Backchannel talk between India, Pakistan was on before Balakot air strikes, says book

Backchannel talk between India, Pakistan was on before Balakot air strikes, says book

Two foreign journalists were involved in India-Pakistan messaging, says new book.

National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval and the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) exchanged messages with top Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officials as part of a unique back channel connection between the two countries that involved two foreign journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark in 2018-2019, including after the Pulwama attack, according to a new book by the journalists that quotes the NSA and other senior intelligence officials.

According to the authors, ISI officials disclaimed all knowledge of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) attack in Pulwama within hours of the incident, which was apparently planned in Afghanistan’s Helmand, and not Pakistan. Mr. Doval and Deputy NSA Rajinder Khanna disbelieved the Pakistani messages, however, and carried out the Balakot air strikes to “humiliate the Pakistan military”, the book recounts.

Backchannel talk between India, Pakistan was on before Balakot air strikes, says book

In another disclosure, the authors say that Indian investigators found that “corrupt local police officers” had helped four JeM terrorists sneak into the Pathankot airbase to carry out an attack, in which seven personnel of security forces were killed. In a surprise move, the Modi government had invited a team of Pakistani investigators to Pathankot to jointly investigate the terror attack, but relations broke down between the two countries shortly after, and the joint investigation plan went nowhere. The NIA charge-sheet filed the same year against JeM doesn’t mention that the terrorists were helped by uniformed men.

The authors also conclude that Kulbhushan Jadhav, the former Naval commander accused of planning terror attacks and awaiting an appeal on a death sentence in Pakistan, was an “asset” but not an “officer” for the Indian intelligence agencies, who had been “trapped” by Pakistan’s ISI. India has flatly denied those charges, and said that Mr. Jadhav retired from service in 2001 and was kidnapped by Pakistani agencies in Iran. However, the book says many Indian intelligence agencies had shown interest in recruiting Mr. Jadhav due to his access from Iran to Pakistan, and that he was lured by the ISI to Karachi to meet a Baloch contact.

“According to some of those we interviewed in IB (Intelligence Bureau), R&AW and Indian Navy as well as ISI and military intelligence in Pakistan, many agencies were suddenly interested in a man like [Jadhav] who had the wherewithal to travel with cover….There was already plenty of R&AW investment in terms of assets and officers in Iranian Baluchistan and at Chabahar, but to have Jadhav, who could travel widely, and even to get down to Karachi, would make him exceptional,” Mr. Levy said in an interview. “Not as an officer, trained, deployed and backed up by an institution — but as an asset, we were told, a person who reported back to handlers and supervisors, with [his] insights,” he added.

In the book, the authors, who had rare and unprecedented access to India’s national security establishment, refer to themselves as a “Gavrilov channel”, akin to a telephone hotline set up between U.S. and Russian spy agencies, the CIA and the KGB, respectively, during the Cold War.

While Indian officials were hesitant to provide access at first, the authors said they yielded to the possibility of receiving near real-time information from Pakistani intelligence, given the almost frozen lines of communication at the time.

“Doval called us back,” write the authors about gaining clearance for the project, quoting the NSA as saying that “There is no detail that is too small when it comes to the ISI. I need to study every scintilla. They are our forever enemy and we can never, ever know enough.”

On the Pakistani side, the authors say they got similar clearances from unnamed military and intelligence officials, who needed a line of communication during crises, with the condition that there wouldn’t be “any constraints” on the book.

The book, Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of The R.A.W (R&AW) and I.S.I, which is releasing this week, traces the career of Mr. Doval through the past few decades, especially from the 1999 Indian Airlines’ flight IC-814 hijack, which the NSA describes as a “diplomatic failure”, to the 2000 Parliament attack, and more recently events in Kashmir, including the 2016 Pathankot and 2019 Pulwama attacks in which 40 personnel were killed, as well as the retaliatory Balakot strikes by the Indian Air Force.

Mr. Levy and Ms. Scott-Clark quote from interviews given by Mr. Doval, Deputy National Security Advisor Rajinder Khanna, as well as former Defence Intelligence chief Lt. Gen Vinod Khandare and former Intelligence Bureau chief Asif Ibrahim, who were members of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS).

The Hindu attempted to reach each of the officials named, but none of them agreed to comment. This is the first such book to have been released after the government’s new civil service rules amendment passed in June this year that gags officials from speaking or writing about their operations, without the publications being cleared. When asked, Mr. Levy said “nothing” had been cleared by the government however, and the book contains details from taped conversations with the senior officials as well as access to intelligence and analysis reports in both countries.

In particular, Mr. Levy and Ms. Scott-Clark describe their travels between Rawalpindi and Delhi in the immediate aftermath of the Pulwama bombing on February 14, 2019. Within a few hours of the bombing, they were contacted by former ISI Counterterrorism wing (C-wing) chief Lt. Gen. Nusrat Naeem, who wanted to distance Pakistani agencies from the attack, believed to be carried out by JeM bombers connected closely to Masood Azhar. The authors say Pakistani officials said they were worried about Financial Action Task Force (FATF) sanctions, and delicate negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, and would not have risked a conflagration with India at that point. The authors also said that reports by the military, the Border Security Force, Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and R&AW had concluded that the Pulwama attacks had been organised by JeM in order to provoke a “regional war”, and that JeM leaders had planned the attack from their “new base” in Helmand, Afghanistan, and not Pakistan.

“The [] data was not what Delhi projected, after Pulwama, instead preferring to humiliate the Pakistan military,” the book says, adding that in response to the Pakistani messages, Mr. Doval had said that a soon-to-be-released report on Pulwama would “lay bare the ISI’s involvement”, with the justification for the Balakot strikes.

On another occasion, the authors describe Mr. Doval meeting a Saudi delegation at his office on a bilateral visit, adding that the “Saudis continued their role as intermediary, bringing news from Rawalpindi”. India’s official policy has been that India-Pakistan issues can only be resolved bilaterally, and there is no role for “third parties” in talks, something the Levy-Scott-Clark book appears to overturn.

The authors travelled between Rawalpindi and Delhi on the same day on occasion, collecting and disseminating information on both sides, the book says. They describe being ushered in to a “darkened situation room” in Mr. Doval’s offices in Sardar Patel Bhawan, to pitch their idea of writing a book that pits the working styles of the R&AW with the ISI, drawing parallels to books and films brought out in the U.S. and Israel that offer some insight into the world of spying and intelligence.

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