Deciphering the signals behind Asad Durrani’s utterances

The former ISI chief’s successive appearances on television last week are possibly aimed at building pressure on the US to fulfil their side of the ‘deal’

Lt. General (retd) Asad Durrani, a former Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) appeared on the Al-Jazeera Network and BBC HARDtalk last week, and opened up more than one can of worms in the process. In his interview to Al-Jazeera, he assessed that the ISI harboured Osama Bin Laden and wanted to give him up in exchange of a favourable resolution to the Afghanistan political question. On BBC HARDtalk, when asked about Pakistan’s continued support for the Afghan Taliban, he expounded that statecraft is based on realism, and not on abstract emotions of permanent friendship and trust. What Durrani said during these television appearances did not come as a surprise to people in India who have long suspected that the Military-Jihadi Complex(MJC) in Pakistan is a powerful and irreconcilable entity. Nevertheless, this was the first admission of the nexus between Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani State by someone close to the MJC. Officially, the ISI still claims that they did not harbour Bin Laden and played no role in the 2011 raid. Thus, from an Indian perspective, it is not the content of these utterances that matter as much as the the reasons behind the timing of this disclosure.

The first reason for these statements could just be a personal vendetta between Durrani and Gen. Raheel Sharif, who heads the current military establishment, or a feud between Durrani and the ISI chief during the Osama Bin Laden raid, Lt. Gen. (retd) Shuja Pasha. Having figured out that there is nothing to lose personally, this could be a ploy by Durrani to voice his opposition to others in the military. Appearing on HARDtalk, Durrani appears to be critical of Operation Zarb-e-Azb on the grounds that it created more trouble than it killed enemies of the Pakistani State. In response to the military offensive against terrorists following the Peshawar attack, he hoped that the Pakistani military would calibrate its response based on what the terror groups stand for. In his own words: ‘In principle, groups which are ultimately going to be useful in the unity of Afghanistan and groups that are not against the Pakistani state will not be targeted, I at least hope that will not be done because that would be a very silly thing to do’. Such statements indicate differences between Mr. Durrani and the current military leadership. The possibility that these utterances are a part of a personal power play in the Pakistani military elite sounds like a damp squib but one can’t deny the role that personal differences play in such cases. This possibility however, becomes untenable considering that Asad Durrani has been the unofficial mouthpiece of ISI in the past and has served masterfully as a channel of plausible deniability for the MJC. If this modus operandi holds true even today, there are two possibilities that explain the purpose and timing behind these interviews.

The second possibility could be to pre-empt another revelation that might expose ISI’s duplicity further. By taking a stance now, Durrani is attempting to soften the impact that any disclosure which implicates ISI might lead to. When questioned by Al-Jazeera Network’s Mehdi Hasan that was Laden’s compound an ISI safe house, he responded ‘If ISI was doing that, then I would say they were doing a good job. And if they revealed his location, they again probably did what was required to be done’. Such statements are meant to shield the ISI against a domestic backlash as Bin Laden still remains an admired figure in Pakistan. What appears to have happened is that the ISI’s plan was to trade Osama Bin Laden at the right time and at a right “price”. What is not clear however, is whether the Abbottabad raid was a result of this deal or a consequence of an aborted one. After Asad Durrani’s outburst, the US seemed to be eager to deny his claims. US State spokeswoman Jen Psaki was quick to assert that  ‘we don’t have any reason to believe that the government of Pakistan knew about the location of Bin Laden’. This evidence suggests that a deal was indeed being negotiated when US took unilateral action, recognising that Pakistan was asking for too much in return.

The third and the most plausible reason could be that a deal indeed took place but Pakistan did not get what was promised. In this context, Durrani rued that ‘there was no co-operation by the US with Pakistan on Afghanistan’ after 2005. Solving the Afghanistan political question in terms favorable to Pakistan was the demand that Pakistan would have wanted in return of Laden’s handover. Since this demand was not met in its entirety, Pakistan now wants to remind US of its side of the deal. Praising Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan, Durrani reminded the US, and the world that Pakistan would continue to support jihadi elements not harmful to Pakistan like the Haqqanis. He even claimed that the Haqqanis were given signals to move out of North Waziristan before Operation Zarb-e-Azb began. Apart from a stake in the politics of Afghanistan, these statements might be aimed at boosting the quantum of US financial aid for the Pakistani military. Since Pakistan has vehemently expressed its disagreement with the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, these interviews could be meant to seek a similar deal between the US and Pakistan.

What happens in the coming days will help understand which of these three possibilities turns out to be true. Meanwhile, a lesson for all of us from these events, to paraphrase Asad Durrani himself, is that ‘Statecraft is not about permanent friends…you play so many games, you keep many balls in the air. International relations are not based on trust’. Serves as a reminder to all of us that amorality is a feature, and not a bug in the domain of international relations.

This article first appeared on The BroadMind blog.

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