LIVING THROUGH THE DREADFUL DECADE – IN THE LINE OF FIRE
LIVING THROUGH THE DREADFUL DECADE
From 1985 to 1998, my army career took me from lieutenant colonel to chief of the army. There were several steps along the way, and quite a few lessons in the high politics of Pakistan. The pattern in my country has been repetitive: elected officials have been vulnerable to corruption and create conditions that lead to an army takeover, while those in opposition and many from other walks of life, particularly the intelligentsia, frequently appeal to the army to take power or change the government. In this period, which includes what I call the “dreadful decade of democracy,” beginning in 1988, I saw many changeovers in Islamabad and more tension with India, and I had yet one more brush with death. I was no longer on the front lines, but I still felt that way.
In 1985 I was promoted to brigadier and sent back to the National Defense College as an instructor. There are three categories of appointment within which an officer of the Pakistan Army gets rotated-command, staff, and instructional. This is done in accordance with merit, depending on the officer’s qualities. Officers having potential for all three are considered top of the line. I have been considered an all-rounder and therefore was regularly rotated among all three categories.
Being an instructor at the NDC-the highest seat of learning of the armed forces-was a great experience. Not only does one have to do a lot of reading and research to remain up-to-date with the latest knowl‑edge regarding strategy, tactics, operations, and management; one also gets a chance to crystallize one’s own ideas.
After two years as an instructor at NDC-1985 and 1986-I became commander, artillery, of the armored division in Kharian. It is odd, but in every rank I have been posted back to Kharian. This was the first posting where I was authorized to fly a flag on my staff car or jeep-a source of great pride to me.
During this command, more tension with India arose. It all started with the conduct of a major war game by India involving several corps-especially offensive corps close to Pakistan’s border in the southern desert front. Pakistan took this seriously, because Indian army formations were made to carry all their ammunition with them, which is not the normal practice in exercises. This exercise was code-named Brass Tacks and was the brainchild of the volatile and vitriolic Indian army chief General Sundarji.
We decided to give a strong and strategically superior response. Our armored division, with other strike corps elements, was moved to the Sialkot sector in northern Punjab, posing a direct threat to India’s line of communication to the part of Kashmir that is under its occupation and which we call Indian-occupied Kashmir. With that deployment, Pak istan enjoyed what is known as “superiority of strategic orientation”: we could threaten more sensitive objectives of the enemy than they could of ours, and in less time. This move deterred India from any misadventures. The standoff continued for several months until good sense prevailed on the Indian side and disengagement was negotiated. During this confrontation the morale of the Pakistan Army remained at a peak. I motivated my brigade to the highest pitch. My troops were itching for a chance to avenge what had happened in 1971 in East Pakistan.
It was also during this command that I was selected as military secretary to President General Zia ul-Haq. My name was suggested by President Zia’s former military secretary, Brigadier (later Major General) Mahmood Ali Durrani, fondly nicknamed “MAD,” who came to Kharian to command a brigade. (He was appointed Ambassador to Washington in 2006.) I was told to be prepared to move at short notice. I told my wife, Sehba, that I would leave with a suitcase and she should close up the house and join me later. Five days passed, but there was no official word. Then news came that Brigadier Najeeb had been given the post. I was disappointed. My commanding officer, Major General Farrakh, later told me, that President Zia had phoned to say he had selected me, but Farrakh had said to the president that I was on an upward career path and becoming military secretary would be a spoiler because I had not yet commanded an infantry brigade. If an officer is one of the front-runners and wants to make it to higher ranks, he has to command an infantry brigade at some stage, no matter what arm of the fighting force he comes from.
This is how not only my career but also my life was saved. I was given the prized appointment of commander of the Twenty-fifth Infantry Brigade in Bahawalpur, and poor Najeeb became Zia’s military secretary. I remained there for about eight months, and left just a month before President Zia’s C-130 crashed in Bahawalpur on August 17, 1988, with some of the top officers of the Pakistan Army, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Akhtar Abdur Rahman. Also killed were an American brigadier general; the American ambassador, Arnold Raphael; and Najeeb. I was saved by the grace of God and thanks to Major General Farrakh’s intervention.
The cause of the accident still remains shrouded in mystery The report did note that the investigators found traces of potassium, chlorine, antimony, phosphorous, and sodium at the crash site. Since these elements are generally not associated with the structure of an aircraft, the inquiry concluded that internal sabotage of the plane was the most likely cause of the accident. Mysteriously, the case was not pursued further. The black box was recovered but gave no indication of a problem. It seems likely that the gases were used to disable the pilots. But who unleashed them, we don’t know. I have my suspicions, though.
My next assignment was back in Rawalpindi as deputy military secretary to the GHQ, a staff appointment. My job here was to deal with the career management of all majors and lower ranks of the army. I became their “godfather.” The assignment put great demands on my sense of compassion and justice.
One day, out of the blue, a friend of Benazir Bhutto’s husband Asif Zardari came to call on me. Benazir was prime minister at the time. The friend’s name was Javed Pasha. I had never seen him before.
Pasha suggested that I become Benazir’s military secretary. I do not know whether this was Pasha’s personal initiative, or if it had the backing of the prime minster. I asked for time to think about it.
The next day, I broached the subject with my boss, Major General Farrakh. He rejected Pasha’s suggestion outright, saying, “You are a professional soldier and should continue with your professional work.” This was yet another time my career was saved. Had I become her military secretary I would have gone down with her and her government.
In 1990 I was selected for the prestigious one-year course at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London. It was another great experience, both for my family and myself. There were civilian and military officers from many countries at the college, and I made good friends with several of them. The course was a “mini UN,” as the commandant remarked. Here, I learned how to be flexible and accommodating of differing views. Any issue has different perspectives when seen from different parts of the world. Competing views often sound equally logical. Also, I utilized my weekends and holidays to travel extensively in England, Wales, Scotland, Europe, and even the United States.
On returning home I was promoted to major general and appointed general officer, commanding (GOC), of the Fortieth Division. This was a strike division within an offensive corps. It needed an aggressive spirit. I relished this part of it. A GOC does not directly command troops; his commanding officers do that for him. But I led from the front. I would go out to meet a platoon on exercise, even if it consisted of only thirty people. This made an impact and instilled confidence in the men. I would do physical training exercises or even the obstacle course with the troops in one battalion or the other. If some-one did badly, I would give a demonstration of how to get over an obstacle. I walked on long marches with them. While crossing a canal during training exercises, I would frequently swim with the leading wave, even in the cold of winter or in the darkness of night. This gave me the moral authority to check and reprimand the men for any weakness.
In 1993 I was appointed director general of military operations (DGMO), the most highly coveted post for a major general. This was the first time that I got involved in almost everything having to do with the nation in which the army is involved. The Military Operations Directorate is the core think tank of the army and is involved in what-ever is on the army chief’s mind, be it military or political.
My tenure as DGMO was quite eventful because this was also the time when Pakistan became the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions around the world. We already had a brigade in Somalia and were now requested to provide another brigade in Bosnia. Somalia and Bosnia were both tough and challenging assignments for the Pakistani troops.
We had initially dispatched an infantry battalion to Somalia in mid-1992, and later built up its strength to a brigade group in early 1993. The warlord Farah Aideed then reigned supreme, and no other forces dared to go to Somalia. Pakistan, under a special request of the UN, decided to help the UN in its time of need. Our brigade moved in and deployed efficiently.
Tragedy struck in June 1993, when one of our battalions-the Tenth Baloch Regiment-was ambushed while returning from a routine search operation in a built-up area. The hail of fire from surrounding buildings inflicted heavy casualties: twenty-eight dead and several wounded. I went to Mogadishu after this incident, to shore up the morale of our troops. Traveling around the countryside by chopper, I saw how Somalis had completely destroyed their own country. Hardly any houses were in a livable state. It was distressing, especially because I knew that Somalia had once been an attractive posting for members of Pakistan’s military advisory mission.
However, I was glad to be briefed and to see firsthand that the Pakistani troops were in high spirits and were very highly regarded by the United Nations Operation in Somalia commanders. Our force acquitted itself admirably. In fact, when the UN decided to pull out its force from Somalia, the rearguard action was given to U.S. and Pakistani troops to execute. It was a Pakistani battalion that threw a security cordon around Mogadishu, under cover of which all UN contingents withdrew into waiting ships at the port. It was this battalion along with a U.S. contingent that executed a tactical withdrawal under fire.
The outstanding performance of the Pakistani troops under adverse conditions is very well known at the UN. Regrettably, the film Black Hawk Down ignores the role of Pakistan in Somalia. When U.S. troops were trapped in the thickly populated Madina Bazaar area of Mogadishu, it was the Seventh Frontier Force Regiment of the Pakistan Army that reached out and extricated them. The bravery of the U.S. troops notwithstanding, we deserved equal, if not more, credit; but the filmmakers depicted the incident as involving only Americans.
The mission in Bosnia was even more serious than the one in Somalia. I was detailed to go to Bosnia to decide on the commitment and deployment of the Pakistani Brigade. I flew in with a small team of four officers. We reached Sarajevo in a UN helicopter. From Saravejo we were driven in an armored fighting vehicle, winding up and down hilly terrain for about forty miles (sixty-four kilometers) to Kisiljak. The winter Olympics had been held there a few years earlier, but now the area was desolate. We were put up at a hotel that had been built for the Olympic games and was now occupied by UN officers. I was given a briefing on the prevailing conditions in Bosnia and the likely deployment areas of the “Pakbats,” as the Pakistani battalions were to be called.
I was conscious of the fact that many Europeans were not eager to have a Pakistani force “intruding” in their domain of influence. This was manifest in the briefing I was given. The brigadier briefing me tried to change my mind about our involvement, by overemphasizing the difficult conditions in the zones of operation. “Living conditions are very tough,” he said. “You have to operate at heights exceeding 8,000 feet [about 2,400 meters] and in subzero temperatures.” He must not have relished my reply: I told him that our troops belonged to the Azad Kashmir Regiment, most of whom were born in the Himalayas and had seen action at heights of over 18,000 feet (5,400 meters) in temperatures of minus fifty degrees Celsius (-58 C.). I assured him that they would be at home in Bosnia, and would consider the mountains to be molehills.
Kisiljak is a beautiful and picturesque place. at a pity that it was now a scene of battle instead of the winter Olympics. From Kisiljak I was driven back in the same armored fighting vehicle to Saravejo. I stayed a night there with an Egyptian battalion, housed in a grand palace. I can never forget that day and night. During the day I asked to be driven around the streets of the city. This was arranged in an armored fighting vehicle for protection against the sporadic fire coming from the Serbs occupying the hills around the city. Saravejo was under siege. The population was hungry and cold, with no power supply and only subsistence-level food. The streets were deserted except for old men and women braving the firing from the hills to dig out the roots of trees that they had already cut down and burned for warmth. I was, however, extremely moved when people peefing out of their doors and windows cheered me all along the route as they noticed the Pakistani flag insignia on my uniform.
That night, while I was strolling around the compound of the palace with the commanding officer, a colonel, of my host Egyptian battalion, I heard a distinct sound of whining from outside. I asked what it could be. The colonel knew what it was and said it was quite a regular feature every night. He took me to the main entrance gate. There were some dozen or two dozen children, begging and crying for food. My eyes swelled with tears, both at their misery and at my helplessness to assist them. I gave them all the dollars I was carrying and turned back, full of pain and sorrow. When the Pakistani Brigade group of three battalions finally came, all its personnel fasted one day of every week, and distributed the food they had saved among the more needy Bosnians. It was taken as a noble gesture by the populace.
At this point in my career, I began to observe, and sometimes get indirectly involved in, affairs of state, over and above purely military commitments. In 1995 I was promoted to lieutenant general and posted to Mangla to command the elite strike corps of the Pakistan Army. As a corps commander I was automatically part of the army’s highest decision-making body-the Corps Commanders’ Conference. I saw then how national personalities from all professions-including opposition politicians-regularly visited the army chief to encourage him to oppose the sitting government. I also came to know of many peoples’ political agendas.
Whenever any government was performing poorly (unfortunately, that was the norm in the “democratic” decade of the 1990s) or was in political trouble, all roads led to the army GHQ. During this decade, whenever there was acrimony between the presi-dent and the prime minister, which was more often than not, the army chief would be sucked into the fray. He was expected by all and sundry, including the antagonists, to act as an arbitrator. The Pakistan Army has always been held in high esteem as the only powerful stabilizing factor in the nation. In the other direction, I also saw how the unrelenting pressure of what I can only call “influence wielders” made the army chief visit the prime minister and “advise” him or her on how to govern. In the absence of institutional checks and balances over government leaders, the only recourse to those out of power was the commander of the army.
After the fatal crash of the C-130 and President Zia’s death in 1988, Benazir Bhutto formed a coalition government and became prime minister in November 1988. During the period from November 1988 to October 1999, a span of nearly eleven years, no national or provincial assembly completed its term. The office of prime minister changed four times. We had three different presidents. We even saw political workers, parliamentarians, and officeholders of one prime minister physically assault the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Presidents and prime ministers began each regime harmoniously but ended at each other’s throats. The presidents used their discretionary constitutional authority to dissolve the assemblies and order fresh elections. There were four national elections in nine years.
The four changes of prime minister involved two cycles of alteration between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Never in the history of Pakistan had we seen such a combination of the worst kind of governance-or rather, a nearly total lack of governance-along with corruption and the plunder of national wealth. During these eleven years, every army chief-there were four of them-eventually clashed with the prime minister. The head of the government invariably got on the wrong side of the president and the army chief. Advice to Nawaz Sharif or Benazir Bhutto fell on deaf ears, leading every time to a confrontation.
The army always tried to play a reconciliatory role, avoiding a military takeover. It is our misfortune that the nation plummeted to the depths of economic bankruptcy. Because this was coupled with an absence of governance, we came near to being declared a failed or
defaulted state. This was the period that I have always called “sham democracy.”
Politics aside, my tenures as DGMO and corps commander went very smoothly. I enjoyed my command because I managed to raise the morale and spirit of the corps to a level where the troops felt confident of delivery on the offensive missions expected of them. For recreational purposes I opened a water sports club in Mangla Lake, which is near the corps headquarters. We introduced sailing with different categories of boats, water skiing, parasailing, and all categories of rowing. I enjoyed participating in each. I even managed to learn canoeing, sailing, and some water skiing, beyond the rowing and parasailing that I already knew. The facility has now been developed into an excellent lakeside resort.
In 1997, when General Jehangir Karamat was the army chief, a new chief of general staff (CGS) was to be selected. Most army officers felt that I would-or should-get the job. I knew that General Jahangir Karamat regarded me very highly as a commander and as a staff officer. He had been my instructor in the war course, my corps commander when I was commanding a division, and my boss as the chief of general staff. He had always given me high grades. Yet instead of me, he selected Lieutenant General Ali Kuli Khan Khattak, who I felt was a mediocre officer. I must confess I was quite surprised and disappointed.
I reconciled myself to retiring from the army as a lieutenant general, and told Sehba that we should be grateful to God that we had come so far. I was third in seniority of lieutenant generals, though this happened because of some manipulation by the former army chief General Waheed Kakar to give the advantage of first position to Ali Kuli, whom he wanted to promote. If not for this unfair manipulation, I would have been first in line and Ali Kuli would have retired before the promotion of the next chief was considered. The appointment of Ali Kuli to the prized position of CGS indicated that General Jahangir Karamat preferred him as the next Chief after Karamat retired. It was also well known that the president of Pakistan, Farooq Leghari, who had the authority to appoint the chief, was a college classmate of Ali Kuli. I was more of a commoner-a soldier’s man at that-who was not at all into such social links and maneuvering.
One night when I was corps commander I was sitting in my house in Mangla, past midnight, in a very pensive mood. Suddenly a thought came to my mind in the form of a prayer. I jotted it down on my official letterhead. I still keep it in my personal file.
O Allah! The only thing I can promise my Army and my Nation is sincerity, honesty, integrity, and unflinching loyalty.
You give me the vision to see and perceive the truth from the false. The wisdom to comprehend the problem and find a solution.
The courage to speak and project and the clarity to express the right. The chance to serve the Nation as I deserve.
It was August 11, 1998, my fifty-fifth birthday. I did not know at that time that my prayer to serve my country was soon to be answered. The little boy who journeyed on that fateful train to Pakistan had come a long way. Little did he know that the most difficult stage of his life was about to begin.