4 min read.Updated: 23 Aug 2021, 02:15 AM ISTManu Joseph
The dirty tricks departments of intelligence agencies play a bigger role in our safety than acknowledged
Sometime in the 1980s, a police officer ordered a phone tap on a band of thieves, and when he asked his cops to bring him the data, they arrived with a phone booth on a truck. That India is gone forever; today, India bumbles in more sophisticated ways. But generally, Indian intelligence has vastly improved, and is even much deadlier.
That is a message in a recent book, Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of the R.A.W. and the I.S.I by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, who portray India’s Research & Analysis Wing as a cunning, ruthless, and an underrated organization that is not only good at stealing informing, but also in manufacturing tragedies to harm Pakistan. This comes through in another new release, The Lover Boy of Bahawalpur by Rahul Pandita. The books also demonstrate that the RAW is not shy anymore to portray itself as a brutal shadowy force with a persuasive moral excuse.
The idea that the intelligence agency of a democracy is run by humane patriots who make a valiant compromise with their own conscience to kill and maim, and fund merciless terrorists for the greater good, is one of the most successful myths our times.
Stories about these subterranean agencies would often feature melancholic patriarchs who appear pained by their own practical games that have destroyed many lives. But what I gather, and what I suspect, is that a secret agency is usually a magnet for people addicted to the thrill of intrigue, and also sociopaths and sadists, whose psychological framework helps them thrive here. But they perform an extraordinary collateral service—they do protect millions of lives from other mad men who, too, kill for moral reasons.
The fact is, all of us are beneficiaries of the suspension of human rights in many dark spaces in this world, where horrible things are done to mine information.
Days after 11 September 2001, Levy and Scott-Clark write, Pervez Musharraf, who was the president of Pakistan then, wrote down his thoughts in a classified document. We think classified documents must contain complex stuff we cannot think up, but most of them are simple, like this: ‘“The US will go to war over al Qaeda at some point, and the Taliban will become casualties for shielding them… Then, Pakistan will have to choose. And if Pakistan chooses Taliban, while this decision will be popular, it will also be disastrous. Let us consider: 1. Taliban are mostly beyond ISI influence. 2. …The task is capturing their attention and maintaining influence over the US. But also reaching out to India."
This is interesting for several reasons. Pakistan’s president had a view at odds with popular journalistic opinion even today—that the ISI controls the Afghan Taliban. Also, Musharraf wanted to reach out to India. But the RAW, the authors point out throughout their book, had become adept in portraying Pakistan as a rogue aggressor eroding the patience of a mature India.
After 9/11, the US treated Pakistan with very little respect; its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) wanted directly access to the ISI’s counter-terrorism wing, whose chief Azmat Hyat said, “I now had two bosses…The I.S.I. chief, General Ehsan ul-Haq, and the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism chief, Jose Rodriguez."
In 2003, something strange occurred, even by ISI standards. The CIA instructed its counter-terrorism centre to raid a house in Rawalpindi but refused to give any further details. It was a house in an upscale area, fit for a general. As Pakistani officers broke down the door, they were blindly following an American instruction with no idea what lay at the end of their search. It was possible that an irate Pakistani general could be standing akimbo there. But what they found was a sleeping Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was widely known then as the “mastermind" of the 9/11 attacks. It took some effort to wake him up. “When they did, he scrutinized their faces, and immediately offered them cash for his freedom."
Soon after his capture, he was taken to secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Poland. There he was brutalized in various ways. He was also subjected to waterboarding, a form of torture in which a person is immersed in water so long that he feels he is drowning; in some instances, the subject takes water into his lungs. In Poland, Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times. “Mohammed had been filled with so much water that there was a danger that the electrolytes in his blood had become dangerously diluted," Dexter Filkins wrote in the New Yorker, “The officer requested that C.I.A. interrogators use salted water during the waterboarding sessions."
Nusrat Naeem, an ISI officer who helped create the Hurriyat, an organization that has fought for the independence of Kashmir, told Levy and Scott-Clark, “Human rights are a construct used in times of peace to choke U.S. competitors."
The confluence of several games of several intelligence agencies in Pakistan reduced it to anarchy where even its president was not safe. After one of many attempts on his life, he said, with sorrow, though it might sound hilarious to Indians, “Some leaders get to visit the scenes of tragedy and pass on condolences. Instead, it was me who continually received commiserations."
Meanwhile, RAW carried out several operations to make Pakistan look dangerous and untrustworthy in the eyes of the world. The authors hint that there might be some substance to theories that Indian agents had a connection to the 13 December 2001 attack on Indian Parliament. All for the greater good of law-abiding Indians.
Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’
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