LIFE IN THE FIRE – IN THE LINE OF FIRE Part #2
On one occasion, we ordered all drug cases to be tried in military courts. This order soon turned into a farce, as the police started arresting and trying poor people who were peddling or using just a few grams of drugs. The military courts were flooded, and we had to rescind the order.
This, in brief was my experience with martial law. I learned a few lessons. First, whenever the army gets involved with martial law, it gets distracted from its vital military duties. Military training and operational readiness suffer. Second, when we superimpose martial law and place the military over the civilian government, the latter ceases functioning. When martial law is later lifted, the civilian functionaries remain ineffective. Their growth is stunted. Last, I learned that what-ever the law, civil or military, the poor are always victims of oppression. The rich and the powerful generally remain above the law. During my tenure at martial law headquarters I tried my best to give comfort to the poor or go soft on them and to be firm against the privileged. I believe that a poor, hungry man may have a reason to steal, because the state has not provided for him, but a rich man taking bribes deserves the harshest treatment, because he already has plenty.
In July 1978, I took two months’ leave to go abroad on a holiday with my wife. We flew to London and stayed with a relative. We then went to Chicago to visit my brother Naved, who had moved to America in 1974 to become a doctor. We spent about ten days with him, after which we returned to London and purchased a Toyota hatchback for the long drive to Pakistan. It was a great experience. We stuffed the car with canned food, a gas stove, a tent, an air mattress, and two air pillows, and off we went. The route that we mapped was ideal from a tourist’s point of view. We followed the Rhine River through Germany, ending at the picturesque Rhine Falls in Switzerland. From Lucerne we drove to Italy and stayed at Lake Como, which I knew from my study of the Napoleonic campaigns in the area. Then we went across Italy from Milan to Venice, staying two days in Venice. From that point on, we kept the sea on our flank. Through Yugoslavia we traveled all along the Adriatic coast, then through Greece along the Aegean coast, and through Turkey along the Black Sea coast. We stopped and stayed a day or two at any place that we found interesting, often at campsites on the beach. This journey of a month and seven days was inexpensive and is one whose memory we fondly cherish.
In 1979 I was posted to the Command and Staff College as an instructor. This is a highly prized appointment awarded to all top lieutenant colonels, and it is where I developed my public speaking skills. Normally, instructors “inherit” lecture notes, which we call pinks because they are written on pink paper. After trying this system for a while, I decided to lecture without the pinks and to add my own thoughts and ideas from practical experience. I was a successful instructor and quite a popular one. The two years I spent there, from 1979 to 1981, were extremely rewarding professionally. They were also very enjoyable socially, as we were a small and close-knit community. Sehba and our children enjoyed these years greatly.
Staff College had its own distinct life and culture, with students from about fifteen countries. I was in charge of the foreign students, and enjoyed my interaction with them, especially when I took them on a tour around Pakistan.
I was also responsible for extracurricular activities at the college. That assignment had its hazards. In 1980 we were to celebrate our platinum jubilee-the Staff College having been erected in 1905. President Zia was to grace the occasion. I was therefore to arrange a special program in the evening. I did so by getting Pakistan’s cultural troupe to perform. This troupe included the most prominent male and female musicians and dancers, and had showcased Pakistani culture abroad. Two days before the event, however, when the artists were on a train from Lahore to Quetta, I received an urgent call from the commandant. He told me, to my utter consternation, that the president did not want any song or dance performed, least of all by women. He shocked me further by saying that the president did not even want the troupe to land in Quetta, lest the fundos (slang for “fundamentalists”) got wind of it. Despite my protests, I was told to execute the order.
The train had already left Lahore; how could I stop the artists from reaching Quetta? I telephoned the sub-martial law administrator (a brigadier) at Sukkur (a town in the middle of Sindh province) at mid-night and told him about the crisis. I asked him to intercept the train, detach the compartment of the artists, and attach it to any Lahore-bound train. The brigadier’s first response was quite unfriendly and offensive-how dare a lieutenant colonel wake him up in the middle of the night and ask him to undertake this task? I had to drive home to him the point that both his reputation and mine were at stake with the president. As his groggy mind awoke, he jumped into action and per-formed the task beautifully, with military precision. The mission was accomplished by two AM. I wish I had been there to see the artists’
expressions the next morning, thinking that they were getting off at Quetta, only to discover that they were back where they started!
President Zia, in the 1980s, completed what Bhutto had started in the dying phase of his regime-the total appeasement of the religious lobby. Zia did not have a political base or lobby. By hanging Bhutto, he turned Bhutto into a martyr and his political party-the PPP-into a greater force. Zia found it convenient to align himself with the religious right and create a supportive constituency for himself. He started overemphasizing and overparticipating in religious’rituals to show his alignment with the religious lobby. Even music and entertainment became officially taboo, whereas I am told that in private he personally enjoyed good semiclassical music.
From being an instructor I went back to being a student. I was sent to the National Defense College (NDC) in Islamabad, for the armed forces war course. This is considered a landmark progression in an army officer’s career, because if you haven’t done a war course at the NDC, you will not make it to general. Military history, military strategy, political and border geography, and-most of all-operational strategy are the main ingredients of this course. Operational strategy is taught through several very realistic war games and map exercises.
I think my strength in mathematics facilitated my comprehension of the main elements of war-time, space, and relative strength. I did very well in the course and was graded among the top students. My planning and execution of military operations and my confidence during presentations were highly commended. The course was most useful in grooming me for the highest command or staff or instructional appointments. I came out of the course a much more self-confident officer, prepared for higher ranks. I knew now that if all went smoothly I would make it to general.
After the war course I was back in Kharian, this time in command of the Sixteenth Self-Propelled Regiment, with which I had fought the war of 1965. I was still a lieutenant colonel and was again detailed as the colonel martial law in Rawalpindi. This time my tenure was not as pleasant as it had been under Rafi Alam. My new boss was rough-hewn and known for keeping subordinates under pressure.
Adapting myself to him was not easy. We clashed on several occasions. Once I asked the police to remove an obstruction on a road, caused by construction. Instead, I was very harshly admonished by my commander, on the phone. The next day, when he came from Kharian to Rawalpindi’s martial law headquarters, I went to his office in a very somber mood and asked him to relieve me of my appointment and allow me to go back to the command of my regiment. “Because,” I said, “if Lhave to be ticked off for doing the right thing, I will not know how to make decisions in the future.” This came as a shock to him. He pacified me by praising my overall performance. I continued with martial law duties, and fortunately he became much more careful in dealing with me.
From 1983 to the middle of 1984 I was posted to the Military Operations Directorate as deputy director military operations (DDMO). I was also approved for promotion to the rank of brigadier general, but had to settle temporarily for full colonel because there were no vacancies at the brigadier level.
My short time at the Military Operations Directorate was not as rewarding as it should have been, mainly because my boss lacked the ability to inspire and teach. However, I did witness operational planning at the highest level of the Pakistan Army. When the Siachen Glacier conflict between India and Pakistan erupted, I was part of all that happened. The conflict persists to this day.
Siachen is a long glacier almost at the junction of India, Pakistan, and China, in the Karakoram Range. From the Pakistan side the approach to it is blocked by the Saltoro Range, with passes from 17,000 to 21,000 feet (5,200 to nearly 6,400 meters) high. In 1983 we had learned that India quite frequently intruded into the Siachen Glacier, which belonged to us. We dispatched a team from the Special Services Group (SSG) to confirm the reports. They confirmed the intrusions, because they came across telltale evidence of a hurriedly abandoned camp on the glacier, left by some Indian personnel.
At general headquarters (GHQ) we began planning to occupy the passes on the watershed of the Saltoro Range that dominated the Siachen Glacier. Winter had set in, and we had no experience of operating at such heights, over 16,000 feet (4,800 meters), or at temperatures that could fall to fifty degrees below zero Celsius (-58 C.) with wind chill. The key decision was when to occupy the passes. Time was critical because we assumed that the Indians would try to occupy the same passes, now that they already knew that our SSG team had crossed into the glacier from the Saltoro Range.
We suggested early March, to ensure that our forces got to the passes first, just as the worst of winter had passed. We were opposed by the general officer commanding the Northern Areas, who had jurisdiction over this area. He felt that the harshness of the terrain, and the low temperatures, would not allow our troops to reach there in March. He proposed May 1-instead. His opinion prevailed, because he was the commander on the spot. This proved to be a mistake: when we went there we found the Indians already in occupation of most of the dominating features on the Saltro Range, beyond the Siachen Glacier. Still, our troops moved up and performed the challenging task of occupying heights and features around the Indian positions. The result was a series of positions by both sides, at great heights, within shooting range of each other.
Many precious lives have been lost to enemy fire and to hazardous weather and terrain. The Indians suffer far more than we do. It takes them three to seven days of trekking over the Siachen Glacier with all its crevices to occupy the passes. On the Pakistan side a gravel road reaches close to the Saltoro Range. Troops can climb to any of the passes in one day after traveling by jeep. Innumerable small skirmishes have taken place at various locations along the entire front whenever either side has attempted to readjust or occupy new heights. In the initial stages the Indians undertook several such endeavors only to realize very quickly that the attempts were futile. They suffered very heavy losses. Later, we were amused to see a change in their “strategy.” Their troops would transmit stories and communications about what can best be called “fake encounters” with the enemy while nothing actually was happening on the ground. Several times, when we picked up such intercepts, our GHQ would get worried and initiate a flurry of signals asking for clarification of the operational situation from the forward posts, only to be told that all was quiet. India has the largest film industry in the world and is rightly famous for making highly romanticized and unrealistic movies, so it came as no surprise to us when we intercepted the Indians’ communications about the fake skirmishes and encounters that they were regularly having with the Pakistan Army in their fertile imagination. We actually started enjoying listening in on their make-believe actions; the imaginative details included “enemy” attacks and the “gallantry” of their defense. Later, our amusement turned to hilarity when these fake encounters became the basis for recommendations and nominations for awards for gallantry. Now, much later, it appears that the Indian top brass has discovered the tricks that their forward troops have played. There-have been several courts-martial against defaulting officers and commanders for such serious lapses of character.
On several occasions we also intercepted messages about casualties on the Indian side and the inability of the Indian troops to evacuate them because of bad weather and harsh terrain. The dead would lie for days before being evacuated by helicopter. The snow and freezing temperatures created a natural mortuary The confrontation at Siachen is one of the major skirmishes we have had with the Indians on the roof of the world. The other serious, nearly full-scale conflict we had was the Kargil episode, which I shall discuss later. Other than these two, the Line of Control that separates Azad Kashmir from Indian-occupied Kashmir has always remained volatile. Exchanges of fire, artillery duels, and sniper activity have been an almost daily occurrence. All this goes to show that when two neighbors are hostile, extreme terrain or extreme weather is no obstacle to their engaging each other.