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Key revelations: Before the Balakot airstrikes, India and Pakistan held backchannel talks

‘National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval and the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) sent messages with top Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officials as part of a secret back-channel link between the two nations that involved two foreign journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark in 2018-2019, including after the Pulwama attack’, the journalists cite senior intelligence officials and the NSA in their new book. According to the authors, ISI officials denied all knowledge of the attack by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) in Pulwama within hours of the incident, which was apparently planned in Helmand, Afghanistan, not Pakistan. Deputy NSA Rajinder Khanna and Doval, however, disbelieved Pakistani messages and launched the airstrike on Balakot ‘to humiliate the Pakistani military’, the book recounts.

The authors also reveal that Indian investigators found that corrupt police had helped four JeM terrorists sneak into the Pathankot airbase to carry out an attack that killed seven security personnel. Initially, the Modi government had invited a team of Pakistani investigators to Pathankot to investigate the terror attack jointly, but relations between the two countries broke down shortly afterward, and the joint investigation plan never took place. The NIA charge-sheet filed against JeM that year does not mention uniformed men helping terrorists.

In addition, the authors conclude that Kulbhushan Jadhav, the former Naval commander accused of planning terror attacks who is awaiting an appeal on the death sentence in Pakistan, was an ‘asset’ for the Indian intelligence agencies who had been ‘trapped’ by Pakistan’s ISI. India has vehemently rejected those allegations and said that Mr. Jadhav retired from service in 2001 and was abducted by Pakistani agencies in Iran. There is evidence in the book that many Indian intelligence agencies were interested in recruiting Jadhav because of his access from Iran to Pakistan, and that the ISI lured him to Karachi to meet with a Baloch contact.

‘Several agencies suddenly became interested in a man like Jadhav who could travel with cover, according to those we interviewed in the IB (Intelligence Bureau), R&AW and Indian Navy as well as the ISI and military intelligence in Pakistan. R&AW already had assets and officers in Iranian Baluchistan and at Chabahar, but to have Jadhav, who could travel widely, and even get down to Karachi, would be extraordinary,’ Mr. Levy said in an interview. ‘Not as a trained officer, deployed and supported by an institution, but as an asset, a person who reported back to handlers and supervisors with [his] insights,’ he explained.

In the book, the authors refer to themselves as a ‘Gavrilov channel’, similar to a telephone hotline set up between US and Russian spy agencies, the CIA and KGB, during the Cold War. Given the nearly frozen lines of communication at the time, Indian officials initially resisted providing access, but eventually yielded to the possibility of receiving near-real-time intelligence from Pakistan. Authors write, ‘We were contacted again by Doval,’ about getting approval for the project, quoting the NSA as stating, ‘There is no detail to small in terms of the ISI. Each scintilla must be studied. We will never be able to know enough about them because they are our forever enemy’.

In Pakistan, the authors say they got similar clearances from unnamed military and intelligence officials, who needed a line of communication during crises, on the condition that the book was not subject to ‘any restrictions’.  The book, Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of The R.A.W (R&AW) and I.S.I, which is being released this week, chronicles the career of Mr. Doval through the past few decades, particularly from the 1999 Indian Airlines’ flight IC-814 hijack, which the NSA describes as a ‘diplomatic failure’, to the 2000 Parliament attack, as well as recent events in Kashmir, including the 2016 Pathankot attack and the 2019 Pulwama attack, and the Indian Air Force’s retaliatory Balakot strike.

M. Levy and Ms. Scott-Clark cite interviews with Mr. Doval, Mr. Khanna and Lt. Gen. Khandare and Mr. Ibrahim, who were members of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). The Hindu reached out to each of the officials named, but none agreed to comment. The government’s new civil service regulations amendment, passed in June, forbids officials to talk or write about their operation without prior permission. This is the first such book to be released after the amendment. According to Mr. Levy, ‘nothing’ has been cleared by the government, however the book contains audio recordings of conversations with senior officials and intelligence, analysis, and operational reports from the two countries.

In particular, Mr. Levy and Ms. Scott-Clark describe their travels between Rawalpindi and Delhi immediately following the Pulwama bombing on February 14, 2019. After the bombing, former ISI counterterrorism wing (C-wing) chief Lt. Gen. Nusrat Naeem contacted them to distance Pakistani agencies from the attack, thought to have been carried out by JeM bombers close to Masood Azhar. During that time, Pakistani officials were concerned 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. They noted that reports from the military, the Border Security Force, Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and R&AW had concluded that JeM had planned the attack from their ‘new base’ in Helmand, Afghanistan, not Pakistan.

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A forthcoming report on Pulwama will ‘lay bare the ISI’s involvement’, which will justify the Balakot strikes, the book says, adding that after the Pakistani messages, Mr. Doval had predicted a report identifying the role of the ISI would be released. Moreover, when Saudi officials visited Mr. Doval in his office on a bilateral visit, they stated, ‘The Saudis continued to act as brokers, providing updates on Rawalpindi’. India has traditionally held that India-Pakistan issues can only be resolved bilaterally, and ‘third parties’ cannot participate in talks, but the Levy-Scott-Clark book appears to change that.

In the book, it says that the authors traveled between Rawalpindi and Delhi on occasion, collecting and disseminating information on both sides. They recall being taken into a ‘darkened situation room’ in Mr. Doval’s offices in Sardar Patel Bhawan, to discuss the idea of combining the R&AW with the ISI to write a book that draws parallels to books and films that were put out in the U.S. and Israel about intelligence gathering and espionage.


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