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Friday, April 20, 2018

Some untold that unfold

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Shantanu Mukharji comes across some geopolitical steps regarding sub continental peace process, calculation and apprehension illustrated by the author

Steve Coll is not only an investigative journalist but also an ace security analyst and chronicler of contemporary security linked happenings specially focusing on terror scenes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A writer of distinction, with South Asia as his thrust area, Coll remains on center stage of terror related write ups affecting this region impacting the geo political scenario in the light of spurt in terrorist activities in Afghanistan.

No sooner than Steve Coll's magnus opus, Ghost Wars started getting assimilated amongst the millions of readers across the globe, the latest work of his, "Directorate S, The C.I.A. and America's secret wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan" has already hit the stands and is currently generating profound interest in the intelligence and security community for the brilliant contents the book is packed with.

The book comprehensively deals with Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan and its machinations in handling terror in Afghanistan and India in addition to its functional rapport with the US establishment and various agencies. The readers get a fairly good idea about the working of ISI and its covert operations, full of deceit and intrigues. The mindset of successive ISI chiefs with their background put their working in perspective.

Moving with the book, one gets an impression that Steve is not a scribe but a trained intelligence operative or a secret service individual assigned on some secret mission to protect security interests of terrorism prone region. At times, the reader also feels like he or she is glued to an English thriller movie- full of action with sporadic incidents of subterfuge.

Specifically, the Indian readers would find the book under review particularly fascinating as it talks about the November 26, Mumbai terror attacks and its planning from the Pakistani soil, the diktat of the Pakistan handlers for their task of getting "Mission accomplished".

Also of interest in the book is the mention of Indian External Intelligence Agency, Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW). It dispels misgivings amongst many about the capacity of this organization which Steve has adequately addressed. In this context, a couple of anecdotes deserve mention in the review.

Quoting Dave Smith, US intelligence analyst, and then with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), while talking to Pakistan military chief, Maj Gen. Tariq Majid, pointedly asked how the Pakistani army commanders were reacting to the attacks in New York and Washington (2001), Majid responded that R&AW was responsible in planting false rumors to implicate Pakistan in terrorism and their perceived terror attacks.

On another occasion, when CIA chief, Leon Panetta, secretly flew to India on his first trip abroad, Steve claims that Panetta heard an earful from R&AW about ISI's role in the Mumbai carnage. Further, the R&AW leadership had strongly convinced Panetta to put pressure on the ISI to tear down Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and its affiliates. These illustrations go on to prove that R&AW was then a force to reckon with and Pakistan dreaded Indian Intelligence for its alleged psychological warfare fomenting propaganda.

In a similar vein, Steve records that then military strongman of Pakistan Ashfaq Kayani, once told Afghan leader Hamid Karzai that India's diplomatic, business and humanitarian projects around Afghanistan had the potential of becoming covert launching pads for destabilizing Pakistan.

The author, Steve Coll, is also forthright in his book when he says that India with its booming economy and an expanding defense budget was kind of irreversible tide, gathering influence in the region, including Afghanistan raising apprehensions amongst the Pakistanis that India was behind every rock engaged in reconstruction and humanitarian projects in Afghanistan. Yet, Coll reckons that India had specifically designed covert operations designed to undermine Pakistan stability. Although, this is Steve's personal assessment, it surely speaks of Indian capability and intelligence tradecraft and operationally striking capability.

Significantly, the book carries numerous references giving graphic details of Pakistan and Afghanistan establishments. Also, Steve has aptly described, in the minutest details, about the settings of the rooms positioning of chairs and the décor prevalent in the rooms of the military and intelligence officials.  At times, the book reads like a movie screenplay with deep research, seldom seen amongst the writers of this kind.

All said and done, interesting part of the book is the planning and execution by the US agencies in eliminating Osama Bin Laden under Operation Neptune Spear in Abbottabad (May 1, 2011). Involvement of the SEALs in neutralizing Laden is of immense thrill and is most readable due to the vivid and breathtaking description of the killing and the geo-political implications that would ensue soon after.  It would appear best keep other details under the wrap lest it killed the curiosity and suspense of the narrative hitherto moving with an uninterrupted flow.
 
Steve's most animated account on Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US in the light of attempts to rein in spiraling terror is indeed gripping. The book, running into well over 750 pages, merits a close study in the presence of innumerable characters in the US Intelligence Agencies, at the Pentagon, at the CIA, at the State Department, at the White House and similarly, persons of importance in Afghanistan and Pakistan on the lines of a Dramatis Persona of a Shakespearean work making the plot all the more interesting.

Steve, at age 30, was posted to New Delhi in 1989, covering the entire South Asia as the correspondent for The Washington Post. His knowledge, therefore, on India and its neighbors is beyond doubt. At one juncture, Steve is not off the mark on his categorical statement on Pakistan when he states "And for all of Pakistan's dysfunction, State sponsored radicalism and glaring economic inequality, it remains a modernizing nation with a vast, breathtakingly talented middle class and Diaspora. If the army and ISI did not misrule Pakistan, in alliance with corrupt political cronies, the country's potential to lift up its own population and contribution positively to the international system might today rival India's.


The reviewer is a security analyst and former National Security Advisor to the Republic of Mauritius.

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