcontinent less likely? He agreed, and said that a major conventional war under the nuclear overhang was very unlikely.
The conversation was very candid and revealing and highlighted the many challenges that confront Pakistan that can be overcome with wise leadership.
Ahmad Faruqui is a defense analyst and economist. He has taught at the universities of Karachi, California at Davis, and San Jose State. Faruqui is the author of “Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan” (Ashgate, 2003). Contact him via Twitter @AhmadFaruqui