The roots of failure of one of the longest armed conflicts in US history lies in America’s calamitous and disastrous relationship with Afghanistan,” journalist Adrian Levy told THE WEEK in an interview from London.
Levy recently co-authored Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of the RAW and the ISI, published by Juggernaut, with author-journalist Cathy Scott-Clark.
On India’s role in Afghanistan, he said that Delhi had been busy nurturing its relationship with the national government, forgetting that there was an Afghanistan beyond Kabul. Excerpts from an interview:
What role do you see for Delhi in Afghanistan?
India did many things in Afghanistan. It pumped in cash and resources and created a relationship, but perhaps its biggest failing was that it was late in [reaching out to] the other side (Taliban). Kabul is not equivalent to Afghanistan; India put too [much trust] in the US mirage there. It went late to Doha. Its reach mirrored the US’s. We must remember that the Taliban is not India’s enemy. It never was.
As much as Indian intelligence agencies like R&AW want to build a narrative that Pakistan will be the biggest worry again, there is evidence to suggest that groups that have decamped as a result of constant purging by Pakistan are now operating in the lawless lands across the Durand Line. Elements of the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba are forming deadly battle-hardened groups inside southern Afghanistan and will attack anyone, including Pakistan.
What are the other worries in Afghanistan?
First, it is the chaotic space created in places in Afghanistan by insurgents who fled Waziristan and FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), where terror groups are deeply entrenched inside communities. They will continue to spark tension around the Durand Line and beyond. Second, there are spoilers like Iran, which has funded sections of the Taliban to hamper the US; and Russia, which had previously lost in Afghanistan, and is engaged in a contest with Washington. There is Turkey, which is deep into Pakistan, rivalling Saudi, and wants to be seen as a regional power. So, the failed state and the spoilers together pave the way for a breeding ground for evil forces and dangerous groups to thrive.
In 20 years, there have been some changes. The Pakistan army has come through 18 years of war for the better, and Rawalpindi has spent a lot of money to fortify the Durand Line with fencing and tech. What is far from clear is how and whether adventurist elements within the military and the intelligence establishment have now been enabled, too, to prosecute their old anti-India project.
In the book, you draw links between the 2019 Pulwama attack and Afghanistan.
Jaish-e-Mohammad plotted Pulwama inside Afghanistan. They had occupied compounds alongside Al Qaeda and other terrorist outfits. While the public statements and perception were completely different, that the ISI and the Pakistan military establishment were to blame, the facts suggested that the command and control structure was inside Afghanistan. If you look at the aetiology of forensics, a similar device was used in the 2008 bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. Aluminium powder was used to create enormous heat. So, what you have are Al Qaeda engineers, Jaish leaders and even men trained by the now dead [Al Qaeda] commander Ilyas Kashmiri, who targeted Pulwama. What we see is how few people are needed to spill blood and create the architecture of terror. But what happens afterwards, despite the evidence, is that India lambasts Pakistan. The political project takes over.
So are you saying that R&AW is good at perception management?
India has had great success in projecting itself as benign. It is a masterful thing done through soft and hard power, where you gather a cloak around yourself to disguise all hot actions and instead portray yourself as being the patient, perpetual victim of Pakistan terror. Good play, as ISI would say. There has been Pakistan-backed terror and insurgency. But that is all we see. Thanks to this cloak.
In the book, you describe Kulbhushan Jadhav as an asset and not an officer. What is the difference?
In Jadhav, Pakistan spotted an opportunity. India required a new facility post 26/11; there was a need to step up and deploy assets that had access deep inside Pakistan and neighbouring countries to illuminate operations by Jaish, LeT and Al Qaeda. Given that actions by these groups had been switched down to only a simmer in Kashmir, they re-formed in Karachi and elsewhere looking for new routes to attack India. All agencies in India needed to reset around this thesis, be it the Indian Navy, the Intelligence Bureau or R&AW.
India worked hard to make connections through assets in Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and [among] Baloch nationalists, as well as seeking influence in places like Iran’s Chabahar Port, which was the natural competitor to Gwadar Port. So, there is China and Pakistan in Gwadar and R&AW and Iran in Chabahar. What we have are two ports of extreme strategic importance in Central Asia. And then there is Kulbhushan Jadhav working in Chabahar, but also able to traverse Pakistan and India. The man has at least two forms of official identity, mis-describing his religion and an actual address in Mumbai that the ISI learns is linked to a former senior police officer. The ISI sees a perfect opportunity to trap India. To build Jadhav from a roving itinerant—a roving ear—into being seen as an Indian master spy.
Are you saying Pakistan’s claim on Jadhav is real?
What cops do is detect crimes and put them through the criminal justice system, but what spymasters do is latch on to a crime and let it run as long as possible to see what the man is up to. They germinated an idea—in this case a conspiracy to attack a Pakistan air force base—and thrust upon him plans for the base, making him a party in a serious criminal conspiracy. They waited to see whom he would contact. Would he find a Baloch national? All along, in the background, they know he is a family man with kids. So, Jadhav gets jammed between spy wars of two sides.
In spy wars, enemy's enemy is your friend. How true is it for India?
Agencies like R&AW and Intelligence Bureau are using forces and assets and officers of every kind against Pakistan. This is classic intelligence work and this is what R&AW should be doing and is doing, while shielding its actions. It did that with MQM, when it was divided and its leader took asylum in London - recruiting inside MQM. The agency does this in London, Vienna, Geneva and other safe European havens and not within the theatre which is Pakistan. It does this with other outfits in Kashmir and along the Durand Line.
Did you see a rivalry between the R&AW and IB?
The IB became frustrated by not only the monopolisation of technical resources by the R&AW after 26/11 especially but also the scope of their operations. Although India is the theatre of action for IB, its officers told us that since the terror plans are brewed abroad, they too wanted operations tracking and eavesdropping outside India. That's also where a man like Jadhav comes in.
What we see - and more specifically what ISI might see - are only glimpses.
What are the ills plaguing the R&AW?
The organisation hollowed out after partition and became quite communal. The senior R&AW officers wanted and want to remove the IPS recruitment system and rigid promotions structure and start recruiting across religions, communities and languages. Some others want to involve the diaspora which speaks all languages. But, even today, hardly any Muslim officer has made it to the top in intelligence agencies.
But these are struggles the MI5, MI6, CIA, FBI have all had - becoming more like the societies they have to operate in. Relying on technical intel is not enough. RAW also desired a conditional role and a charter but these have been denied by many different governments that have resisted reform so that the intel agencies can continue to be political tools.
R&AW is suspected to be behind the Pegasus snooping scandal. Your comments.
We must look at the sequence of events. After 2001, the coming together of US and Pakistan enraged India which felt that the old abusive relationship was back on again and they tried to smash it and undermine it and colour it. They were successful in portraying Pakistan as the harbinger of terror, advancing bogus theories that, for example, 9/11 was funded by the Islamic Republic. They even projected a powerful false conspiracy involving an assassination threat to US secretary of state Colin Powell where Ilyas Kashmiri was said to have plotted to kill him in Rawalpindi using one of the CIA's missing Stinger missiles.
By 2004, under US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice, the US slowly began to repoint its relationship with India having acknowledged the rise of China. A series of military and security deals, that led to the civil nuclear pact, followed. By 2009, there was an attempt at high-level technical intelligence sharing (which initially struggled to get off the ground because of leaks in India) and the coming together of various agencies, United Kingdom Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the United States National Security Agency (NSA) inducting India into high-level groups. India began to centralise its technical eavesdropping facility and then bought into German spyware in ousting FinFisher that could access Blackberry and Android but could only pry into jail-broken Apple phones. It was used by spy agencies around the world to listen in to journalists and political dissidents, creating a scandal in which India was also accused. What replaced it, it seems, was Pegasus, supplied to in a country-to-country deal by Israel’s NSO, likely in 2018 and the Pegasus trials started running in 2019 which have exploded into the public arena with the leak of 2021.
But R&AW and the intel services have shown great initiatives on the Techint side since the East Pakistan war and especially during Kargil when Pervez Musharraf was eavesdropped exposing his plans. The intention and skill was there, but the full capabilities would come after 2009. By when these capabilities outpaced the legislature and, remember, oversight also is practically non-existent.
Did R&AW and IB officers agree on the need for a parliamentary oversight for intelligence agencies?
These agencies do not have a charter and have been used as a political football by different governments. Narasimha Rao government was one that used intelligence this way, and others too, especially Indira Gandhi. All the officers we met agreed there was a need for an oversight mechanism and a chartering that placed the intel services inside a constitutional framework.
As Edward Snowden pointed out after 9/11, there were unlimited budgets combined with a climate of fear that grew intelligence agencies, their facilities and technical skills, which far outpaced the law, but also pushed at the boundaries of what was moral, ethical and also legal. The Pegasus exposé shows this and ultimately our political leaders - who we vote in - should be held accountable. They are not beyond the law and intelligence is not a legal. You cannot allow intelligence agencies to outpace the legislature and the majority of people I spoke to within R&AW agreed. Only the ISI does not agree. They want to continue to operate in the dark.
How was your interaction with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval? Is he a mongoose or a cobra (reference from the book)?
He is action-oriented. He is also a storyteller and likes to make and control the narrative. What we are seeing in Kashmir is complete social media penetration, use of laws like AFSPA and the PSA, where the state of law is permanently upended, to mild and project these stories.
Doval also does not believe in talks without preconditions. He began to talk to Pakistan only when he had removed Kashmir from the table, and then a back channel started to work.
Doval has helmed a communal system, too, which has concentrated power in itself but also for its political masters and their agenda. The police, NIA, IB and R&AW have all been made to fit this objective. This set-up is undermining free thought and legitimate political action. It punishes all kinds of difference and resistance.
I think the positives are that India has created an agile intelligence infrastructure, which responds quickly, and is cleverly wooing foreign countries, thought leaders, power brokers, some of whom were not on their side but are friends today. Doval has wooed the Gulf countries and Saudi. He wants to see out each to China and Iran as well as Turkey. This has created a huge problem for outfits like the D company as extradition to India is now a real threat.
What are the shortcomings of this approach?
There is a lot of stage fog. It is hard to know what has happened and what has been allowed to happen for political reasons. Terror outfits are puppeteered and penetrated. Theories are put into practice - communal ones - by encouraging acts as well as detecting them. The British did this in Northern Ireland.
All intelligence organisations are becoming more chauvinistic, nationalistic but then there are others who also resist it. In India, we see an assertive Hindu agenda and those who have reason to fear it. Those who are being intimidated or jailed. The security organisations are a mirror of the societies they exist in. All our societies around the world are debating these traits and India is no exception. Popularism and authoritarianism vs liberal democracy. Personal freedom vs State controls. India has ended up more allied with an Orban-Trump-Netanyahu world than any other.
However, it will not permanently limit Indian democracy. India's cultural, regional, language divides are so profound that no Deep State will be able to control them for long.
You have named and quoted senior serving officers of the wing. Did you experience any push back after the book was published?
We cannot write a book and deliver it for approval. We do not work with any limitations other than time and money! So, what ISI and R&AW reads might surprise them and might antagonise some.
The idea was to share their views based on enormous experience so that we could see their thinking, their evolution and show some of the secret scaffolding that holds up their world. In a way, it’s like The Truman Show - that moment when he bumps his head on the roof of his world and finally understands how he has been playing a part. We wanted to define that roof and show some of those in the gallery.
We had to be responsible too - sensitive to the subject. So, even though we have transcripts for all our conversations, 90 per cent of what we learnt has not yet been published because it was either too sensitive or inappropriate or could cause hatred.
On the other hand, we were always open about our own beliefs with them. We went into every room as if we were being recorded.I have a thumb rule which I apply always: when you say something out loud then you should be prepared to hear it back.