LIFE IN THE FIRE – IN THE LINE OF FIRE Part #1
LIFE IN THE FIRE
After the cease-fire of 1971, the entire SSG was withdrawn to recoup. My company was moved to Kamri in the mountainous Northern Areas, deep in the Himalayas, to check on reported incursions of Indian troops. It took me over a month to complete the move through a most rugged terrain, and the experience offers a hint of how difficult it can be to guard borders among the highest mountains in the world. We first drove 250 miles (400 kilometers) to Gilgit in jeeps on the famous Karakorum Highway-our mountain link with China.
This was the time when it was under construction and was called the “eighth wonder of the world.” We took ten days to get there after navigating through innumerable roadblocks and landslides along the way. From Gilgit onward we went some distance in jeeps. Then we proceeded on mules, trekking across the Burzil Pass at 14,500 feet (about 4,400 meters); descending into the Minimarg valley, at 9,000 feet (2,700 meters); and making the final ascent on foot to reach Kamri, high up at 13,000 feet (nearly 4,000 meters). This was a beautifully green pine-forested area. It was an experience of a lifetime.
One has to adjust to the low oxygen in the atmosphere at these elevations. In winter, snow falls by the yard. It was a tough assignment, but we acquitted ourselves very well. I stayed almost a year in the harshest of conditions, but I really enjoyed being there and emerged more self-confident. In the winter, I used to move around to various valleys and peaks, where at times few dared to go. My theory was to keep busy and active to overcome the feeling of isolation and loneliness. My movement also contributed to a show of force to the enemy, who stay put in their bunkers throughout the winter.
One of the treks I undertook in November 1972 became a real adventure. I decided to move from my location, Kamri, to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Independent Kashmir, reconnoitering the Line of Control between India and Pakistan all along the way. This meant covering a total distance of 175 miles (280 kilometers), of which the first 130 miles (208 kilometers) to Athmoqam were done on foot. I set out from Kamri with six of my soldiers and a guide. Our first destination was Nekrun, about forty miles (64 kilometers) away. We crossed the Kamri Pass at about 13,500 feet (4,100 meters) went across several features at heights of over 12,000 feet (3,600 meters), finally descending into Nekrun valley. During the three-day trek we did not come across a single human being. We could move only from first light until eleven AIVI, and then from about three in the afternoon to last light, because avalanches generally occur between eleven and three, when the sun is brightest and the snow melts. Not that our timing was a guarantee against avalanches. Movement was hazardous at any time, because at some stretches even talking loudly could suddenly initiate an avalanche. Beyond Nekrun our trip took us through the most picturesque sites. The Kishinganga River from Indian-occupied Kashmir enters Pakistan at Nekrun, where its name becomes the Neelum River. Our movement from Nekrun to Kel and finally to Athmoqam was all along the Neelum. It was heaven on earth.
With East Pakistan gone, to become Bangladesh, Bhutto’s largest number of seats in what was left of Pakistan gave him a dubious legitimacy. He became president of Pakistan, but he also used the absence of a basic law as a pretext to become chief martial law administrator. There was nothing to stop Bhutto from reverting to,the constitution of 1956, with amendments to the clauses that pertained to East Pakistan, but he chose raw power instead.
At first I admired Bhutto. He was young, educated, articulate, and dynamic. He had eight years’ experience in government under President Ayub an. But as time passed, my opinion of Bhutto started to change. My brother Javed, who was principal secretary to the chief minister of the North: West Frontier province, told me that Bhutto was no good and would ruin the country. My brother was right. I saw how the country, and particularly its economy, was ravaged by mindless nationalization. Its institutions were destroyed under his brand of so-called Islamic socialism. Bhutto took control of virtually all the nation’s industries-steel, chemicals, cement, shipping, banking, insurance, engineering, gas and power distribution, and even small industries like flour milling, cotton ginning, and rice husking, as well as private schools and colleges-the start of the destruction of our educational system. Mercifully, he did not touch textiles, our largest industry. Bhutto ruled not like a democrat but like a despotic dictator. He threw many of his opponents, including editors, journalists, and even cartoonists, into prison. He was really a fascist-using the most progressive rhetoric to promote regressive ends, the first of which was to stay in power forever. It was a tragedy, because a man of his undoubted capability could have done a lot of good for his country. By the time his regime ended, I had come to the conclusion that Bhutto was the worst thing that had yet happened to Pakistan. I still maintain that he did more damage to the country than anyone else, damage from which we have still not fully recovered. Among other things, he was the first to try to appease the religious right. He banned liquor and gambling and declared Friday a holiday instead of Sunday. This was hypocrisy at its peak, because everyone knew that he did not believe in any one of these actions.
Still a major, I was selected for the prestigious staff course in the Command and Staff College in 1974. I finished the course with flying colors, ending with the top grade. I was posted as a brigade major in 206 Brigade, Karachi-the most coveted assignment for a major. The brigade later saw action against revolting tribesmen in Sui and Kohlu in Balochistan. I gained tremendous experience during this difficult assignment, particularly in practical planning and staff work. As a staff officer in Kohlu, I developed good relations with some tribal chiefs, and won over a few of them. I had to take some risks, though, to do this. Once a chief of a subgroup of the ferocious Marri tribe invited me for lunch to his house in the mountains, about thirty-five miles (fifty-six kilometers) away from our camp. I accepted and went in a jeep with my
driver and a radio operator. The only weapon I carried was a pistol. This was in violation of orders, which stipulated that whenever an officer is on the move in dangerous territory he must be accompanied by a strong armed escort in the front and rear. My behavior was “reckless” because I knew that the Balochi tribes admire and respect bravery. The gamble paid off Pirdadani, my host, had lined the entire route with his armed tribesmen for the protection of his guest. From then on Pirdadani became my friend and a frequent visitor to my brigade head-quarters. He became entirely cooperative.
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province in area but the smallest in population. It is also the most backward. Its inhabitants are 40 percent Pashtun, settlers of generations ago from the North-West Frontier; and 60 percent native Balochi. The Baloch are mainly a tribal society, comprising about seventy-seven tribes. A few among them have always been antigovernment. Ninety-five percent of Balochistan is administratively a “B area,” where the government does not exercise total authority and the local tribal sirdar or chief plays an important role. Only 5 percent is an “A area,” which comes under the regular government. A few of the sirdars in the B areas have been manipulating and blackmailing every Pakistani government for decades, using the militant mercenaries that they maintain as their local militia force. They have also kept their own tribes suppressed under their iron grip through indiscriminate use of force. I have taken on myself to convert all the B areas into A areas and establish the government it there. So far we have managed to convert fourteen of the twenty-six districts into A areas.
Another memorable experience was my brigade’s assistance in flood relief operations. Pakistan was hit by one of its worst floods in 1976, when the melting snow and glaciers combined with unprecedented rains caused all rivers, especially the Indus, to overflow. Sindh was worst affected. Our brigade was moved to Sukkur, which faced the most devastation. My brigade commander detailed me to take charge of filling a breach in a canal. This was beyond the purview of my responsibilities as a staff officer, but understanding the confidence that was vested in me, as well as the challenge the task posed, I accepted readily. The command placed under me was unique. Other than the army engineers, I was given about 200 Hurs (members of the fabled warrior tribe of Sindh) and 250 shackled prisoners from Sukkur jail. I managed this disparate force, gelled them into a team, and worked the whole night to plug the breach by morning. When the brigade commander came to inspect the situation in the morning, he was surprised and pleased. He commended me for my performance.
My brigade commander found me to be not only an efficient staff officer but also a bold leader, willing to stick my neck out beyond the call of duty. My career was now well on course, given all my qualifications and achievements.
Throughout this period the political scene became more and more murky. Bhutto’s despotic, dictatorial, suppressive rule led to nationwide political discontent. He set up a Gestapo-like force called the Federal Security Force (FSF) that was much hated and feared. His interpersonal dealings with friends, colleagues, and foes were so arrogant and degrading that people hated him but were too frightened to express their feelings openly. He set up a concentration camp in a place called Dalai, where opponents were “fixed.” The situation was something like Iran under the shah or Iraq under Saddam. Bhutto is said to have adopted a mocking, belittling attitude even toward his own appointee as army chief, General Zia ul-Haq. Such an attitude led to unity among all the opposition forces.
In this environment Bhutto ventured into his first election, in 1977, to prove his legitimacy. The opposition formalized its unity into a political alliance called the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA). Either Bhutto became unnerved during the election campaign or he was bent on winning two-thirds of seats in the National Assembly to enable him to change from the parliamentary system to a presidential system by making a constitutional amendment, as some of his former colleagues now assert. The ballot was grossly rigged-so rigged, in fact, that the people lost their fear and came out in the streets to protest, often violently. The PNA, of course, led the protest demonstrations. The army was called out in Lahore to quell the disturbance. Bhutto imposed martial law in Lahore, but the high court struck it down. On one occasion the situation got so far out of control that the army was ordered to fire at the demonstrating civilians. Three brigadiers commanding the troops were bold enough to refuse the orders to fire and opted to resign their commissions instead. These honorable and principled offi-
cers were brigadiers Ashfaq Gondal, Niaz Ahmed, and Ishtiaq Ali an, who were then retired from service.
Finally, the situation came to a head. General Zia ul-Haq removed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in July 1977. He imposed martial law after suspending the constitution. I was still a major, posted at Kharian as second in command of the Forty-fourth Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment. Rafi Alam, who was then a major general and our general officer commanding (GOC) in Kharian, was appointed deputy martial law administrator of the Rawalpindi Division. He’had developed a liking for my professional qualities, and he chose me along with two other officers to establish the deputy martial law administrator’s head-quarters in Rawalpindi. It was a very unusual situation. While we were carrying out our duties related to martial law, we were also expected to devote time to our units, discharging our normal peacetime duties.
I was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1978 and given command of the Forty-fourth Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment, part of the armored division. Initially, I was offered the command of the First Self-Propelled Regiment. “You will have a comfortable time there,” I was told, because it was a well-established old unit. I refused. Instead, I preferred the challenge of going to the Forty-fourth, called the “Men of Crisis,” and raising its standards. In my two years in command, I melded the men and officers into one team and motivated them to a very high level, instilling in them confidence and the will to win.
The unit was particularly weak in sports. In a soccer match against a rival team we lost nine to zero. We performed just as poorly in other sports. We were jeered at by other units. It was humiliating. I moved quickly to hunt for talent, organize teams, and launch an intense training program with newly hired coaches. I also concentrated on the training, operational preparedness, and administration of the unit, enhancing its all-around caliber. My men responded admirably. The result was that the next year we won many sporting events and were declared champions in training. Our administration was always highly commended by the GOC. I felt proud to turn around our average unit, in one year, into possibly the best all-around unit of the armored division. I had made the right choice of assignments: it is better to turn an under performing group around than to coast along atop an already successful one.
Achieving the turnaround did not come easily. It requires real, down-to-earth leadership to motivate your men to achieve. You have to lead from the front, and be better than your men (at least most of them) at anything you want them to do-especially if it’s something physical. A leader has to be just, firm, compassionate, and considerate toward his men. He has to look after their welfare and help them even with their domestic problems. That is when he starts earning their deepest respect and unquestioning obedience. I feel proud to say that I have always his office, I overheard him on the phone saying, “If my colonel martial law has given the instructions, I know he must have done the right thing.” He did not even ask me about the complaint of the man at the other end, then or later. I could not restrain myself, and told him bluntly, “Sir, you trust people too much; you could be taken for a ride.” He shot back, “I know who I can trust.”
Major General Rafi Alam taught me some of the finer elements of leadership. I tried to develop many of his attributes. Once, after a long test exercise with troops in the field in the heat of sufnmer, with a temperature of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, he called me to a mound from where he was observing us. When I reached him, a waiter was bringing him a cold drink. Just as the general was about to take a sip, his glance fell on me, looking at him thirstily. He immediately stopped and offered the drink to me. He insisted, “Come on, bugger, you need it and deserve it much more than I do.” I gulped it down.
Working at martial law headquarters was a totally different (and unnatural, I might add) assignment, compared with the command of troops, which I relished. However, here I learned that one could con-tribute immensely toward establishing justice and improving governance. I contributed my humble bit in a limited way within the confines of the Rawalpindi division, which was one of the five divisions of the Punjab province. My stint there gave me an insight into the functioning of civil government and taught me how to interact with the civilian bureaucracy. There were both negatives and positives in this experience, all of which would come in handy when I was thrust into a situation of authority in the country.
A terrible punishment during General Zia’s martial law was lashing people who had committed a crime. I noticed that only the poor were given this punishment-those who were involved in petty crimes. The rich and the influential involved in large-scale crime and corruption managed to avoid this particular form of “justice.” One day I decided to go to the Rawalpindi jail to observe a lashing for myself It was an ordeal just to be present at such a distasteful event, the most inhuman and humiliating that I have ever witnessed. The jailer set out a sofa for me, and a table laden with cakes and pastries for my pleasure. The image of the Roman Colosseum sprang to mind. The least I could do was order him to remove the cakes and pastries immediately.
The wretched man, who was to get five lashes, was in underpants and was tied to a wooden X frame with his arms and legs so firmly stretched out that he could not move a muscle. The lasher was in trunks, like a wrestler. The lasher began by drawing a line with a marker across the buttocks of the criminal, indicating the exact spot where the lashes were to be delivered. The lasher then lined up his cane along the prisoner’s bottom with his arm stretched out. He drew a line on the ground to mark his spot, and then moved away about five steps. He came running and gave the first lash as hard as he could. The man tightened his muscles on the first lash, squirmed on the second, and screamed on the third. I could barely look at the fourth and fifth. I think he fainted. They untied him and he fell on the ground facedown. I could see red fleshy pulp on his bottom. A crude doctor appeared, checked the miserable man, and then did the stupidest thing. He started pressing the man’s bottom with his feet, with all his weight on it. Seldom have I heard a man scream louder. I have never been more disgusted, not just at the inhuman treatment but also at the unfairness of it all.
I related this episode to Major General Rafi Alam and asked him to have this inhumanity stopped, at least within his jurisdiction. Bless the man’s kind heart he listened to me and told the courts not to sentence poor people to lashing any more.
I got another taste of martial law when we ordered the police to round up known miscreants to improve law and order. They very obediently arrested everyone in two categories in their records. I was told that these included pimps, madams, and musicians of Rawalpindi’s red-light area. I cursed the police and ordered their release. To my great embarrassment, they all came to martial law headquarters and started shouting slogans in my favor-“Long live Colonel Musharraf.” I had to tell them that if they didn’t leave I would have them rearrested.