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'Pakistani army officers don't want to join the ISI'

By Nikhil Lakshman
August 31, 2017 08:31 IST
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'The military in Pakistan is capable and self critical, but intelligence is stuffed full of lifers who resist change, which is why career soldiers in Pakistan try with all their might not to be transferred into the ISI.'

 Lieutenant General Naveed Mukhtar, the current director general, Inter Services Intelligence

Adrian Levy, who co-authored The Exile, the story of Osama bin Laden's mystery years in Pakistan, discusses the Pakistan Deep State, the ISI and terrorism in this interview with's Nikhil Lakshman.

Four of your six books have Pakistan's security establishment as the protagonist so to speak. What keeps bringing you back to Pakistan's Deep State?

Well, the real answer to this would fill a Web site. So a précis hinges around our 'commitment' -- Social, political, cultural, culinary and pretty much in every way -- to Asia, and predominately 'South Asia', although we've lived and worked in Southeast Asia too.

And if that's the case, who in the region is not preoccupied, fascinated, intrigued, intimidated and occasionally kept agog by the Pakistan security establishment!

On the one hand it is possibly the most important 'protagonist' since 1979, when Zia(Pakistan's then military ruler General Mohammad Zia-ul Haq) began fine-tuning it, to temper India, also creating the first generation of jihad factory outlets to tether Shia landowner power in the country.

Then the US watered this garden -- to offset Soviet power -- and what grew up is the wild wall of brambles we see today.

But the security establishment that appears mythic and forbidding is not a single, coherent thing.

It is inflated by lazy reporters, who get nowhere and so publish fictional articles that attribute to ISI mythic qualities, when in many cases the ISI is treading water or even falling apart -- eclipsed by better tuned coherent establishments outside the country like the Quds Force in Iran, the ministry of state security (China) and Mossad (Israel).

Then there is the Deep State's dazzling lack of coherence as there are many competing forces and classes, religiously and socially.

All of this undermines the argument, often advanced in the US, that the military establishment is the only coherent force in Pakistan.

On the one hand the intel/military combine continually undermines the civilian establishment making sure it remains lame and off balance, and then, having hobbled it, points at it, warning everyone the civilians are lame.

The intel establishment also resists reform, starving itself of being professionalised, just as has the intel establishment in India.

The military in Pakistan is capable and self critical, but intelligence is stuffed full of lifers who resist change, which is why career soldiers in Pakistan try with all their might not to be transferred into the ISI.

We also have to consider risk/reward.

Many notable Western academics, and Asian ones too, write nonsense about Pakistan to appease the Pakistan and Indian establishment(s) and ensure their visas continue to be issued (and that they get paid).

One recent book was basically a hagiography of the Pakistan military, with the professor rewarded with further trips and sideshows inside the country.

And some of those who are excluded become virulently anti Pakistan knowing they have nothing to lose and never miss an opportunity to blame Pakistan.

Between these two, corrupted positions, Pakistan is often crushed.

There needs to be more honesty and nuance.

And finally, there is the interplay between the Pakistan security establishment and India, which perhaps is the most bamboozling, dramatic and stellar story of all.

Why has no book been written on that? We've taken a shot but only with certain episodes -- over Kashmir (and the creation of 'Ikhwan'); over nuclear (with A Q Khan); and over 'jihad' with The Exile, The Siege and The Meadow.

The larger story of the faceoff between the ISI and R&AW would be a staggering read. And not what you might think.

There is brutality and bravery and knavery on both sides. It is perhaps the most important book to write: Setting out this war over three or four decades.

My guess is there would be no absolute winner either. And few good guys (apart from Naresh Chandra, and India's Angus MacGyver, Ajit Doval (or A S Dulat).

Do Ms Scott-Clark and you continue to be surprised by what you discover -- the intrigue and skullduggery that you encounter in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Karachi?

Hey you are missing Srinagar, Lucknow, Delhi and Mumbai (as well as Ranchi, Chennai and a whole host of other places from Gangtok to Kanyakumari).

There's intrigue, violations and aspirations on both sides of the LoC -- and especially so with the Modi administration in office that is rewriting history literally.

We're always surprised, and then curious to take things to pieces and get under the bonnet.

Real life is hyper-dramatic, especially so when neighbors become competitors.

On both sides of the LoC one remarkable similarity is that people talk -- clerics, agents, insurgents, politicians -- folk who you would assume would not sit down over plates of rice and curd.

Cops and robbers, agents and insurgents, invariably do want to set the record straight or at least be a 'voice'.

This is perhaps the most important lesson we have learned.

Always go for the interview -- do not self censor yourself by not trying.

It's so important we gather the pieces of evidence, first hand, rather than accepting reports filtered by governments and agencies.

Contemporary histories are vital right now in this deskilled age, when we are barraged by voices on social media, and by media houses that are adjuncts of vested interests, which makes it difficult to know truth from fiction.

Take the myths around Osama.

One guy in Pakistan recently tweeted that if we wanted to know the real story about Osama, we should ask Edward Snowden who has said that Osama never died and is being sheltered today.

Snowden never said this, but a news site renowned for falsifying stories as click bait did.

How do we tell the difference? Some sites like Snopes are working on this. But getting to primary sources is the answer.

I hope people continue to pay us to do this work. Although it has to be said that every new project starts with publishers/networks coming up with reasons why not to pay!

Which of the four books that involve the Pakistan Deep State has been the most difficult to research and why?
How many years do you spend reporting each book? Or is the reportage taking place simultaneously?
Were you finding stuff for The Exile when you were researching The Siege?

All presented very specific nightmarish problems that needed solving.

Meadow: Wnning access to insurgents on both sides of the LoC and to the intel establishment, as well as to villages where people were brutalised and crushed by both sides, having no expectation of being listened to and so do not talk.

People de-sensitised, or even suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), found it hard to delve too far into a dark past.

The Siege: Accessing US and Indian intelligence as well as the Mumbai police officers, and handling real stories with sensitivity (I hope).

These were not 'stories' as such, they were people's volatile, painful memories.

Exile: Stifling paranoia and fear to access Al Qaeda circles continually, until we became flies on the wall -- singing karaoke and eating roast goat in the desert.

Deception: Dinding the scientists and A Q Khan's friends who were prepared to open up the world he lived in.

And the contemporaries and even the psychologist who treated him -- helping us get to a new portrait of who he was and what he did -- most sensitive of all -- was for whom.

That really was a conspiracy and I think we got the nearest to its core.

All of these four books had triumphs and disasters.

Meadow: A Kashmiri journalist tried to blow the identity of several of our Kashmiri sources, wildly naming cops etc, hoping to scatter gun and get one right, with all of those he named getting into trouble.

A lawyer and paralegal were harassed, one of their homes staffed with gunfire, the latter arrested under the PSA.

Siege: Being fed sensitive information by an Indian government minister who then rubbished the book on the basis that the information was not true although it was.

Deception: The ISI stealing a hard drive and wrecking one of our computers before getting hold of a draft of the book by posing as publishers at a book fair.

Exile: Too sensitive to yet reveal, but it's a constant ongoing game of checkers.

One is constantly startled by what one discovers in your books, the level of detail, the new information. How do you pull it off?
Have you established a network of sources in the most secretive arms of any government, especially the Pakistani security establishment?

Twenty years. Ten of them the idiot years when we got many, many things wrong.

But as we got better read, and travelled more, and learned languages, and our sources got more senior, it all began to come together.

When we began, wandering into Kashmir in 1994 -- we could not tell a Matschgand from a Muji Gaad.

Now, when we don't know, we ask everyone, and finally, after repeatedly putting the same question to many people as can possibly answer it, we piece together a history based on consensus.

Why do Pakistan's generals and spooks speak to you? Have you 'burnt' any sources as a consequence of your books?
Do these sources speak to you because of your reputation, maybe because you offer them some assurances or guarantees? if so, what?

The same reason Indian ones speak to us. And insurgents or those on jihad.

Including the LeT, JeM and Al Qaeda.

Everyone wants their story properly framed and hates their history being spun by someone else.

Ego and intellectual curiosity get the better of everyone at some stage.

There is an irritation also that the lion's share of contemporary history is seen through the lens of Hollywood or as a police procedural via FBI, CIA accounts by veteran agents.

We don't write those kinds of stories. We want to see and hear the flip side.

How do you and Ms Scott-Clark divide the reportage and writing? Did she, for instance, work on the FBI and CIA sections of The Exile while you worked on the Pakistani and Iranian sections of the book?
How do you verify each element of information? After all, you are dealing with cloak and mirror universes, where deceit and lies are the calling cards of the trade?
What is the verification process you employ to ensure that your books are based on rechecked fact?

We create super detailed structures, which get modified and moderated, as the process of research goes on, areas of which are divided between the two of us.

We then begin writing at opposite ends and swap over parts for the other to edit.

We create a dream room, filled with photographs and maps, which spread out onto the walls, around us, so that every time we step in we are immersed in the place and time.

We have to be careful not to let malice or revenge skewer the process.

No point bringing your daily bellyaches to the writing table. Those have to be ditched at the door.

When we started we weren't good at this part. We were normal stressed out, competitive, neurotic writers.

Once out of a sense of vengeance Cathy cut several chapters I wrote and I murdered one of the characters she most loved.

Now we're both pathological, stone cold, killers.

And if the argument is powerful and a contributor needs to be got rid of -- kapow! -- they've gone.

Osama bin Laden is shown watching himself on television in this video frame grab. Photograph: Pentagon/Reuters

IMAGE: Osama bin Laden watching himself on television in this video frame grab. Photograph: Pentagon/Reuters

Who betrayed Osama bin Laden? Was it someone in the Pakistani military?
Or was it one of his elder wives?
Did they put the CIA on to al-Kuwaiti, OBL's courier?
Could the CIA have tracked OBL down without such inside information?

I think Osama's wife betrayed him: Khairiyah.

She was released by the Iranians in 2010, and then followed by the Quds Force and then the CIA, leading them via Waziristan, to Abbottabad.

The family believe this vehemently.

IMAGE: Lieutenant General Naveed Mukhtar, the current director general, Inter Services Intelligence.

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Nikhil Lakshman /