Why I wrote 'The Agent Runner'

In 2012, I found myself stranded in Kabul during a ferocious snowstorm and the idea came to me of telling a story with classic Cold War espionage tropes knocked about and re-worked in a contemporary setting - Moscow Rules in the Hindu Kush - with the Durand line, the border that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan, as arbitrary a division as the Berlin Wall, and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), Pakistan’s shadowy hydra-headed spying agency, as duplicitous a foe as the KGB.

There was a fad around the time the Soviet Union collapsed to assert that the spy novel as we understood it was over. The enemy that emerged from the cauldron of Afghanistan over the next decade was too alien and asymmetric, and its adherents too unlike us, frankly too Stone Age, for it to be portrayed as a game of chess between equals. But a look behind them to who is working the levers of the terrorist groups reveals a much more recognisable adversary. The ISI is an organisation born of the partition of India, run by a three-star general in a uniform with crowns and pips that would not look out of place in our own Ministry of Defence.

The Cold War may not have turned hot and scorched the plains of Western Europe, but elsewhere across the globe it burned brightly and with the utmost savagery. I know this because I have spent much of my professional career as a deminer clearing the debris of other people’s largely pointless wars. Few have had more devastating consequences than the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In the eighties and early nineties, American and Saudi money was funnelled through the ISI to any Mujahideen group willing to kill Russian conscripts. Insufficient oversight was maintained over the Pakistani distribution of American largesse and the most radicalised and ill-disciplined Islamopaths received the lion’s share of the money. We live with the blowback, from the plunging planes on 9/11 to the inexorable rise of Islamic State.

The story of my novel The Agent Runner centres on an attempt by MI6 to discredit a Pakistani spymaster – Javid Aslam Khan, also know as the Hidden Hand – who is one of the key members of Pakistan’s Invisible Government, a cabal of “retired” military officers that form a much more powerful counterpart to Pakistan’s democratically elected one. In the book, Downing Street believes that Khan is standing in the way of a smooth exit from Afghanistan and in its wisdom decides that a nudge is required.

The means of Khan’s downfall will be Edward Henry Malik a disgraced former MI6 Agent Runner. British by birth, Asian and Muslim by descent and agnostic by conviction, Ed Malik finds it difficult to explain why he feels such a strong allegiance to Britain, perhaps because he finds it difficult to define what it means to be British. Dismissed from MI6 for assaulting Kabul’s CIA station chief following the death of a key informant, Ed returns to his roots in the immigrant enclave of Whitechapel in London’s East End. From there he embarks on a vengeful journey to Pakistan that takes him to the teeming city of Lahore and the anarchic tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

I believe that Pakistan, with its out-of-control intelligence services and nuclear weapons, its radicalised madrassas and failing civil institutions, its terrorist training camps and unregulated arms markets is a viable candidate for the most dangerous country on earth. The Agent Runner carves a violent arc across its landscape. I wanted to write a book that lifted the veil on the pretence that Pakistan is our ally in the war on terror, to reveal the duplicity and betrayal at the heart of the relationship between Pakistan and the west. Until we better understand the true nature of our relationship with Pakistan, we will never comprehend why our hopes for Afghanistan could not be fulfilled.

Britain’s most recent intervention in Afghanistan will not end as badly as the First Afghan War of 1842, with eighteen thousand slaughtered in the winter snow during the disastrous retreat from Kabul, but it is becoming clear that Britain’s fourth war in Afghanistan will end with as few political gains as the first three. After more than a decade of questionable conflicts in the name of homeland security modern scepticism of interventionism is stronger than ever. We no longer accept the bold claims of governments and we have come to realise that dirty tactics often underlie the quest for security. There is a moral vacancy on all sides. Even our own intelligence services seem to have morphed into a dodgy-dossier producing propaganda arm of mediocre modern government. In such circumstances, there is plenty of room for the morally compromised world of spy fiction.