Brig (r) A R Siddiqi
Thursday, July 11, 2013
Sardar Sherbaz Khan Mazari, one of Pakistan's most respected and seasoned statesmen, once asked me: "What sort of president do we have? Last evening at a reception he came up to me and said, 'look Sardar Sahib I am a commando and I shall fight'..."
What can one say about such impulsive behaviour by a head of state and chief of the county's armed forces?
Commandos are good soldiers – known more for raw courage and less for mature and sober judgement. Musharraf, too, was noted more for his blunt attitude than for a calm and calculated response to a given situation. Furthermore, his unfortunate penchant for depending too much on his handpicked cronies – yes-men all – proved to be his undoing.
In April 1999, about six months before his coup, he addressed a meeting of the English Speaking Union at the Beach Luxury Hotel, Karachi. There he spoke at length about the efficiency of the army's command-and-control systems and the unfailing alacrity by which a command is carried out by various field formations and establishments around the country.
"It would take no more than a few minutes to alert my units deployed at the farthest post and get them cracking at once..." The general went on – lauding the role of the army down to the battalion level as an unfailingly quick responsive force.
Responding to a question about the army's nexus with the Afghan Taliban, he was overly eloquent about their role as a standby volunteer body for the army when required. "The Taliban are a success story", he said and, "we should soon bring them around to our way of thinking and action when necessary".
The same evening, Musharraf and I happened to be sitting next to each other at small private dinner. His observation about the Taliban fresh in my mind, I asked him, "Do you, Sir, really believe in what you said about the Taliban during your talk?" "Don't you?", he countered.
"Not quite after the damage they did to Afghanistan. Having made a mess of their country, far worse than what it had been under the Soviet invasion and subsequent occupation for nearly a whole decade".
He smiled and with an unmistakable touch of irony said, "Sir the Taliban are my strategic reserve and I can unleash them in tens of thousands against India when I want..."
After such a definitive statement I chose to hold my horses. After all he was the army chief and I just a retired brigadier out of touch and unaware of the army's operational planning.
Musharraf's commando complex and deep contempt for civilian authority led him up the garden path to stray into the tangled woods of reckless adventurism.
Much like the mock guerrilla Operation Gibraltar launched in August 1965 and manned by our hastily-trained young regulars – officers and jawans – Musharraf used the jawans of the NLI (Northern Light Infantry) in Kargil for over three months (March-June 1999). The NLI – essentially a regular infantry outfit – fell back helter-skelter from the commanding heights it had occupied in the initial thrust, catching the enemy sleeping at his post.
Kargil was to prove a double disaster, both politically and militarily. It sabotaged the budding peace process between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
Prime Minister Vajpayee's bus yatra to Lahore on the invitation of Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif was a diplomatic tour de' force. Vajpayee's pilgrimage to the Minar-e-Pakistan reaffirmed yet again India's recognition of Pakistan as a living, dynamic entity that was there to stay.
Here too Musharraf's commando mindset led him astray from the only way he should have responded to the prime minster's directive to receive Vajpayee at the Wahgah border. Not only did he not join the welcome ceremony at Wahgah himself he also went on to advise the naval and air chiefs to follow suit and boycott the ceremony. The trio joined the Lahore show the next day at the Lahore Fort for lunch.
Almost simultaneously, Musharraf launched his 'top secret' Operation Badar – which ended in a sorry stalemate after some initial successes.
His alter ego, the commando in him, was at its aggressive worst when he got the 111 Brigade to surround the PM's House and scale the walls of the PTV to occupy its studios and offices on October 12, 1999.TV clips of the jawans doing this were hardly befitting the stature of the commandos, who are known for their role behind enemy lines.
The writer is a former head of ISPR