Published in 2014, Agency Rules – Never An Easy Day At The Office by Khalid Muhammad is the first espionage novel in English language from Pakistan. Based on the 90s era of Pakistan, the story takes us across the country where the readers experience urban warfare of Karachi, the diplomatic battles in Islamabad and military operations on the north-western border.
Celebrated as a ragtag force that defeated and broke the Soviet Union, no one predicted the Mujahideen would bring with them a plague that would spread like wildfire through Pakistan in the years to follow. When the battle-worn fighters returned with no enemy or war to fight, they turned their sights on the country that had been their creator and benefactor.
From the same battlegrounds that birthed the Mujahideen, a young Kamal Khan emerges as a different breed of warrior. Discarding his wealthy family comforts, Kamal becomes a precision sniper, an invincible commando and a clandestine operative bringing intimidation, dominance and death with him to the battlefield. Ending the plague is his prime directive.
Shrouded in political expediency, hampered by internal power struggles, international espionage and doublespeak that makes Washington’s spin doctors proud, Kamal’s mission is a nightmare of rampant militant fundamentalism that threatens to choke and take Pakistan hostage. For him, the fight is not just for freedom, but the survival of a nation.
The story follows a sniper in the Pakistan Army named Kamal Khan who joins urban warfare unit to deal with unrest in Karachi city. An SSG commando, he spends several months in the city to deal with drug lords, terrorists and various large criminal groups before proceeding to bigger platform … the ISI. He goes through the training while Pakistan suffers from political instability and interference from foreign countries through individual intelligence networks.
We are introduced to Azam Shah, Prime Minister of Pakistan and chairperson of Muslim League who so far fails to deliver anything promised to the nation. Some other politicians are Ahsan Chaudhry (Interior Minister), Murad Khan (Chief Minister Sindh), Tariq Nadeem (Speaker National Assembly), Saeed Ghani (Law Minister), Adnan Butt (President of Pakistan) and Aijaz Awan (Chairman of the Senate). The power games between the politicians form a significant part of the plot, particularly when the matter of succession becomes urgent.
From military we are introduced to Lieutenant General Bilal Siddiqui (Corps Commander Karachi), General Amjad Ali (Chief of the Army Staff), Colonel Akbar (Afghan War veteran and trainer), Lieutenant General Misbah Qadir (Director General ISI) and Major Imtiaz among others. From start to till the end we come across various military people that keep the plot going.
The ultimate target is the religious extremism where seminaries and madrassas are creating zealots. Imam Shahid, leader of Taliban’s forces in Pakistan and enjoying security as comprehensive as that of GHQ. Sheikh Atif and Fazal, battle commanders that lead the extremist forces and individuals who are part of the mix. Their stories are interspersed with foreign intelligence operatives, prominent being Northwright.
Pakistan As It Really Is
While Pakistan has been discussed by various authors in their novels, including those of the espionage category, none have explained the country better than Khalid. From the urban center of Karachi to the jungles and barren areas, Pakistan as a country has been thoroughly explained with cultural references. Since a large part of the story takes place around Peshawar, the Pukhtoon culture with greetings, lifestyle and concepts of host/guest are beautifully illustrated. The entire intelligence network seamlessly blends with the cultural landscape of the country and cannot be explained apart, making it a far more delightful read than the cliches experienced in western books, TV series and movies.
Karachi’s depiction is realistic, particularly Sohrab Goth where Kamal Khan begins his operation against crime lords. The ISI’s training facility is laid out nicely for readers to follow, the training program and its difficulty highlighted quite well. Even Taliban’s training camps build in deep, crisscrossing tunnels have been explored but in very great detail. The geopolitical situation of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and its impact on Pakistan affected society in a major way and it has been highlighted well during Kamal’s field operation at Peshawar.
Small anecdotes, such as conversation between Kamal and the taxi driver, lends authenticity to the lifestyle and culture of Pakistan (page 54):
The taxi driver kept up a steady flow of conversation on the short drive to Peshawar Saddar and Green’s Hotel. He had questions about Kamal’s background and complains about the performance of the elected government, mostly continued neglect of the province’s needs in favor of the Punjab. Kamal personally agreed with him, having seen the development and opportunities available to Punjabis; but in an army that was dominated by Punjabis, he kept his own counsel. Back home in Peshawar, he let loose, agreeing with almost every complain, and adding a few of his own.
The book doesn’t have anti-Punjab bias but as it is common in Pakistan to blame Punjab for unfair resource distribution and prevention development works in smaller provinces. The complain by both the taxi driver and Kamal lends authenticity to the behavior and culture of the people.
Honor & Power
Politicians are useless in Pakistan. The novel makes it clear with the continued power struggle in political sphere and their lack of agreement of everything. The only unity is when it’s time to blame the Army. Similarly the Army maintains the honor of the nation and officers, both in individual capacity and as part of the institution, put their lives on the line for safety of common citizen. “The Service Is Supreme” is the ideology imparted during intelligence training.
Religious indoctrination, jealousy, abuse and stressful father/son relationship have also been explored. Love has also been used as a tool for torture and interrogation which was handle quite masterfully. People, irrespective of their background, end up lusting for power and several such characters are found in the novel.
Another ideal, With Us or Against Us, is found in this novel. For example, during briefing for a counter-terrorism mission, the candidates are given the option to leave before final list of unit of compiled. When few people actually take the option to get off the mission, they are terminated from the service as well. The military hierarchy and results of decisions taken are kept realistic.
The military is also willing to go beyond call of duty for the greater good, even if it means superseding the civilian government. One passage sums it up nicely (Page 8):
General Ali sat forward, turned his microphone on again. “If we were to go to the Prime Minister for approval for all our actions inside the country, we would not have most of the intelligence that we have. You need to eliminate the thought from your mind that the Pakistan Army operates under the purview of the Prime Minister or any other member of government.”
The room erupted with objections and accusations that the military was operating as a state within a state, but General Ali chuckled at the accusations, simply saying, “Why should today be any different than any other day in Pakistan?”
Characters in the novel are quite real. Kamal, a quiet person who keeps to himself, has estrange relations with his father and that gives him drive to prove himself. Major Imtiaz, a senior and friendly counsel to Kamal, gives him the motivation to enhance his military career. Faheem, a hardworking Pakhtoon who also drives a taxi, is shown how he gets indoctrinated and how his friendship develops with Kamal. Imam Shahid and his companions have realistic approach to indoctrination and terrorist activities in the country.
That being said, a few things do stand out that have not been covered. How Kamal became an orator during his undercover assignment despite being a quiet person is unexplained. Quiet people, in most cases, do not have the good flow of words and strength in vocal cords for fiery speeches. Similarly, during the ISI training Kamal and Imtiaz were having dinner at a place which again is unexplained. How can they leave the training facility during training, go to a public restaurant for dinner, interact with civilians and not confronted by intelligence for breach of protocol has not been clarified.
The extremists are also well developed, each with his/her own motivations. None of them are cliched characters willingly blowing themselves up by chanting Allah-u-Akbar. They are real people with real lives and going through proper programs that lead them towards terrorist activities.
Sometimes Hard to Track
Dialogues are well written and realistic, though at times the perspective switches instantly and reader is left confused. For example during interrogation, the perspective switched between Kamal and another officer Dawood, causing confusion which character was the reader looking through in the novel. This happened a few times throughout the novel though largely it is understandable and easy to follow.
The military jargon, even though used throughout, is easy to understand even by readers new to espionage and the novel is sprinkled with Pushto and Urdu terms such as greetings and environment specific sayings. Although no index is provided for meaning of these words, most of it is easy to guess at least by Pakistani readers. Those who are unaware of such terms may find it a bit tough to follow as not all terms are explained within the passages.
Agency Rules – Never An Easy Day At The Office is a great addition to the landscape of Pakistani fiction. It has a lot of action and firepower, the spies are realistic and intelligence gathering is very intricate. The exploration of Pukhtoon culture and behavior is refreshing and extremism is nicely detailed. This is a must read for anyone who’s a fan of spy novels and wants to learn more about Pakistan through fictional characters.Tags: Agency Rules, Khalid Muhammad, Pakistan Spy Novel