‘They (ISI chief and his Indian counterpart) should meet... when I say they (Pak) will be willing, I must have a good reason’:
Former Pakistan NSA Maj Gen (retd) Mahmud Ali Durrani
Sep 14, 2009
Q. My guest this week is former national security adviser of Pakistan, a former general, a Track Two peacemaker and, most of all, an honourable professional soldier. Major General Mahmud Ali Durrani, welcome to Walk the Talk.
Thank you very much.
Q. You fought in the 1965 war.
Proudly and in one of the toughest battlefields, Chawinda.
Q. Chawinda in Sialkot sector. What we call Sialkot sector, you say Sialkot Samba sector.
Exactly. It was the biggest armour battle after World War II.
Q. Rival claims apart, was it that battle or that war which first convinced you that the two countries have to find peace.
No. I was a young officer, at the threshold of my profession. As I grew in life and in the profession, I reflected upon the 1965 war and saw the futility of it — very honourable people on both sides getting killed. What did we achieve? I got more experienced when I travelled with Zia-ul-Haq as his military secretary. I saw the rest of the world. It is all this combined experience that brought me to the conclusion not only regarding the futility of war but also the fact that I needed to do something about it.
Q. Musharraf was in the same war.
He was junior to me.
Q. When did you decide that you have to now start working actively for it?
I think this was in 1994-95. I was coming close to my retirement age and I made this commitment because I was very clear about the futility of the acrimony between the two countries. For the good of Pakistan and for the good of our future generations, I decided that the rest of my life I was going to devote myself to the peace process between India and Pakistan.
Q. And you got a lot of gaali...
Yes, even from my family.
Q. And the Urdu media gave you a name — Gen Shanti — to mock you.
I took it as a compliment. Here is a soldier with 37 years of military experience behind him, proud of the wars he has fought, and now he wants peace.
Q. Are you now disappointed, or you think there is a work in progress?
I think it’s both. I am disappointed that time and again we start accusing each other. But I know it is also work in progress. An overwhelming number of people on both sides want peace. It’s a very small segment of people who don’t want peace. It’s also a disappointment that there are people who can arouse emotions and do things to put off the peace process.
Q. How big a setback was 26/11?
26/11 is more in the minds in India. I see that particularly during my trips here. It has hit India more than it has hit Pakistan.
Q. That’s because India was the victim.
Pakistan sees it as something bad that happened in Mumbai. Something sad happened, innocent lives were lost. But they did not blame themselves. Here in India, it seems that the blame is being placed on Pakistan, particularly the security service and the government of Pakistan.
Q. Where does the truth lie?
The truth lies in the fact that it is the spoilers who don’t want good relations between India and Pakistan, they’ve done it. It suits them. And with due respect, people here have jumped on that bandwagon. And they say, ‘ISI has done this’, which is sad because I’ve spoken to our people in the intelligence and they have assured me that they have not been informed.
Q. When this happened, were you the national security adviser?
Yes. I called up my counterpart, M K Narayanan, and I sympathised. I said, ‘I feel very bad’. I said we should move together on this. I still believe that we need to field a joint investigative team rather than doing one bit here, one bit there and a lot of mistrust in between. I feel that we should get together and find out the whole truth.
Q. When you called Narayanan just after 26/11, what was his response?
He was very courteous. But after that I think there was a deliberate act on the part of the government of India to back out from this. My reading is that at that time they were unhappy and angry.
Q. If you can reconstruct those three days for us — were you watching TV, how did you get to know this?
I saw it on an Indian television channel. We saw the carnage and the effect and the burning. It was very sad. I hoped that this does not cause another rift. I was still in service, we got some readings and, rightly or wrongly, the statements coming out of India were more belligerent and tough. We were worried. We tried to defuse the situation, but the temperatures here were very high and with due respect to you, the media went to town and played it up. In both our countries, the media has become very important. They don’t reflect public opinion, they form public opinion. Our intelligence was following the activities of your forces. We got some kind of feeling that there are some preparations and this was reinforced from what was coming out in terms of statements and in terms of public sentiment. Then there were some actual ground preparations and we thought India might conduct some surgical strike. We had it conveyed that God forbid, if you do that, Pakistan will have no option but to react. It would escalate. You know our people, the emotionalism, and once you climb the escalatory ladder, you never know where it’s going to lead you to.
Q. Were you also angry that some people have really spoiled the game?
I was upset. I am now getting close to 70, so anger is not a part of my character, it’s more anguish. But after that I could not communicate to Narayanan. I called once or twice again and was told that he’s out of office and he’ll call me, but that never happened. No reflection on my friend, he is a good man.
Q. Did you pick up the phone and ask the ISI, Pakistani army, the powers that be, ‘what the hell is going on’?
Yes. I was assured that there is absolutely no such thing. They asked me, ‘what is the advantage for Pakistan in this? None’.
Q. It could benefit someone insecure about the peace process.
But that wouldn’t be the establishment because the establishment was working hard to develop a good relationship. I can speak for the political leadership. Although I parted company with them, but in all fairness to them, they were on the path towards peace with India.
Q. What led to your very unfortunate departure from the scene?
I can’t go into too much detail. I don’t want to wash dirty linen in Delhi. What happened was that I made a statement on Kasab, and the prime minister took umbrage to that.
Q. You made an honest statement. There was no point in hiding the fact, because the whole world knew it by then.
Let me tell you one thing. Our agencies are blamed the most. But they said, ‘Sir, we need to tell the world. The world thinks we have something to hide, we are certain that he is a Pakistani’.
Q. It was not a happy statement, it was embarrassing for Pakistan.
I think we have to be upfront with each other. Yes, Kasab is a Pakistani and we are not proud of what he did, but this is a fact.
Q. Was there a failure on the Pakistani side in preventing this?
No. It’s a huge country and we have mega problems, particularly regarding terrorism. At that time, our total focus was on FATA and Swat. This thing happened not because of us, but in spite of us. I can assure you, had our intelligence any inkling about it, this would not have happened. And I say it as Mahmud Ali Durrani, ex-NSA.
Q. We all know you were a soldier in the civilian administration, but your heart was in democratisation and strengthening the civilian authority in Pakistan.
I believe that democracy is the sole answer to Pakistan’s problem. It’s not easy, it’s messy. We have not reached that level of maturity. And that includes bringing civilian authority to the top of the pyramid.
Q. Even though they are the ones who removed you.
That doesn’t matter.
Q. You are the first general the civilian government in Pakistan has removed successfully.
That just shows I am a lesser mortal.
Q. There was a suggestion that the ISI chief could come to India and then there was withdrawal of that suggestion.
It shouldn’t have been said (ISI chief coming here on a visit). It was an impromptu thing. When they looked at it a little deeper, they said, ‘oh, this will give wrong signals’. So they withdrew.
Q. After that there was also the delay in the trial, the movement, though there was a lot of reassurance here when the Pakistan dossier came in. People thought the Pakistani side is now being honest, but again the delay in the trial...
It is a one-sided thinking here. The dossiers came in bits and pieces. There were delays. I was told yesterday that some of the statements which were given to us initially were in Gujarati or Marathi. It took a couple of weeks before they were translated and sent to us. We were given DNA samples. But it was only one sample and two copies of that were given. Contrary to popular belief here, Pakistan moved really fast. Today, there is a trial. You have given us five names. There are seven people under trial. We added two more based on our investigations.
Q. But what adds to the mistrust here is the sight of Hafiz Saeed moving around freely. We know he is the founder of Lashkar.
But we are investigating the Mumbai terror attacks. Don’t go back into history. I am told by our people that they have found no link.
Q. This is contrary to what Chidambaram has been saying.
I disagree with him with due respect. I do think the sixth dossier was a rehash of previous dossiers.
Q. Hafiz Saeed is an internationally wanted man. There is an international Red Corner notice against him.
That means he should be kept under watch, which he is. It doesn’t mean anything more than that. Pakistan does not want him or anybody to do anything subversive against India.
Q. Even though you are outside the system, you think they are honest about it.
I think so. They want peace because it is good for Pakistan. That is the fundamental argument.
Q. Does the Pakistani army accept that peace is good for Pakistan?
Q. So this idea that inevitability of a decisive war with India...
No, that’s not the reality. There were times when the situation was such, but people have grown up, seen the world, relationships have progressed and there is a realisation that if we keep on having the acrimony that we have with India, Pakistan is not going to make progress. The biggest problem is mistrust. We have to take action to remove that.
Q. The biggest mistrust on our side is that we don’t know if the civilian government is in control in Pakistan.
They are very much in control. Let me throw the ball into your court. India should say, “Ok, in future, Pakistanis will get the same visas as the Arabs or the British. Open things up. Let there be greater cooperation. There should be a Pakistani journalist in your newspaper and somebody from your newspaper can go and sit with Najam Sethi. We are from the same soil, but because of the 60 years of acrimony we don’t know each other. People in Pakistan think that there are saffron-clad people here running after Muslims. And there is a perception here that in Pakistan everybody is Talibanised and the women in burqas are walking three feet behind them. The sullenness has to go.
Q. Sharm-el-Sheikh was a step in that direction.
It was. But again what happened in India...
n That’s because there is anger every time we see Hafiz Saeed.
•Why are you after Hafiz Saeed? Rather than seeing the glass half empty, see it as three-fourth full.
n We talked of Track Two diplomacy, but that’s among retired people. Would you then recommend more contact between people who are not retired?
There should be contact between intelligence officers.
Q. Do you think the Pakistani side will be willing to do this? Can the ISI chief and his counterpart meet here?
I am sure they will be willing.
Q. Have you ever spoken with them?
When I say that they’ll be willing, I must have a good reason to say that. Similarly, the military should meet.
Q. One of the great confidence-sapping developments in the week after 26/11 was your removal. People said, ‘there was one person whom we thought was trustworthy and they have removed him’.
That was at a political level. It was not related to what I said in terms of India.
Q. One-line description of Zia-ul-Haq.
He is still an enigma to me. He was extremely modest, patient, courteous with everybody. But he used religion to his advantage.
Q. And Musharraf.
He was a friend. Musharraf was a cowboy, he was impetuous.
Q. What next for you?
I will continue my journey of peace between India and Pakistan. That’s my commitment, irrespective of what impact I make.
Q. All I can say is we need more of you on both sides. I hope we keep meeting again so that you can tell us great stories but happy stories.
Thank you very much.
Transcript prepared by Sharika C