The proverbial has hit the fan after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Air Marshal Asghar Khan case, which establishes the likely culpability of retired generals, Mirza Aslam Baig and Asad Durrani, in the 1990 election scam. The investigations must still be done, evidence processed and completed, charges tried by criminal courts to indict those involved in conniving a replacement of a democratically-elected government.
But, what has come after is even more revealing. Not to most who serve in arms because they live the reality to a certain degree, but to those who think of the military as a monolith — military is more a Janus. Hearing Baig tear into Asghar Khan, and somewhat into Durrani, reinforces the reality of a divide that lurks just under, even as the military gives the impression of being homogenous. Better sense of the leadership in the three services leads them to paper over differences and provides a semblance of normal functioning; usually, that might not be the case. It helps if at least two, especially the army and the air force chiefs, have known each other previously and have got along well; that, too, helps in keeping the differences under wraps. (The navy’s medium of operation is water, which does not conflict with the army, helping to keep them separate; but don’t count on it for you may be surprised beyond belief.) The working cultures, otherwise, are so different in each service to be alien to the other. God forbid, if this is supplemented by chiefs who wish to stand their point or have not got along well with each other previously, then it becomes open war. The good thing is that in functioning as a system, there are imperatives that will force the services to work together, but no one ever promised (you) a rose garden, along with sunshine.
Back then to Baig’s diatribe against Asghar Khan. In Baig’s words, “Asghar Khan is a traitor; he was removed as the air force chief in 1965 to be replaced by Nur Khan just before going to war because the army did not trust him — remember Ayub Khan was both the president and the army chief and he could order such a change; that Asghar Khan connived with the Indian Air Force (IAF) chief to keep the air forces out of the Rann of Kuch war of April 1965.” It was a skirmish, not a war, and the IAF did stay out of it. I am sure Baig’s attempt at character assassination of Asghar Khan is aimed at discrediting his standing as a petitioner, but that is now over as the Supreme Court did find merit in what he had petitioned, as worthy of attention. By doing what he has done, Asghar Khan, now 91, may have given the nation a lasting gift by forcing caution on any future adventurer who plans to play favourites through unlawful inducements of money, pressure and simple manipulation of the democratic process. Better late than never.
Asghar Khan is a man of principle and largely known as such. He is the father of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and recognised as such. He was replaced by Nur Khan as the chief in July 1965, after having served for eight years, as the first Pakistani air chief. He had assumed command of the air force at the age of 35 — yes 35, you all thirty-somethings — and retired at the age of 43. He built the air force and trained it into a war-ready service, which Nur Khan took to war. Otherwise, between July and September 1965, it would have been impossible to prepare a force if it already had not been war-ready. Nur Khan gave the air force its indomitable leadership and that, too, was a factor. Asghar Khan was no traitor. As the 1965 war began, he was found more in the air headquarters than out of it and remained closely involved with the operations.
What then happened in April 1965 during the Kuch skirmish? Air Marshal Arjan Singh was the Indian chief. Asghar Khan and he had been together in the Royal Indian Air Force before Partition as batch-mates, as had Nur Khan. The two established contact during the skirmish and agreed on keeping the two air forces out, for fear of escalation. They did, except for one Mystere that seemed to have lost its way drifting across the border, which was successfully forced down by the PAF. The same Arjan Singh was hosted by Air Marshal Nur Khan at the air headquarters as his guest immediately after the 1965 war. Arjan Singh is the only air force officer in India to have been promoted to the five-star rank of a Marshal of the Air Force despite his discretionary conduct when looked at from an Aslam Baig perspective. At 93, Arjan Singh remains a most veritable emblem of dignity and poise as he still fondly welcomes Pakistanis into his abode.
Many years later, in 1999, another air force chief refused to plunge into Kargil at the behest of the army, unless the government of the day ordered him to do so. The government of the day did not and he kept his air force fully poised but out of conflict, only helping through a supportive role. By now, both India and Pakistan were nuclear-capable and such playfulness could have only pushed the region into its Armageddon. The Indian Air Force, too, exercised control over its ambit and restricted operations within its own line of control. For all its depravity, the one positive that came out of the Kargil conflict was the limit of power that regressed its unabashed use by the two nuclear nations. Nuclear-capable nations have greater stringency in exercise of power, which in itself is paradoxical but real. Both nations should imbibe this as a lasting lesson and stop seeking space for a limited war.
Just another nugget from the Asghar Khan saga. When a local lad, who was in the air force, approached Asghar Khan’s father to gain a recommendation for a posting to a place of choice, Asghar Khan’s father knew who to approach. A retired brigadier, he called up President Ayub Khan to request Asghar Khan, his son, to comply with the request. Ayub Khan did, which Asghar Khan refused. The consequence: Asghar Khan stopped all communication with his father till a long time after. They don’t make them like that, anymore.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2012.