INTO THE FIRE
On graduation from the academy, I was a second lieutenant. With-out giving it much thought, I opted for the Thirty-sixth Light Antiaircraft Regiment, because its training, firing, and courses were all in Karachi. Why my fixation on Karachi? The reason was not my family, it was that my Bengali girlfriend was there. I suppose the army can change many things, but it cannot change primeval instinct. No matter where I was stationed, I reckoned, I would still have to go to Karachi twice a year for a course or for practice in firing.
My plans came to naught when that year it was decided that after graduation no one could go directly into antiaircraft without first going into artillery. So after six months I was posted to the Sixteenth Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment. Worse, my romance came to an abrupt end when the girl’s family returned to East Pakistan.
I never did go into air defense. I stayed in artillery. From then on my entire career would be dedicated to the army and the defense of my country.
I was still more of an officer than a gentleman. It didn’t take long for me to get into trouble. In mid-1965, with clouds of war with India gathering, my unit was moved into the Changa Manga forest near Lahore, a train ride of about twenty-four hours from Karachi. The rest of the young officers belonged mostly to the Punjab, and it took them only a few hours to get home to see their families. I applied for six days’ leave to go to Karachi, and with a Sunday at both ends it would be effectively an eight-day leave. My commanding officer would have none of it-it was too long, he said. I thought he was being irrational and insensitive. I defied his decision, bought a train ticket, boarded the Karachi Express, and went home for the eight days. One of the officers slightly senior to me, Javed Ashraf Qazi, who retired as a lieutenant general and later became my minister for railways and then for education, phoned me and told me to return immediately. Otherwise, I would be in a lot of trouble on disciplinary grounds for being absent without leave. I refused, and took the full eight days off that I had “granted” myself On my return, my commanding officer went ballistic and initiated court-martial proceedings against me.
at saved me was the war of 1965, when India attacked Pakistan on all fronts and strafed a passenger train, killing many civilians. The Indian attack came on September 6. The war lasted seventeen days and ended in a cease-fire sponsored by the UN Security Council, but Pakistan gave India a fright and a bloody nose to go with it. There was no strategic On on either side. Still, Pakistan certainly achieved a tactical victory in the sense that we conquered more territory, inflicted more casualties, took more prisoners, and almost blew the Indian Air Force out of the air. My performance in the war earned me recognition and an award for gallantry. The commanding officer had little choice but to change his opinion about the “fiery young officer all out of control.” In fact, it is precisely because I was a fiery young officer that I did well in the war.
My artillery regiment was a part of the only elite armored division of the Pakistan Army equipped with American-made Patton tanks. We were launched into an offensive in the Kasur-Khem Karan sector on September 7, 1965. We established a bridgehead across the Roohi Nullah (a water drain) and quickly seized enemy territory up to fifteen miles deep, capturing the sizable town of Khem Karan. My artillery battery was deployed just ahead of the to. During a lull in the firing, I took a quick tour of the deserted streets of Khem Karan, and felt very proud. Only dogs were barking: there was no sign of human life. I wrote my first letter during the war to my mother, proudly saying that I was writing from India.
After three days of battle my division was ordered to move to the critical Lahore sector, which was under enemy threat. We stabilized our position there after two days of intense fighting. This was the only time
in my entire military career that I have seen a gun barrel go red-hot from firing.
Having stabilized the Lahore front, we were ordered to move again to the Sialkot front. This was the front where the famous tank battles of Chawinda were fought. At the end of the war this sector was to become a graveyard of Indian tanks.
My next confrontation with death came on the night of September 16, 1965. I was detailed as an artillery observer attached to an infantry company that had been ordered to attack and capture a village called Jassoran, situated on a mound. The company commander was my best friend, Lieutenant Bilal. We were to attack at midnight. After preparatory movement in the dark, we went into a “forming-up place” 800 yards (about 730 meters) from our objective, where the company lined up in a formation for the final assault. Bilal and I impulsively embraced each other. This could be our last embrace, we thought.
I brought the whole weight of our division’s artillery fire on the village. Under cover of this fire we advanced, and finally charged the village crying Allah o’ Akbar (“God is the greatest”). The artillery fire was very accurate and effective, keeping the enemy’s head down. We braved the enemy’s counterfire and forced them to beat a hasty retreat. We had accomplished our task. I felt great.
Another significant action took place on the night of September 22. Our guns were positioned in a graveyard. An enemy shell hit one of our self-propelled artillery guns and set its rear compartment on fire. The flames leaped up toward the sky in the darkness of the night. The ready-to-fire shells on the gun were in danger of catching fire and bursting, setting off a chain reaction with all the other guns. It was a very dangerous situation. “Hell!” I thought. “My gun battery could be blown to pieces, taking all of us along.” I had to act immediately; there was no time to lose.
While everybody took cover, a lesson that I had learned on the streets of Nazimabad came into play. I stood my ground, dashed to the blazing gun, and climbed into it. One brave soldier followed me. We saw three men of the crew lying in a pool of blood. Instinctively, I ignored them, in order to save the shells first. We took off our shirts and wound them around our hands for protection from the hot shells. One by one we took the shells off the gun and threw them to safety on the ground, hoping that they would not burst on impact.
God saved us from that disaster. In the meantime, seeing me facing all this danger, all my men who had run for cover returned. Together we first put the fire out and then, sorrowfully, pulled out the three crewmen. I noticed that one of them was still alive. I took his head in my arms, but while I was trying to put a field bandage on his wound, he died. I wi11 never forget it. Such are the brutalities of war; they leave a permanent imprint on the mind. I received an award for gallantry for saving lives and equipment. The brave soldier who helped me was also decorated for gallantry. I can never forget that night.
These two actions changed the commanding officer’s opinion about me. I should have been decorated with two awards for gallantry, but instead I received one award and the dismissal of the court-martial proceedings. The war ended on September 23, 1965, and I was promoted to the rank of captain soon after.
In 1966 I opted for and was assigned to the Special Services Group (SSG), our elite commando outfit, the world’s best. Commando training demands tremendous physical and mental stamina, so it was exactly the right kind of environment for me. Commandos have to undergo survival training in jungles, mountains, and deserts, and learn to make it on their own. Eating delicacies like snakes, frogs’ legs, and the local lizards (which are like iguanas) is not infrequent. I learned that one can eat anything except plants with white sap. Ever since then I have not been finicky about food-I can eat anything, though I do appreciate good food. You learn to really appreciate food and water when you are hungry or thirsty for a long time. Then you thank God for anything that He provides.
The training was physically exacting. There was very tough physical exercise for an hour every day, starting with a warm-up run of two miles (about three kilometers). We ran four miles (nearly 6.5 kilometers) with a weapon in forty minutes once a week; twelve miles (nine-teen kilometers) with a weapon in two hours; and thirty-six miles (58 kilometers) with a thirty-pound pack and weapon in ten hours. In addition, there were several tactical exercises involving hundreds of miles of route marches. Then there was watermanship in lakes and fast-flowing canals, as well as parachute training in which one had to qualify in six jumps. I was considered very good at these tests. I ended the course among the top three, getting the highest grade. The course gave me confidence in my physical and mental abilities. It taught me that enduring extreme hardship has more to do with mental resilience than physical stamina.
After my initial training I served in the SSG for two periods of four and a half and two and a half years, respectively, first as a captain and then as a major. When I look back on my service with the SSG, I feel that my self-confidence and my qualities as a soldier and a leader were all honed there. I felt physically very tough, mentally alert, and able to handle tough assignments with ease. The SSG provided me with ample opportunities to develop initiative and drive because it encouraged so much independence of training and operation.
I developed my own, very innovative style of training the men under my command. I expected them to undergo several confidence-building and nerve-testing actions.
One test was to hold a self-made grenade of plastic explosive with holes made at three-second intervals in the time fuse. A new SSG volunteer was expected to throw the bomb when the spark of the ignited time fuse came out of the last hole just three seconds before exploding. Some got jittery and threw it prematurely.
A second test was to run on a yard-wide iron beam 300 feet (90 meters) high, spanning the top of the side structure of a metal bridge about 150 yards (136 meters) in length. The distance had to be covered in forty seconds. It might sound easy, but when one reached the middle of the length, with a fast river flowing underneath, it became dangerous. You could get dizzy if you looked down.
Another improvised test was to lie flat on one’s stomach in a railway culvert, looking toward a train hurtling at full speed that would pass one or two feet (about one-third to one-half meter) away. Closing the eyes was not allowed.
Then I would make my men sit a couple of yards to the side of a tar-get being fired at from 200 or 300 yards (180 to 270 meters). The whizzing and thud of the bullets helped inoculate them against the stress of battle.
I have always believed in leading from the front by setting a personal example. Never ask your men to do what you would not. So I made sure that I demonstrated each training assignment before expecting others to follow suit. I became an exceptionally good shot with a rifle and a submachine gun. I was also a good runner. I would compete with my men in everything and would treat them to a cold drink if I lost; a few did beat me, but not many. All this endeared me to my men, who started looking up to me. They loved me because I was just and compassionate. I would share their worries and help them with their problems. My seniors recognized me as an exceptional leader, but also as a bluntly outspoken, ill-disciplined officer. I was given a number of punishments on different occasions for fighting, insubordination, and lack of discipline. When I became army chief, my military secretary showed me my service dossier and naughtily asked me to look at my discipline record. It was shocking indeed. Entries in red ink were over-flowing the total allocated space. The consolation, however, was that I was never punished for any lapse of character or for moral turpitude. My annual confidential reports were always very good-only my lack of discipline held me back.
On the whole, life in the SSG was tough, active, thrilling, dangerous, and very fulfilling. I shall never forget it. It made me what I am today.
You might think that a person like me would have had a passionate affair and married for love. But I was hitched in the traditional fashion-an arranged marriage. An aunt of mine knew the parents of an eligible girl named Sehba Farid, and suggested that we would be a good match. My parents initiated the proposal. On the day that I was sup-posed to go to Sehba’s house and meet her family, I arrived in a shirt and trousers wearing a pair of open-toed sandals called Peshawari chap-pals, the kind favored by Pathans and army personnel when they are in civilian clothes. Our salaries were hardly enough to buy designer shoes! Not being an army girl, Sehba was appalled that a fashion disaster had come for her hand. She had received many proposals before and rejected them Al for one reason or another-either the suitor’s hair was no good or his dress sense was wanting, or whatever. She certainly didn’t like mustaches. Yet for some reason, she didn’t reject me, despite my mustache (which I refused to shave off) and my attire. At least she approved of my hair and face!
Sehba was extremely beautiful, and I fell for her immediately. Any man of that age who tells you he has anything except looks on his mind is not being truthful. It is my good fortune that, apart from being beautiful, Sehba also turned out to be a wonderful human being, a terrific mother, and a perfect homemaker. She smoothed my rough edges and managed to mellow me, little by little. “Quarrelling with superiors, even if they are being stupid, will affect your career,” she would chide me. Gradually, her advice started sinking in, but it took me some time to calm down.
Sehba told me later that of all her family, it was her father, Ghulam Ghaus Farid, who worked in the ministry of information and broad-casting, who was the most enthusiastic about me. “He is a very good officer and wi11 go places,” he told her, though I’m sure that he had no idea of the places I would go. Neither had I, nor anyone else.
Love came gradually, because after we were formally engaged I was posted for two years to Chittagong in East Pakistan. We exchanged letters. I would correct her spelling mistakes (this was neither very romantic nor very chivalrous of me, considering that Sehba’s English is far better than mine) and in retaliation she would correct my mistakes. Whenever I was in Karachi we would go out on dates-innocent little forays to parties or to a movie or to the disco at the old Metropole Hotel.
Sehba Farid and I were married on December 27, 1968. I was then a captain. Immediately afterward, I was posted to Cherat, high up in the mountains. A day or two after we got there, I was due to make a parachute jump with about sixty-four other men, as part of a training exercise. I decided to be romantic and asked a friend to take Sehba to the place where we would drop. I told Sehba I would wave a white hand-kerchief as I came down, so that she could identify me. I suppose there was an element of machismo too, as I wanted to show off my bravery to my new wife. The whole scheme was well coordinated and executed. I carried my largest handkerchief and waved it vigorously. Sehba did see me, and I loved seeing her wave back at me.
Cherat is on a ridge. The tin-roofed houses and buildings on the ridge are 50 to 100 yards (45 to 90 meters) apart from each other. It is full of snakes and wild animals-hardly a place for a new bride to begin married life. But that is what young army wives have to suffer.
I had to go out one evening, and returned at about one in the morning to find the front door locked. I knocked and knocked, but Sehba wouldn’t open the door. I became worried, and broke a window to enter. Our bedroom door was locked too. I started banging on it. Finally, she opened it, with a petrified expression on her face. There had been all sorts of scary noises coming from the tin roof creaking in the wind, so she had switched on the radio at full volume. Unfortunately, there was a horror program going on, which terrified her even more.
At the time I was probably not as sensitive to her fears as I should have been. Becoming a father changed my happy-go-lucky attitude toward life. Suddenly I was responsible for a little human being-our first child, our daughter Ayla, born on February 18, 1970. Our son, Bilal, was born a year and a half later, on October 17, 1971. Having two children so close together made for sleepless nights and disturbed routines. You can imagine how busy they kept us, particularly their mother.
They say that behind every successful man is a greater woman. In my case I happily married Sehba because I was attracted by her beauty, dignity, and poise. She deserves the credit for sobering my outlook towards life in general and my profession in particular. She significantly helped transform me from a carefree, brash, and abrasive officer to a more balanced and responsible individual. She developed in me the urge to do mx best. I certainly owe the improvement in my written and spoken English to her, She has always been more articulate than me. Even now, whenever I get stuck for a word or a sentence, I approach her instead of spending time with a thesaurus. Sehba has taken on the role of First Lady admirably and has created a positive impact on everyone with whom she has come in contact. She has been a wonderful wife.
Both children, from a very early age, have given us great comfort and have been a very real source of satisfaction. Their cooperation and focus in matters of academics, diet, and even sleeping patterns were amazing. They seemed to have an innate sense of the commitment and devotion that their parents felt toward them. They have never let us down. As adults, Bilal and Ayla have well-rounded, wholesome personalities. Their hallmark is humility and poise, coupled with maturity and a good sense of humor.
Bilal’s name carries a special significance for me. He was originally named Sheharyar, but when my best friend, Bilal, was killed in the war of 1971 against India, I was so distraught that I phoned Sehba and told her to change our son’s name to Bilal in memory of my martyred friend. Bilal and I were coursemates; we had fought the war of 1965 together and then joined the SSG together. We were extremely close. I can never think of my friend Bilal without a pang of pain, but then I can never think of my son Bilal without a surge of joy.
Grandchildren are a source of great delight, too you get all the joy but none of the responsibility; when they get tiresome or fidget, as children always do, you just hand them back to their parents. Ayla’s daughters-Maryam (born on June 23, 1997) and Zainab (born on July 16, 2000)-are beyond infancy. However, Bilal and his wife, Erum, are having periods of disturbed sleep with young Hamza (born on September 18, 2003) and with their daughter, Zoya, born on July 31, 2005.
I will turn now to political developments in Pakistan. In 1970, before elections could be held, there was a devastating cyclone in East Pakistan, with winds of 120 miles (190 kilometers) an hour. It was accompanied by a huge tidal wave, or tsunami, the worst of the twentieth century and left 200,000 people dead. The response of President Yahya an and his government was callous in the extreme. It took him quite some time to react. He did not even visit the devastated province for many days, and then only under pressure. The people of East Pakistan felt an, alienated, and badly let down, as if they were a colony instead of part of the country. I am convinced that the government’s attitude during this disaster reinforced the impression among the East Pakistanis that the western wing didn’t care for them, and that this brought many more voters behind Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League.
Pakistan’s elections of December 7, 1970, were among the most fateful in its history. The country still included East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), where more than half of our population lived. The actual winner of the voting was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League, with all its seats coming from East Pakistan. They got 160 of the 162 seats for the National Assembly from East Pakistan, out of a total of 307. The two largest provinces of Pakistan’s western wing, Punjab and Sindh, voted for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his PPP (Pakistan People’s Parry), which got 82 of the 138 seats allocated to the four provinces in west Pakistan. Neither of them was represented in the other wing.
Immediately after the elections Bhutto more or less declared himself prime minister, suggesting such bizarre ideas as two constitutions, one for East Pakistan and the other for ‘West Pakistan,” with a prime minister for each wing, forgetting that now the latter was no longer one but four provinces and there was no such thing as ‘West Pakistan” except in the geographic sense. He played on the fears of the west Pakistanis that the Awami League would use its majority to foist a constitution on Pakistan on the basis of its campaign promise to give maximum autonomy to the provinces, leaving only defense, currency, and foreign affairs with the center. He conjured up visions of everlasting domination by the Bengalis, forgetting that they too were Pakistanis and the Awami League had won the elections perfectly legitimately through democratic means. Bhutto even threatened members elected to the Constituent Assembly from west Pakistan that he would break their legs if they attended its inaugural session in Dhaka, East Pakistan, and that if they insisted on attending they should buy a one-way ticket. The Constituent Assembly was supposed to make a new constitution for Pakistan in three months, but it never met, not least because of Bhutto’s threat. It was a nexus between Bhutto and a small coterie of military rulers that destroyed Pakistan. The myopic and rigid attitude of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman didn’t help matters, and he played into Bhutto’s and Yahya’s hands by remaining rooted in East Pakistan, forgetting that now he was prime minister-elect of the whole of Pakistan and needed to tour the four provinces of the western wing in order to reassure the people there and allay their fears.
Under pressure from the wily Bhutto, and no doubt because he didn’t want to lose power, Yahya Khan postponed the meeting of the Constituent Assembly indefinitely on March 25, 1971. He did not stop there. The very next day he outlawed the Awami League and arrested its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the clear winner of the election. This act infuriated the Bengali masses of East Pakistan, who were already agitating and had a sense of deprivation and alienation. Tempers rose so high with the arrest of the undisputed Bengali leader that an open insurgency was launched by the populace. This was massively supported by the Indians from across the border. With the army completely bogged down in quelling the insurgency, India stabbed Pakistan in the back by blatantly attacking it across its border on several fronts in East Pakistan on November 21, 1971. All-out war between India and Pakistan commenced on December 3, 1971.
My assignments during this crucial period were directly linked to events in East Pakistan. I was posted out of the Special Services Group (SSG) to an artillery regiment in December 1970, after serving this elite commando outfit for a mandatory period of four years. With war clouds on the horizon and insurgency in East Pakistan, the army decided to beef up the SSG.
I was recalled in October 1971 to raise a new SSG company at Cherat. It took me a month and a half to raise the company, but when we were ready to be airlifted to East Pakistan, war broke out and all flights between Pakistan’s two wings were suspended. My company was then placed under the command of an SSG battalion in the Punjab sector.
My SSG company was ordered to prepare to seize a bridge about twenty miles (thirty-two kilometers) deep inside enemy territory in West Pakistan and hold it till a linkup force of an armored brigade reached us. I war-gamed and practiced the offensive with my troops. I even planned for the worst contingency: if, after taking the bridge, we failed to meet the linkup forces, we were to exfiltrate back home through the desert in the south on commandeered buses and trucks.
My troops were brimming with confidence, and we were all set to go when the cease-fire was announced and East Pakistan was forcibly torn away from us to form the separate state of Bangladesh. It was a terrible day. When I was telling my troops about the cease-fire, the surrender of our 90,000 personnel (military and civilian), and the end of our plan to seize the bridge, I broke down and cried. All my brave soldiers cried with me. It remains the saddest and most painful day of my life. My anger at the generals who had taken charge of government, and at some of the politicians of the time, still makes me see red.
at happened in East Pakistan is the saddest episode in Pakistan’s history. The loss of our eastern wing and the creation of Bangladesh were all a result of inept political handling ever since our independence. Blame ultimately fell on the army. As events developed, the army was confronted with an impossible situation-a mass popular uprising within and an invasion from without by India, supposedly nonaligned but now being helped overtly by the Soviet Union under a treaty of peace and friendship. It was actually an alliance of war. On the other hand, our longtime ally, the United States of America, apart from making sympathetic noises and wringing its hands, was nowhere to be seen. No army in the world can sustain such a multidimensional threat. Nonetheless, the operational handling of the troops by the army’s senior leadership was simply incompetent. It brought avoidable disgrace to the army. A cease-fire was declared on December 17, 1971, and Pakistan was cut in half.