Apologia pro libro suo—Latin; It means, “I apologize for the liberty I am taking”. I say this because narrated below read like portions of my personal history.

(list of abbreviations at the end)

I am a very ordinary person, with absolutely nothing to boast of—-no great rank, no gallantry awards, no wound stripes (I was wounded thrice but so minor were the injuries I never got to a hospital). A mediocre who, I think, made a good soldier, but did nothing remarkable enough to pen down for posterity. That is why the task set by my good friend Col Manzoor Iqbal Awan is so demanding of me. Since I cannot say him nay, let me try my humble best.

What is even more challenging is that I have to narrate my own experiences—-even though mundane. I have never been happy talking of myself and I know how boring it can be for the audience to listen to (or read) stories of any old has-been. Since I have enough words to play with, however, forgive me if I ramble—–I will try to keep it to a minimum.

My grandfather, Sh. Sir Abdul Qadir, was from humble origins. He writes in his biography that he could not afford a light at home and used to study under a street lamp. But he made a name for himself as a jurist, he was Judge of the High court in India and, for his services to the Urdu language, he was knighted by the Queen.

Of the five children from his second marriage, my father Irshad Qadir was fourth. He also joined the army in 1942/3 and went to Burma. At the end of WW II, he left the army and, continued serving the defense services, but out of uniform.

One of his brothers, Manzur Qadir, also made a name for himself as a jurist and briefly served as Ayub Khan’s foreign minister. Another brother, Altaf Qadir, got to three star rank in the army in 1964.

But, while the family name, Qadir, was held in modest esteem, we were very middle class; my parents, more middle class, than most of their siblings.

The point of this background is that we, as a family were brought up with strict middle class values. We were brought up on logic and reason, to seek education and knowledge, to abhor violence, and aspire to higher moral values.

At the stage of life that I am now, I realize that some of this upbringing did rub off on me too and has stood me in good stead. However, due to some genetic defects, in my early and, even middle years, I was very far from being whatever a Qadir was supposed to be.

I was the Black Sheep of the family.

Always in trouble, not much of a student, not even a great sportsman, I was on the one hand, the typical Jack of all trades and, on the other, an absolute nuisance for my parents. Arrested by the police at 15 for street fighting, I spent a night in jail—–a record that was later conveniently lost, enabling me to join, first the PAF and, later, the Army.

During the period 1962/3, I had to change four schools from where I was expelled and, by the end, even my poor father’s pleadings could not get me an admission anywhere and I appeared for Matric privately.

“You are the first to have brought this disgrace to the family” was a refrain I constantly heard from both sides of my family; maternal and paternal.

So, where is the lesson? It’s coming, I assure you.

Fed up with studies, in 1964 I applied for and was selected to become a GD (P) Cadet in the PAF. But I had learned nothing from my experiences: I was still a rebel who would take up any challenge. I will not bore you with details of the kind of stupid things I did. Suffice it to say that I not just picked up and accepted every challenge thrown at me by those in authority; I also challenged them with my arrogance.

I lasted through the 1965 War but, obviously, this could not last. I was caught flying low without authority and, while the evidence was thin, I accepted that I had been guilty of this act since I began flying solo. It was decided that I was to be court martialed.

Meantime, as a Flight Cadet, I had discovered a leaning towards mathematics and the physical sciences. Consequently, while I never worked hard (a habit that lasts to date), I was not a very bad student. It turned out that I was also a pretty good pilot.

The court martial prospect did not worry me too much; the PAF’s history of dealing with “adventurous” pilots was not very strict. However, it worried my father and, for the very first time in my life, I could see his hurt and disappointment.

I had taken my share of punishments of all kinds from every single source but if there was one person in my family who never seemed to lose hope in me, it was my father; but this time he seemed to have given up on me.

My father told me that he did not wish me to be court martialed. This time I would do his bidding. I sought an interview with the Commandant who asked me to submit my request in writing. I did and, in May 1966—-five months after my course was commissioned, was “discharged on grounds of flying discipline”. Not that my general discipline was much better but, this fortunate classification later made it possible for me to join the army.

Air Marshal Noor Khan, the PAF Chief at the time, and a family friend, asked me to meet him at the PAF Base, Chaklala. And, while amused by my exploits, advised me to join the army or, if I wanted to fly, the PIA.

Here I was at, what I now realize, with the benefit of hindsight, the first crossroads of my life: I could have turned sour or tried to improve. Why I chose the latter is a mystery. I like to think it was my father’s disappointment in me.

While I felt sorry for myself, I also introspected—-for the first time in my life. I looked back and realized that most of what had happened to me was brought on me by myself—my own doings and, I promised myself that, if I could not make my father proud of me, I would not make him ashamed of me either.

This was the first lesson life taught me: if you examine yourself carefully and honestly introspect, you will invariably realize that what happened to you are your just deserts.

I was merely a Matriculate and the PAF did not offer me for induction to PMA. Therefore, I needed to clear my Intermediate exam before I could apply for the army. No school would admit me, so I could no longer appear for Science subjects, for which endorsed experiments were necessary, so I could only appear for FA and I had two months.

I studied all hours and managed to scrape through but with a supplementary exam to clear, in Urdu! I finally cleared my Intermediate in 1967 but, when I applied for the army, I came across a fresh hurdle. The army needed to decide whether it could take me in and give me another chance.

I was interviewed by the then AG, the Commandant PMA, Maj Gen Mitha Khan, and a Brig, probably from Personnel Services Directorate. For reasons best known to them, perhaps my admission of my guilt in flying low helped my case; they decided to let me in.

I realized that this was going to be my final chance; there would be no “one more chance”. I thought long and hard and realized that if I was not going to disappoint my father again, I could no longer respond to every challenge.

Thus learning my next two important lessons from life: a) life offers limited opportunities; don’t squander too many of them; and b) you cannot always follow your instincts; learn to curb them and stay within limits. I have spent the rest of my life searching for the extent of these limits before I hit them. Sometimes I succeed, other times I discover the limit after hitting it.

Little wonder I have done nothing to boast of in life.

It didn’t take me long to realize that, while I might be a rebel without a cause, but my calling was in uniform. I was born to soldier. I took to it like a duck to water and soon forgot my years of hoping to fly. Once again, I was not prepared to work too hard—maybe I lacked the kind of ambition one needs to want to excel, just hard enough to do well. That somehow seemed good enough.

But I kept getting into trouble and periodic “red ink” entries in my record. One thing I did stick to, though, I never lied to get out of trouble. I always stood up to admit what I had done and took my punishment—-perhaps this could be considered something to boast about? In times to come, I would realize that there was another lesson here.

Though I cannot pinpoint when but sometime during the period from my marriage; wherein I struck Gold—my wife is the most loving and undemanding person a man can think of—-in 1974, to my post-staff college postings, first as a GSO II (Ops) of 35 Division and then as BM 53 Brigade, I began to understand another lesson; life is, and should be, an unending period of learning. Otherwise one stagnates.

Time went by and suddenly for no apparent reason, I think it started during the period I was a student at the C & SC, I began to be considered as an ‘aspiring’ officer—one who was ‘going places’. It felt good but I wasn’t sure I liked being considered “aspiring”. For some reason that term implied, to me, that I was among those who might make compromises to progress in rank.

That implication displeased me.

I had my share of combat experience; perhaps just a bit more than most of my generation. I did a stint in A J&K as a young officer but, in 1971, when GHQ asked for volunteer young officers to go to East Pakistan on “Adventure Training” for two months. I volunteered.

We landed in Dacca in April. I was attached to 12 Punjab and sent under Major Saifullah Khan to Atrai. I stayed long enough to carry out five or six missions to Search and Destroy groups of the Bengali Freedom Fighters, the Mukti Bahini [Bengali Freedom Fighters]—-it would, of course have been sacrilegious to refer to them as freedom fighters at that time. They were “Rebels”, “Insurgents”, or “the Enemy”. It would take time for the lesson of their real status to sink in.

It so happened that 13 FF was in the same Brigade as 12 Punjab and its CO, Lt Col Amir Nawaz Khan SJ, had been our second in command (2i/c) in 6 FF when he was posted to 13 on promotion. As soon as he learnt of my arrival, he asked for me to be attached to him. The Brigade Commander, Brig Naeem, also a Piffer, obliged and I moved to 13 FF.

The unit was deployed on the border with India but the CO kept me attached to the battalion HQ. When I asked Akram Paunwar, then Adjutant, he told me that the CO desired it. I met the CO and told him I had come for adventure training to his unit, not for sitting in the HQ. I was sent to B Company under Maj Sabir Kamal, at Farsipara.

Maj Sabir soon had to leave to get married in Spain to Major General Bilgrami’s daughter, who was then the Ambassador to Spain. So I was now in command, at least of my post.

We were under strict orders to respond to Indian aggression only to defend, never as an aggressor. The Indian troops deployed opposite had become habitual of “teasing us”. The would keep us awake by firing a mortar shell every half hour, or pretending to attack or some silly something and I was getting fed up.

One day, the Indian troops destroyed a BOP by shelling it and injured two of my soldiers. I decided to retaliate without telling my CO—-how stupid is stupid. However, I had the good sense to take Lt Ali Hamid, also 13 FF, who was commanding my neighboring post, in confidence, in case something went wrong; on my right was 4 FF, the neighboring unit.

I crossed the border the next night with 13 soldiers, including a Havaldar [Non Commissioned Officer] and, with no idea of where Indian soldiers were, was intent on doing as much damage as I could. I could narrate the story of this raid in a book which would make you roar with laughter at my total stupidity—-but I now realize just how stupid it was on my part.

Anyway, we were lucky to find a very small outpost where sufficient ammunition was dumped for us to enjoy destroying it, we killed one soldier, and the rest ran away. On our way back, we were ambushed. I happened to be in the lead along with one soldier, we charged the ambush, and they again ran, leaving another body behind. But one soldier manning a machine gun was still holding us up. Dawn was breaking and, it was obvious that if we did not escape, our goose was going to be cooked.

I decided to charge the Indian from two sides; I from the left and Sepoy Safdar from the right. We were lucky, one of our shots creased his head and the Indian soldier fell from the tree house he was manning in a pond below.

We collected his MG and with the soldier, Vinod Kumar, a Gurkha, ran ahead of Indian troops chasing us. Carrying a wounded soldier of ours and helping Vinod. Under cover of fire provided by Ali Hamid and his troops, we soon re-crossed the stream to cross back to our side of the border. I had a minor wound because of shrapnel.

This was the first Indian army POW in 1971. 

That evening our media carried his photograph along with his admission that an Indian unit had ordered two companies to attack my post and he had been captured by the defending troops.

I learned my first important military lesson in this operation—-all its stupidities took years to sink in; there is a very thin line between courage (or, if you prefer, sheer stupidity, which are sometimes interchangeable) and cowardice in the field of battle and it is not conscious. If you take the decision that succeeds it will be called courage; if the one that fails, it will be cowardly.

I really had no choice here. If I had tried to run from the ambush, Indian soldiers would have picked us out one at a time. And later, if I had run from the machine gunner, even he would have killed enough of us for me never to stand up before my troops again.

And that taught me my second important military lesson: courage is not necessarily a conscious product of courage; it often stems from far greater fears of how will I ever face my troops again.

This incident also brought to me the realization of another fault in my genes, and another lesson. I realized that I just naturally took to taking decisions. When faced with any situation, I never sought orders or looked to my seniors; I would act.

I didn’t mind advice and would confer even with my soldier. But a problem needed a solution and I would act on the solution that appealed to me. Some seniors appreciated this trait but to most it seemed as if “a cocky youngster was getting too big for his boots”.

This trait alone has been responsible for getting me into trouble with great regularity.

The lesson here was also on a similar subject. Firstly, as a soldier-officer (of any rank) one is a decision-maker and, therefore, naturally assumes responsibility for the decision. Secondly, a decision which is successful might be lauded but, if it goes wrong, you stand alone. If that happens, it is important that you stand tall.

My stay in erstwhile East Pakistan kept getting extended until finally, in mid-October, I received orders to return.

I came back and rejoined 6 FF at Sulemanke.

My combat experiences continued through 1971-72, but were limited to minor ops. I also served briefly with 33 AK in 1972 in Chor Sector.

Morale was low in Chor since the Division had been mauled by the IAF and lost considerable territory to advancing India troops. Maj Gen Hameed (the Bhopali one, also 10 Baloch) wanted recce patrols to pinpoint Indian defenses.

Brig Tariq Mir, our bde commander and another Piffer, came to us and asked for a volunteer, but looked directly at me. Stupid of me; I obliged.

Once again thirteen soldiers, led by me set forth with nothing more than a map, torch, and compass. I had marked our route and estimated that by dawn we should be back alongside our flanking unit, 28 Baloch.

We managed to locate two enemy posts, enough to give us an idea of the line of their deployment, uneventfully. However, we got a little late. Dawn found us right next to a high feature occupied by Indian troops, a kilometer from the defenses of 28 Baloch. And Indian troops were beginning to man their posts for the dawn stand-to.

Another really stupid mistake called for another really stupid decision.

We waited out the half-hour stand-to and, about 15 minutes after they stood down, we charged them. Again they ran, leaving behind two machine guns and two injured soldiers.

The local CO of 28 Baloch advised me very strongly to vacate the post but I insisted on awaiting orders from my CO. The post held the highest feature in the vicinity, and I had no desire to acknowledge my incompetence and stupidity until it was pointed out to me. We managed to beat back a very half-hearted counter attack by the Indians with the help of their machine guns.

The Indian company commander then sought a meeting, I permitted him to take back his dead soldiers but we kept the machine guns. The GOC accompanied by our brigade commander came over early evening. They both seemed pleased with my misadventure and that ended that; a repeat of my second military lesson in erstwhile East Pakistan.

I was to repeat similar experiences on return to my parent unit at Sulemanke and later, during our stint in Balochistan during the insurgency of the ‘70s.

Nothing happened then or later, for me to unlearn any lesson that my few months in East Pakistan taught me.

From Balochistan, we moved to Peshawar. In 1976, for a very short period, GHQ issued orders that those temporary majors who had not cleared their promotion exams, would be demoted. With two senior majors demoted, in 1977 I suddenly found myself the only major in the unit but worse was to come.

Lt Col Imam Ali Malik our CO, had been posted back to the unit after we began to move back from Balochistan but he was due to retire on July 1st 1977. I hoped his replacement would be posted in before he left. He wasn’t, and I found myself catapulted to the chair of the CO.

Brig Pirdad (later three stars) was our bde commander, Maj Gen Fazl e Haq, our GOC, the latter was soon to be promoted to take over as our corps commander.

And then the bombshell fell; Gen Zia took over the reins of governance and declared martial law on the night 5/6 July. 6 FF with me in command was ordered to Charsadda— home to Gen Fazl e Haq’s in-laws.

In my capacity as the local administrator during martial law, I was expected to hold an open court to listen to complaints. Within a couple of days, my first day in open court a complaint was lodged by a resident that someone was destroying the house he lived in. I told a police contingent to go and stop the man and tell him that, if he had a complaint, to bring it to me.

The police officer in charge of the contingent I had sent reported back that the guilty person refused to stop. So I ordered that he be arrested and brought in irons before the court. On hearing this, the audience fell silent and the DSP rushed over to whisper in my ears that the person involved was Gen Haq’s brother-in-law (Oh boy!), but it was too late. I ordered the DSP to obey my orders immediately; I could hardly take back my orders on learning who he was?

Before he arrived in court I got a call from the bde comd asking me what had happened and, as soon as the brother in law appeared, a call from the GOC, to let him go. What could I do? I was in open court and would be judged by all present on my action.

I asked the GOC for written orders and put the brother in law behind bars and I immediately left, telling the DSP not to release him without my orders. There was pin drop silence when I left.

On my brief patrol I was told by wireless that a signal had been received from the Div HQ ordering the release of the brother in law. He was finally released an hour later, on my orders.

This was the first of many incidents during my 7 weeks in command of my unit, before Lt Col M Asif was posted in. Why or how I managed to last this period is an unfathomable secret known only to Gen Fazl e Haq.

Even under Col Asif I continued to get in trouble and another reprimand and warning were, I am told, endorsed in my record.

Relief came when Gen Haq was promoted three star and replaced by Maj Gen Muhammed Safdar, Punjab Regiment as GOC and Brig Pirdad by Brig Khurshid Ali Khan, AC, later two star, better known as Gen K.

In 1978 I spent most of the year attached as additional faculty of the Junior Tactical Course, Infantry School but in 1979 I was back with the unit, cleared my staff course exam well enough to be called for interview for a foreign staff course but was not found good enough to be sent abroad.

I did my staff course fairly well but, due to unofficial endorsements on my record by then Lt Gen Fazle Haq, I was initially posted GSO II (Ops) 35 Div; and, after a few months, as BM 53 Bde.

Early 1984 found me back in the unit as 2 i/c.

In 1985 I was promoted Lt Col and formally took over the unit in Sialkot, which I had been officiating in command for a few months before my promotion.

During winter collective training that year, the Div HQ had planned a Div ex involving two bdes, including ours. That the exercise went very well for us is irrelevant. However, as part of 8 Div, our exercise area was Noorkot and the final attack we had to launch was on the return route to Sialkot, about 12 miles from our camp. After the attack, we were to have breakfast and were free to march back to Sialkot, a distance of about 45 miles from where the exercise was to end.

I had everything meticulously planned, from our attack to our walk back. After dinner, when I led the troops to our Assembly Area, the Rear Party was to pack up. At midnight, when we moved in to begin the exercise, the rear party was to start moving and set up temporary camp at a location I had selected and prepare breakfast.

At the conclusion of the exercise, we were intending to march a couple of miles to our temporary camp and, after breakfast, commence our return route march over two days. This entire schedule was conveyed to the Bde HQ and confirmed over telephone.

However, when the attack ended, my adjutant told me that the BM had specifically told him that we were to march back to our previous camp and await orders. He added that he had reminded the BM of the fact that our plan had the commander’s approval, but the BM said that the commander had approved the change of orders.

I tried contacting the commander and the BM but the telephone lines had been rolled up and the wireless of both were switched off. Frustrated, we commenced the return march and ordered the Rear Party to complete cooking breakfast and return.

We hadn’t yet reached our camp when we received orders to commence our return back to Sialkot at will. By then I was really, really angry.

What transpired between me and the BM is not worth narrating but it took place at the Tea Break, following the debriefing of the exercise, and both, the GOC and the Bde Commander overheard enough of it to know. Regretfully, the BM was also 6FF and had served under me.

It took us three days, instead of the two I had planned on, to return to Sialkot. The next day was set aside for administration and we had planned a Bara Khana. But, first thing in the morning, I was at the Bde Commander’s office. He arrived half an hour later.

And I burst. I wanted to know how TROOPS of 6 FF would be compensated for being made to march an extra 24 miles unnecessarily.

Our Bde Commander was Brig Sultan Mahmood, 8 Baloch, better known as Khrora, the Punjabi word means “of rough surface”. A self-made man of humble origins, he stood 8 feet tall among his contemporaries; an officer of pride and moral courage.

But he knew we had been wronged. He refused to let me blame the BM, whom I knew to be guilty, accepted the entire blame as his error—which was to be expected from a man of his character and, listened to my entire tirade of rage for almost 30 minutes, interspersing me with repeated apologies.

I learned another lesson from him, one which I had practiced earlier as well, but he demonstrated it far better; you can delegate authority but not responsibility. And, therefore, however grievously your subordinate might have erred, the error is invariably yours. Your subordinate is yours to punish, not anybody else’s.

The Commander offered to apologize to my unit but, even though I asked him to join us for Bara Khana, I was damned if I would let him apologize to my unit. I told him that “6 FF, like any other unit, does not march on orders of the GOC or Bde Commander, but ONLY the orders of its CO and, consequently, he alone is responsible for all that goes wrong”. The lesson I learnt from him could be applied in reverse.

Shortly thereafter I was to move the unit to Chamb. We took over from 42 Baloch in what was the most comfortable and friendly environment ever. Brig Naseer, then its CO, was as keen as I to resolve issues amicably. We had no problems.

Soon after we took over, as is usual by both armies deployed on either side of the LOC, the troops deployed opposite us started testing the mettle of our unit. Every once so often they would open fire at some post and we would retaliate. Whenever I was able to, I would rush to the post under fire.

One morning I was still getting into uniform when firing broke out. I asked for my jeep, for the adjutant to inquire where it was and what was happening. Still lacing my boots, I left for the post. When I arrived there we were still exchanging fire. The post commander was Sub Bashir but the post 2 i/c, Hav Muhammed Din, an excellent boxer from Kohat received me with a smile.

When I inquired where Sub Bashir was, he responded in Pushto to tell me that he was among three wounded (Sub Bashir lost an eye in that brief skirmish). Irritated, I too responded in Pushto to ask him why he was grinning like an idiot if we had three casualties.

He still smiled and replied, “Sahiba, these Mashooman (literally innocents but Pushto for children—we had received a batch of fresh recruits from the Centre only recently) were scared and I had reassured them that my sahib is coming”. He was happy that I had proven his prediction right.

There was little time for me to dwell on his words. I too took up a rifle next to some fresh recruits to return fire. I asked for a cup of tea and ordered our mortar platoon to respond. Firing ended as soon as our mortars opened up.

It was not till well after all was over that I realized that Muhammed Din had paid me the greatest compliment that I could ever hope for. That he believed that whenever there is trouble, this CO would come.

In 1992, months after I was promoted Brigadier, GHQ decided to publish a series of Green Books. The first one of its kind, that year, was to focus on Senior Leadership. The IGT & E, who knew me, wrote me a DO letter, soliciting a contribution.

I had only just been promoted and had no experience of senior leadership except in seeing other senior officers. Based on the character traits of my seniors which commanded my respect and, conversely, the lack of which did NOT command my respect, I made my humble contribution.

But, I had seen many an outstanding senior officer from whom I learned what command and senior leadership was all about; just as much as I had seen enough who taught me what a senior officer should NOT be like. Both lessons are important and both stood me in good stead while writing on the subject.

After discussing all the qualities that I sought in my superiors and their ramifications, I could not help narrate the incident I have just narrated here too and stating what I said there. My cup as a potential leader filled to overflow when I registered the thought behind the words of Muhammed Din.

On promotion to Brig in 1992, I was posted to command the Kel Bde, the farthest corner of 12 Div, neighboring FCNA on its left flank. Maj Gen Tariq Pervez—better known as TP, who later rose to three stars, was its GOC. He received me very warmly and welcomed me heartily. Both of us were destined to be disillusioned.

Col Afreen (later Brig), Punjab Regiment was, on promotion, posted as Col Staff 12 Div. It was basically Afreen and I who did not click. I always assumed that, since he was the Col Staff and, therefore, close to the GOC, he inadvertently, passed on his personal dislike of me, for whatever reason, to the GOC.

It was many years later that I learned that Afreen had done so deliberately and with malice aforethought. And that he had in fact, when talking of me, boasted (I am told by some who claim to have heard him, though I have not personally heard Afreen say it) among his colleagues in the Div HQ that he was so powerful that he could destroy the career of a Brig.

However, while Afreen might have helped, I don’t think that he could have done so, had I not aided and abetted actively. And neither could have succeeded, even then, had Gen TP not been so pliant in the hands of his staff.

Anyway, within a couple of months after I took over command, relations between the Div HQ and 32 Bde were fast deteriorating. Every support we sought got delayed. Even routine work was held up. Afreen was very efficient in his malice.

In August that year, Gen TP finally decided to pay his maiden visit to my Bde and attend the war-gaming of an operational plan. He was to stay overnight and, I had hopes that I would be able to explain my side of the picture to him to improve relations. He was to arrive August 8.

Once again, however, his scheduled visit was cancelled. Of all those who were to come, Brig Farooq, 5 Punjab, commanding 5 AK Bde was the only one to turn up.

It had been raining for a week or so but that was not unusual in that region. We held our wargame with Brig Farooq as observer. After lunch, we broke off and Farooq decided to stay the night.

Around 0030 hours August 9, the BM informed me that the River Neelum was flooding and, upstream, at Helmut, a squadron of my Animal Transport, AT, regiment had been isolated by water they could no longer swim across, and the water was ice cold. That communication with the AT Sqn had been severed hours earlier but no one had realized and now it was too late.

I ordered my jeep and called up the infantry company commander at Helmut. The picture he painted was horrifying and the speed of the current and the rate at which the water was rising was unbelievable.

I tried to get to Helmut but the road was under water. Walking a distance of 34 kilometers over mountainous terrain and out of communication was a thought only to occur before rejection. And the Div HQ was still not responding.

The next day was a religious holiday, Eed e Milladun Nabi. However, I made frantic calls to the Div HQ and the Aviation base to get a helicopter to fly in for an aerial rescue. As always, all our preparations were in hand; from a rope ladder to a rope platform for the aerial rescue. A room ordered to be heated, with plenty of blankets, first aid, hot food and tea to be provided as required; a doctor was lined up to accompany me in the helicopter.

A helicopter finally took off from Dhamial base at 0915 hours but for some unbelievable reason, decided to refuel in Muzaffarabad after a 25 minute flight in a MI 8 helicopter—it was unheard of! Soon after he took off again from Muzaffarabad at about 1030, the pilot informed flight control that weather was bad, aborted the mission and flew back.

I again rang Gen TP and got through to him after a 45 minute effort. When I narrated all that had happened, instead of offering to help, he said, “Partner I can only pray for you”. I swore under my breath as I put the phone down.

I should next have tried the Corps Commander but I knew that it would be useless and, furthermore, the greater the people in the channel, the greater the delays in decision making.

Brig Farooq was sitting opposite and asked me what I planned to do now. I thought for a few moments and then asked the operator to get me Col (later Brig) Zaka Ullah Bhangoo. Bhangoo was a common friend and quite a legend in the Army Aviation.

Bhangoo was at home and willing to come but he said that he would try to get the mission sanction. I told him that was my responsibility.

The CGS was Lt Gen Farrukh Khan. He had been my instructor, DS, during the Junior Tactical course I attended. We got on well together due to a shared dour sense of humor and, over the years we had remained in touch.

I was sure he would help but equally sure that my short circuiting channels would alienate my superiors, with a dour smile, I remarked to Farooq, “Time to put my career on the line”, and told the operator to connect me to the CGS.

I asked the CGS’ operator to inform the CGS that it was an emergency and he, very kindly came on line immediately. I narrated my problem and he immediately asked what I wanted. I told him I wanted approval for a helicopter flight with Col Bhangoo as captain.

He approved it immediately and Bhangoo told me that he was on his way to the airbase. By now it was past 1300 hours.

As if the Gods were unhappy, the sky which had been clear since 0600 that day began to cloud up with dark gray clouds and it began to rain. We could but hold our breaths, hope, and pray. With Bhangoo in charge I knew that, unless it was impossible, he would come.

Miraculously, he came through a little window in that dense cloud, landing at about 0230 hours. While we were loading up with rotors running, Bhangoo took me aside to remind me that he was the captain of the flight, not I, an unnecessary reminder, so I paid him back with a rejoinder and reminded him that this was a rescue mission, not a joy ride.

We took off and, in about 20 minutes were over the area. We flew over the area and saw soldiers clinging to tree tops, many of them obviously dead. We realized that a rope ladder was our only hope but we needed a strong young lad to help these poor souls who had been clinging to treetops for 18 to twenty hours being sprayed by ice cold water.

I selected a young lad out of the volunteers from the Mujahid battalion deployed there. We dropped the extra load, adjusted the rope ladder and began the rescue.

At that time, it was all about the rescue, but only later did I realize that I had been part of the most amazing rescue operation perhaps ever undertaken. Bhangoo was the captain, but he let his co-pilot, Maj Rana fly, acknowledging his youth and superior skill. Had someone filmed that operation, he could have been a very rich man.

We flew between trees, slicing branches on both sides, we sat down on a tree top and lowered ourselves, inches at a time so that Mujahid on the rope ladder could reach the soldier hanging there.

One man at a time, we had rescued 33 soldiers when we ran out of fuel. Fuel had been lined up but it took time to fly back to the local helipad and refuel and dusk was fast approaching. And there was only one live soldier left. I had decided that dead bodies could wait a day, or more, if necessary.

We refueled, rescued the last soldier and, by the time we started flying back to Kel, it was already dark. Imagine flying through a dark valley which is at best, about 500 meters wide, in a helicopter? But on that day, nothing could go wrong.

But, while we rescued 34 soldiers, 32 soldiers of 7 AT regiment, including a JCO and 46 of their mules perished.

I have praised the pilots, as they deserved, but it will be highly unfair not to say a few words on the courage and determination of that young lad Mujahid. He rescued all 34 survivors, refused to be changed. Physically carrying and clinging on to many who were too weak to do more. I was proud of my fortune to have witnessed such as he, as much as I was proud to have witnessed first-hand, the unbelievable expertise and daring flying that I had been part of.

Both the pilots and Mujahid were cited by me and, in due course, awarded.

During the refueling at Helmund, I had dropped down to see where the rescued soldiers were housed and whether they were being looked after. Their gratitude was amazing. I had to fight back tears for I had merely done my duty by them. Why should they be so grateful? But they were and I felt shame.

I learned another lesson here; merely doing one’s duty can be a gratifying and satisfying experience; more satisfying than almost any other.   

The night before the rescue, Farooq and I were relaxing together and he asked me to get him through to a GHQ number. I didn’t ask who it was and merely told my operator to get the call. When it came through I handed over the receiver to Farooq.

I soon realized that the person on the other end knew me and was talking to Farooq about me. It piqued my curiosity and, when the call ended, I inquired of him who he was talking to and what was he saying about me.

He had been talking to Lt Gen Safdar, who had been my GOC in 7 Div in 1979. Gen Safdar had inquired of Farooq, who he was visiting. On being told my name, he confirmed my identity with my unit and commented that, during his tyrannical years as GOC, I was a company commander in my unit but he said, “He, Shaukat, was the only youngster who stood up to me and I respect him for it”.

I could not seek greater praise from a senior.

During my career I have come across many officers, and men, whom I have held in respect; and many whom I have not; and also some whom I have held in disrespect. In any crowd of officers, Gen Safdar would stand tall. He was an inspiring commander but, like he said, slightly despotic. Therefore, few stood up to him.

I discovered that he was as amenable to reason as he was to despotic tendencies, but someone needed to stand up to him and talk reason. While there were many little true anecdotes I could narrate, but one will suffice as an example.

Gen Safdar decided to hold a morning seminar on “Initiative among young officers” for majors and below. Maj Mujahid Alam, 18 Baloch, later Brig, a wonderful officer, was a local BM and was asked to preside. When the seminar began, the GOC came and occupied a chair at the rear. After over an hour of discussing various aspects, I thought it was time to intervene, and raised my hand.

Knowing me, Mujahid smiled as he asked for my comments. All I said was, “I don’t understand why we are wasting our time discussing this fruitless subject?” There was pin-drop silence and, before Mujahid could intervene to seek a clarification of me, the GOC said, “What do you mean, Shaukat?”

A few days before the seminar, Div HQ had issued instructions that no officer would be granted casual leave for more than 7 days by the CO and, if more was requested, it would be approved by the Div HQ. So I replied, “How can you expect young officers to exercise initiative while depriving their COs of his rights”, and quoted this example.

Once again you could hear a pin drop before the GOC spoke, “Point taken, Shaukat. Thank you”. I sat down and the discussion continued.

By the time we got back to the unit, the letter from Div HQ curtailing the CO’s authority to grant casual leave had been cancelled. How can one not hold such a general in great respect? Such words from him were high praise indeed.  

The last foregoing narration might seem out of place here but it has a lesson to offer too. It will follow shortly.

But my trials had just begun. On the one hand, all bridges on the Neelem River from Muzaffarabad to Helmund had been destroyed. All my posts lay across the river and logistic bases on the other side. I had to get supplies into the valley for my soldiers and all local civilians as well. In such emergencies, the AJ & K government also relied entirely on the military.

Then I had to dump wood and supplies for the winter at my posts—76 of them.

On the other, Div HQ was sulking and was of no help at all. The AJ & K government released money to all deployed brigades affected but the monies were sent to the Div HQ for onward release. All other bdes got their share except mine.

I wrote repeatedly to the Div and Corps HQ asking for help but to no avail. As if that was not enough, that year the contract for wood had not been signed and there was no way I was going to be able to provide wood to my troops without permission to cut the wood ourselves. None of my letters received a response.

Finally, I instructed my troops to cut wood for themselves. My only provisos were that a) they seek out old trees to cut and b) for every tree they cut, they should plant four saplings, which I arranged from the Forest Department.

Conscious of my strained relations with the Div HQ and, apprehensive of the possibility that these might rebound on my subordinates, ALL my instructions to my units were issued in writing, with copies to the Corps and Div HQs. 

In mid-September we finally got a signal that the Corps Commander, Lt Gen Ghulam Muhammed, 12 Baloch, better known as GM, would visit. He came on schedule, for his maiden visit during my tenure, accompanied by Gen TP. Gen TP had visited earlier when, after four days of unsupported effort, 32 Bde managed to get Indian troops to vacate Anzbari top. But he came to the post at Helmund for only two hours, where I had been staying, not to my Bde HQ. Therefore, it was also Gen TP’s maiden visit to my HQ since I took over.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I made my bid and asked for the release of my funds with Div HQ—those that I had deposited with the Div HQ and those released by the AJ & K government; totaling about 1.8 million Rupees. I also asked for 6 MI 8 helicopters for 6 weeks to complete my dumping, for my troops and the local civilians—–for the latter, the AJ & K government was also arranging some flights, before winter set in. We had all the staff-work supporting our requirements completed and had shown them to the Corps Commander in my presentation.

Gen TP chose to arbitrarily reduce my requirement to 4 helicopters for 4 weeks. I freely admit that by then I had had enough and more. In a very firm voice I responded rather curtly, addressing Gen GM, “That is NOT my demand. I have stated my demand and shown you the staff-work in support. If my requirement cannot be met, my soldier is MY responsibility. I will fulfill it and no soldier of mine will die of cold or starvation under my command”.

Gen GM told me to send him our requirement and I said I would do so immediately. Before leaving, Gen GM, a deeply religious man, inquired of me whether I had started praying or not and I replied I had not.

The staff-work was sent by signal immediately and by post, with the next flight and yet, despite repeated phone calls, no reply. Finally, after another ten days, I decided I had to find my last alternative.

Meantime, immediately following the floods, I had given two orders and asked for daily updates on each. The first was our requirement of supplies for the winter; I wanted to know in three columns: authorized, desirable, and minimum necessary of each single item; down to the last match stick.

And I asked my OC Engineer Company to submit requirements to construct ALL 23 bridges across the river. He asked for the provisional bridges available with his battalion and the corps/army engineers. These requirements were sent but I wanted his requirements so as to construct the bridges ourselves. Knowing our relations, I did not expect any support.

I got neither my own money, deposited with the Div HQ nor the monies released by the AJ & K government, nor any support by way of material or equipment. But kudos to the soldiers of my engineer company; they constructed 19 bridges in two months. Of the 4 they could not, the first one, close to Muzzaffarabad also fed 5 AK Bde and was reconstructed under corps arrangements. The ones at Shardah and Dhudnial were too wide in span for a company to rebuild but it repaired these sufficiently for foot traffic. The last, we could manage to do without.

End September I was back in GHQ and met the DGMO Maj Gen Arshad, 17 Punjab, better known by his Punjabi nickname, Loya, meaning steel. He was appalled and took me straight to the CGS. Once again I made my plea for help. This time it was not in vain.

MO Dte ordered an independent logistic base set up for my Bde, at Abbotabad. Afghan Air Force had volunteered to help Pakistan recovering from the devastation of the ’92 floods. I was given four MI 17 helicopters for as long as I needed them.

Despite the Afghan General’s reassurance, I was doubtful of these huge machines landing at our helipads, where our pilots hesitated to land MI 8s. But these were a different breed of pilots. Rolling their prayer beads, which they would hang on their ear when they needed both hands, they would land and take off vertically from pinpoint helipad landings on our posts.

That they added to the surface damage to our posts goes without saying, as is the fact that this damage was more than acceptable as long as supplies were dumped.

Suffice it to say, that by October we had bridges to cross the river all along the length of my area. By end November, we had cut and dumped our own wood, and our entire requirement of rations plus enough to feed the civilian population through the winter had reached the valley. Rations dumped at our posts and those remote villages which were inaccessible during winter varied from a little less than desirable to considerably more than desirable.  

I was content, I had kept my word. No one would die of cold or starvation on my watch, in my area.

Meantime, Div HQ had, as is normal, ordered a Court of Inquiry, C of I, into the entire incident of the troops and mules lost to floods. I was not worried because in routine, all such Cs of I are put up to the local commander for endorsement of his comments before submission. However, this one was submitted without my comments.

When I learned of this, I wrote Gen TP my final DO letter. I expressed surprise that my comments had not been sought and stated that I am endorsing in this DO letter what would have been my comments there. While I have no intention of looking for a copy to reproduce, the relevant excerpt was, “If there is one person in this valley who could be held responsible for the loss of lives and property that has occurred, it is I. There is one person who MIGHT be expected to have foreseen such an act of nature, who could have preempted the damage it caused; it is the Brigade Commander. And, therefore….”

My period in Kel was a period that was continuously challenging. And, as each challenge was met, nature seemed to find a means of raising the bar for each next one. I did my best but most important of all, I kept learning.

Of all the lessons I learned, the three I credit most to Kel, though these too are lessons over a lifetime. These lessons our parents and elders dinned into our ears at a stage of life when we heeded them not; not until life taught us the same.

First, that all decisions extract a price. Therefore, weigh them well before you take them and regret them not, if the price you pay is greater than you calculated.

I was never a rich man but when I loaned someone some money or did something to help anyone out, I never considered it an “investment”. Some of us consider these as investments in life, some in the after-life. I never did. But nowhere was this brought home to me more forcefully than in Kel, and I paid for each and every decision willingly.

The second is that, if you choose to accept the challenge thrown down by a superior, or choose to challenge him, be prepared for all that he can dish out and more. And the third lesson; that the cliché, “Virtue is its own reward” is true.

By June 1992, relations with the Div HQ had soured. I could have reached out to the GOC and, even Afreen, to improve them, but I didn’t. Knowing full well that it was a matter of Id, the damned ego, on all sides, I didn’t. Perhaps doing so was the sensible thing to do. It would not only have made my life easier, it would also have made life easier for my troops.

My friends will say damn my pride; my apologists will say, “it was not his (Shaukat’s) nature”.

You will recall that when I narrated the incident of Farooq’s telephone conversation with Gen Safdar, I said there was a lesson there, which would follow. Well here it is.

If there are the likes of Gen TP whose ego is soft enough to burst at a challenge, there are the likes of Gen Safdar, whose words of praise came at a most propitious moment in time. He stands tall among the many hundreds of seniors whom I have held in respect.

Among these illustrious names is Lt Col (Retd Col) Amir Nawaz Khan SJ, Maj Gen Khurshid Ali Khan who, as garrison commander diverted funds allotted for his house to construct the GOC 8 Div’s house—he did something similar as IGFC Balochistan. And, on being passed over as two star, immediately vacated the GOC’s house and surrendered his car, before seeking premature release.

The list includes Brig Sultan Mahmood, Gen Waheed, Lt Gen Farrukh Khan, and many, many more.

Since I started with my apology in Latin, I beg your indulgence to use it briefly, in my defense. I have tried to encourage my subordinates to express their views and even to criticize me when necessary. At the moment only one example comes immediately to mind, when I was a Lt Col. However, since I only rose one rank more, it might be considered relevant.

While laying emphasis on the importance of command experience, even within the unit, I had once commented to Capt Ehsanullah, then Adjt that, a worthwhile CO does not need the best officer to be his Adjt, anyone should be groomed by him.

Sometime after assuming command, I wanted Ehsan to move to command a company and I selected his replacement, who was the third senior captain after Ehsan. When Ehsan learned of this he came to my office and politely suggested that I should start with the senior most and groom each one.

On my resisting, he spoke quite harshly and said, “Then either you are not a worthwhile CO or you have been making idle boasts”. I was very fond of Ehsan for this very trait of his; his moral courage, but this took even me by surprise. I asked him, with a growing frown on my face, what he meant by that.

When he told me, my frown vanished and I felt ashamed that I needed to be reminded of my words. I told Ehsan to remember this incident and a lesson that flows from it: everybody needs an alter-ego. A person who can tell him, without fear of consequences, when he errs; and that, as long as he was here, he was my alter-ego.

This is one of the most important lessons taught me by a subordinate, but there are numerous others, including many taught me by our JCOs and OR who were my instructors in the unit. 

However, I learned the lesson Ehsan taught me, very well indeed. Briefly I was selected to take a bde to Somalia—-soon after Gen Asif Nawaz died as the sitting chief, the army realized its error and replaced me. During that period I was to select my team, including a deputy bde commander.

I suggested Col Ahsan Siddique SJ, then Station Commander Karachi, but Gens Farrukh and Arshad (DGMO) shot me down on the grounds that he was not a career officer, and neither was prepared to brook any argument of mine. Considering the debts of their favors I had accumulated during my stay in Kel, I fell silent, though unhappily.

On one occasion the COAS, Gen Asif Nawaz, asked Brig Shami, his PSC, to invite me over one evening when Mr. Monjo, the US Ambassador to Pakistan was to discuss Somalia with the chief. I went. After Monjo left, the chief asked me if I was happy with all the arrangements. Since my requirements were under process, I told him I was.

He then asked me in Punjabi if I had a choice for my deputy. This opportunity I could not forego and immediately named Ahsan. When Gens Farrukh and Arshad objected, who were also present with Brig Shami, on the same grounds, the chief looked at me questioningly.

I said, “Sir, they are correct. Ahsan will rise no further, unless perhaps given this chance. But most importantly, he is one person who can tell me when I am about to err. And I need such a deputy”. Gen Farrukh again spoke but the chief interrupted, “Did you hear what he said. He needs a man who will stand up to him and, if that’s what he wants, that’s what he gets”.

Neither of us was to go but, that’s another story.    

As I re-read my words here, I realized that it was time I put an end to this effort. However much I might abhor boasting, this chapter seems nothing but boasting. But I wrote as my heart spoke. So I will not change it.

Before concluding, let me add some of the additional lessons I learnt from my period in Kel and in life otherwise.

  1. Indeed, almost nothing is impossible. If you put your mind to it, there is always a way. That is the real challenge of command but, far more importantly, of life itself—-how to find a way to resolve the problem you face; to quote the Holy Bible and, in different words, the Holy Quran, “seek and ye shall find”.
  2. I always believed that rules are made to assist; not to become a hindrance. And, therefore, if they hinder you, bend or break them, till they assist. My experience has always proved this to be correct.
  3. Command of troops is an honor not, as some imply; an onerous responsibility; nor is it an opportunity to exploit this opportunity to your personal advantage, as some seem to think.

And two, that I relearned again and again, even after retirement.

  1. The old cliché, Respect is not commanded, it has to be earned, is ever-true.
  2. Never complain of what life gave you. First, life dishes out ONLY what are your just deserts and, second, complaints get you nothing and nowhere.

I am at peace with myself and my life; far more importantly, I am still learning.

Let me conclude with a final anecdote.

Only once was I asked to address a UN Seminar. The subject was “Proliferation of Small Arms”. I began by saying, “Assalamu Alaikum” and clarified that I use this, not merely because it is Islamic, but because it is the best greeting in any language that I have heard of.

I then went on to say, “I regret that I am not a Taliban”. In the shocked silence that followed, I explained that the word Taliban was a derivative of “Talib e Ilm”, which means one with a quest, a thirst for knowledge—a term which has no equal in any other language I know of, and I regret I do not number among them. I am merely a student; one who studies.

I still am and, I hope I have the strength and wisdom to remain one till my last breath.

This was written as a chapter for a book in which some of us, retired soldiers, were to contribute chapters on their lessons learnt over a lifetime. Apparently, none other than I contributed; so the book never materialized. I offer this here as an introduction to myself.


PAF         Pakistan Air Force

GDP        G D Pilot

PMA        Pakistan Military Academy

FA            Intermediate [12 years if studies] in Arts

FSc          Intermediate in Sciences

GSO II (Ops)      General Staff Officer Grade II [Major]

BM          Brigade Major

CO           Commanding Officer [Lieutenant Colonel, also Lt Col in short]]

SJ              Sitara-e Jurat       The third highest military gallantry award

13 FF       13 Frontier Force Regiment

Brig          Brigadier

2 i/c         Second in command

HQ           Headquarters

BOP         Border Outpost

POW        Prisoner of War

33 AK      33 Azad Kashmir Regiment

Bde         Brigade

Piffer      A soldier of a Frontier Force regiment

GOC        General Officer Commanding [Major General, two star]

DSP          Deputy Superintendent of Police

Div HQ    Divisional HQ

AC            Armored Corps

IGT&E      Inspector General Training and Evaluation [Lt Gen, three stars

DO letter   Demi Official letter

AT Sqn    Animal Transport Squadron

CGS          Chief of General Staff [Lt Gen, three stars]

DS            Directing Staff [Instructor, at the Infantry School, a Maj or Captain, he was a Major]

JCO         Junior Commissioned Officer

AJ & K     Azad Jammu and Kashmir

GHQ        General HQs

DGMO    Director General Military Operations [Maj Gen, two star]

MO Dte   Military Operations Directorate

IGFC        Inspector General Frontier Corps [Mag Gen, two star]

Adjt         Adjutant [Captain]

OR            Other Ranks [JCOs, NCOs, and Sepoys]

PSC          Personal Staff officer to the Chief

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