National flags of India and Pakistan. Photo: iStock

General Asad Durrani, the former chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency, came into the limelight back in 2018 for his book The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace. The book was a unique concept in its own right as it was the first time Durrani, the Pakistani spymaster, and A S Dulat, the former chief of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), had co-authored a book.

That book landed Durrani in trouble, as he not only had to face the propaganda from the media about leaking national secrets – which in reality he never did – but also faced an inquiry by ISI.

How he faced both of these trials, one by the media and one by his own former institution, and why he was falsely accused of leaking national secrets are revealed in a new book by Durrani, Honour Among Spies. The book is written as fiction, but Durrani has cleverly  presented his trial and the games played by a few of the individuals in his former spy agency.

Fiction writing has never been his domain, but nevertheless, it is a good effort from Durrani to avoid any legal problems that might otherwise have resulted. Durrani has given fictional names to the characters who are currently the stakeholders in the game of power in Pakistan. Imran Khan is termed “Kadri,” while Nawaz Sharif is “Naveen Shaikh” and General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Chief of Army Staff, has been named “Jabbar Jatt.”

Durrani narrates the story of his trial for writing a book with a Pakistani spy chief named “Osama Barakzai,” while General Pervez Musharraf is given the fictional name “Gulraiz Shahrukh.”

The book Honour Among Spies, however, contrary to some reports by Pakistani journalists, is not all about politics or political characters. It is more about the tough times Durrani endured after his collaboration with Dulat on the 2018 book, and he has excellently narrated the proceedings.

The book opens with Osama Barakzai being told about his special powers and his ability to take risks and not act like a lame duck like most of his colleagues chose to do after their retirement. Barakzai being called for interrogation and then the mind games between him and those interrogating him are fascinating.

The interrogators want him to be submissive and accept that he has committed a crime by writing a book, while he is more interested in identifying the actual players who are using his former institution against him to set personal scores.

Naveen Sheikh, a thrice-elected prime minister, known for repeating the mistake of picking the junior officer on the list as the Chief of Tribes (the book’s fictionalized version of the Chief of Army Staff) instead of picking a person on merit or seniority in the hope that the junior officer will remain grateful to Naveen for being selected is very smartly narrated by Durrani.

While on a phone conversation with Barakzai, Naveen Sheikh tells him, “Those in power continue to make bad decisions. It is not very often that a prime minister gets that many chances to appoint people in high places and never once get them right.”

Likewise, Barakazai meeting with foreign spies at the Islamabad Club is also of great interest and shows how the secret agencies operate and how senior guys like Osama Barakzai are still being approached and how the clever mind games are played.

Barakzai’s conversation with the investigators and the judge can be termed one of the finest aspects of the book, and Durrani through this fictional character Osama Barakzai has not only exposed how badly the establishment has disregarded the changing world and its narratives but also how even genuine criticism of the policies of the establishment is considered disloyalty to the country.

Barakzai also has conversations with “Micheal Templar” and “Klaus Danzig,” characters portraying members of the British and German intelligence agencies.

In one of the conversations, Barakzai points out the flaws of the system by stating, “The problem arises when the Guards [Establishment] because of the threat environment, internal and external, become patient and try to marshal the polity. Politicians, on the other hand, are long-term players and can wait out or outwit the military’s control. Admittedly the right balance has not yet been achieved.”

Barakzai continues to give a reality check of the problems faced by Pakistan by saying, “Perhaps the greatest impediment to creating a working relationship between the institutions all of them and not only civilian and the military is the oligarchic character of the society. The privileged classes resist, and have so far scuttled, all attempts to reform or change – since that would deprive them of exclusive status.”

Whether one agrees with Durrani’s point of view or not, no one should deny that during times when most of his colleagues prefer only to protect the vested interests of the establishment, he at least through his books has presented an entirely different angle, and actually has proposed solutions according to his understanding for the betterment of the country and the establishment itself.

In the book Durrani also has not shied away from discussing the hypocrisy of the Pakistani media and how they are being manipulated, and how most journalists and intellectuals just for the sake of self-interest or ratings cross swords with dissenting views without even reading them properly.

He also refers to a few journalists with the fictional names Aziz Shah, Atir Moeen and Riaz Basra, and it does not take rocket science to figure out who they are, but since Durrani has chosen only to refer to them with fictional names, let us also leave it to readers to guess who they really are.

In the epilogue of the book, a scene is created where Jabbar Jatt (Chief of Tribes) is sitting with his team and looking for a lifeline for himself even knowing that everyone in the room knows he has made a deal with Kadri to extend his tenure and is pressured by his advisers and team to resign for the sake of the Tribes’ reputation.

One should not spoil the experience of reading the book by giving all the details, so let us not delve too deeply. In this writer’s opinion, Durrani should stick to his conventional style of writing and not venture into fiction, as his characters are not well developed or interesting. However, this is only my opinion, and Durrani has already made headlines with the success of his recent book.

Honour Among Spies is a worthy read, and it is a must-have on the shelves of a book lover. Overall it rates 8.5 out of 10, and that means “highly recommended.” Asad Durrani is among those few voices who have the intellect and in-depth experience to expose the flaws of the elected leadership and the establishment.

Voices like him should not only be heard, but both the country and the establishment can use such voices for the betterment of the country by fixing the flaws in the system and in foreign policy and other sensitive issues.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.