The military-military divide

Published: October 31, 2012
The writer is a defence analyst who retired as an air vice-marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

The writer is a defence analyst who retired as an air vice-marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

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.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (30)

  • observer
    Oct 31, 2012 - 11:06PM

    Now I know why Asghar Khan is at odds with the rest of the Pakistani establishment.

    Imagine someone going into retirement at 65 when the norm is to anoint yourself a Field Marshal or at the minimum give yourself a couple of extensions.


  • Nadir
    Oct 31, 2012 - 11:30PM

    Investigation must still be done? Evidence gathered? They have already confessed to their actions! Generals are always innocent, however all the civilians are a okay to be held in indefinite detention.


  • Khan Jr
    Oct 31, 2012 - 11:41PM

    If people with the intellectual acumen of Mirza Aslam can ascend to top of the military pole and become Army Chief, it is no wonder that the only enemies these people have managed to militarily defeat were East Pakistani and Baloch civilians.


  • gp65
    Nov 1, 2012 - 12:42AM

    Thank you for this information on Asghar Khan. My respect for him which was already high – soars further.


  • Asaf
    Nov 1, 2012 - 12:58AM

    Very informative & enlightening article. Does show a mental devide in the forces.Thank you for that Chaudhry sahib. The bigger question is, how long these services leaders could be allowed to play with destiny, and now possibly survival of this country.


  • sabi
    Nov 1, 2012 - 2:52AM

    This is really a good and balanced article hope to know more truths from author thanks.


  • Dev
    Nov 1, 2012 - 5:18AM

    I fail to understand that when Pakistan can carry out a limited war (read Kargil) why can’t India. I fully endorse cold start. India should never allow a change in the status quo!


  • Zahid
    Nov 1, 2012 - 7:58AM

    AM Arjan Singh was never made Marshal of the Indian Air Force. He was considered but passed over b/coz his performance in the 1965 war did not merit this rank.


  • Prakash Lal
    Nov 1, 2012 - 8:27AM

    Pak Air Force kept out of Kargil because Pakistani government never admitted that the intruders in Kargil were their regular force, as such they could not press Pak air force for their defence.


  • Feroz
    Nov 1, 2012 - 8:49AM

    People like Asghar Khan will remain true heroes for the country, irrespective of how history will be written. Turf wars between different arms of the Services happen world over, it is not peculiar to Pakistan.


  • Hemant
    Nov 1, 2012 - 11:02AM

    Air Marshal Arjun Singh stills holds office as Marshals do not retire .


  • Zulfikar Ali
    Nov 1, 2012 - 11:13AM

    @Khan Jr: Pak Army did not defeat East Pakistanis. On the contrary. East Pakistanis won. FIY: General Niazi surrendered at Race Course in Dhaka on16 December,1971. As for the Baloch, they are not defeated either as yet — they are still fighting all these long 65 years. Get your history lessons right. This is an English language newspaper and people all over the world reads blogs here. You want to fabricate history — go to Urdu press where they manufacture fictions to run as history.


  • Brig Harwant Singh (Retd)
    Nov 1, 2012 - 12:26PM

    There is an error in Mr Zahid’s comments above, that , “AM Arjan Singh was never made Marshal of the Indian Air Force. He was considered but passed over b/coz his performance in the 1965 war did not merit this rank”.

    The Air Marshal was made 'Marshal of the Air Force' many decades AFTER his retirement , in recognition of his contribution to the IAF .

  • Author
    Nov 1, 2012 - 12:31PM

    @Zahid: WRONG……


  • gv
    Nov 1, 2012 - 3:19PM


    he retired at 43 not 65 – you obviously didnt read the article


  • F
    Nov 1, 2012 - 4:29PM

    “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.”
    – stop your nation from actively nurturing and exporting “strategic” assets to foment terror to its neighbors.


  • Naseem Ch
    Nov 1, 2012 - 4:42PM

    The question, one may ask and one that is so crucial for the future of Pakistan, is why they don’t make Asghar Khan any more? May be the author , who is so analytical, attempt an answer.


  • F
    Nov 1, 2012 - 4:57PM

    The article should have been about Asghar Khan and his courage in fighting for law and justice. Why drag 1965, Kargil and India into it? Asghar Khan is fighting for supremacy of civilian authority not about 1965 war. However, it is not surprising to see the domineering attitude soaked in religious superiority come through. And we get a lecture on responsible conduct lest there be a nuclear flare up.
    Some facts: Pakistan started the Kargil war after it tested nuclear weapons. Pakistan started the use and export of strategic assets to India (and now other parts of the world) when it had nuclear weapons. Pakistan threatened to use nuclear weapons when things did not go its way in the battlefield. And most recently, it’s security establishment is highlighting the strength of its nuclear weapons, as it undermines the US in Afghanistan.
    So here is a lesson for Pakistani military establishment: as long as you keep using your “strategic” assets, the world will keep seeking space to fight you.
    Now let us return to Asghar Khan and be inspired by his courage in standing up to his own. He has given to the civilians what no military man would ever. He has given to Pakistan what it deserves. He is a man to be celebrated.


  • Sidewinder
    Nov 1, 2012 - 6:48PM

    Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh is the only CAS in India to have achieved this glorious rank in 2002,with Field Marshals Kariappa and Manekshaw as his Army counterparts…..its a five star rank awarded for most exemplary services as Chief…


  • Falcon
    Nov 1, 2012 - 7:10PM

    Very informative article. Thanks for sharing the facts.


  • Lala Gee
    Nov 1, 2012 - 7:47PM

    The air force guys think they are much more talented and physically though than army officers, which in fact is not totally wrong, but despite this difference in talents, army runs the show which make them envious of the ground force. That is why the Joint Force Headquarter was created and a Joint Chief of Staff sits there to do the coordination work.


  • Author
    Nov 1, 2012 - 9:42PM

    @F: Obviously, you did not read the article.


  • F
    Nov 2, 2012 - 1:31AM

    Focus on your key message: if you want to highlight Asghar Khan then do so singularly and clearly. Why get so easily tempted by India and India always? You dilute your message and diminish the subject. You are seeking parity by trying to drag India to your level of conduct unbecoming of a nation. I am sorry, you have no constituency, outside Pakistan, that believes that you are a responsible entity – with or without nukes! You should rise up like Asghar Khan has. I do applaud you for recognizing the man and what he may have accomplished for Pakistan in the short and long term. He has operationalized hope.


  • G. Din
    Nov 2, 2012 - 5:45PM

    @Brig Harwant Singh (Retd):
    “AM Arjan Singh was never made Marshal of the Indian Air Force. He was considered but passed over b/coz his performance in the 1965 war did not merit this rank.”
    “The equivalent rank in the Indian Air Force (IAF) (to Field Marshal in Indian Army), Marshal of the Air Force, was conferred on Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh in 2002 in recognition of his service in building the Force, and for his leadership during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. He was also the first officer promoted to Air Chief Marshal in the IAF. All previous Indian Chiefs of Air Staff had been Air Marshals”.- Wikipedia
    Pakistanis have every fact of history stand on its head and then they will vouch for it,too!


  • Nov 4, 2012 - 3:15PM

    @Zahid: He was made Made Marshal Of the Air Force in 2002.


  • Mehreen
    Nov 4, 2012 - 3:34PM

    Factual inaccuracy in the article: Asghar Khan commanded the PAF from 1948 to 1965 for approx 17-18 years. He was indeed 33 when he took over as Chief, but served for much longer than 8 years.


  • Mehreen
    Nov 4, 2012 - 4:54PM

    My previous comment was incorrect as pointed out during a discussion with some people just now (i.e. regarding the no. of years he served as Chief) – I stand corrected, kindly disregard.


  • Mahmood Gul
    Nov 5, 2012 - 11:11AM

    Dear Author, a very well written article which actually indicates the army mindset ( ‘I can never do any wrong’). I am surprised at the reaction expressed by a reader “F”. Yes, we admit our numerous blunders but our friends are no angles too. Last but not the least, keep up the good work, we as a nation look up to you for it.


  • Fawad Ali
    Nov 5, 2012 - 7:11PM

    Asghar Khan’s courageous efforts shall contribute in countering army’s overt interventions and desire for power — covert involvement shall however continue with the kind of political “leadership” that we have at present. Asghar Khan should be applauded and honored. Actually we Pakistanis have been duped for so long and by so many people that it is hard to believe that there are still some honest and principled people around. We should be able to find more Aghar Khans particualrly if we start searching among the younger lot.


  • arshad durrani
    Nov 6, 2012 - 7:45AM

    leave the civil society alone to account for the plunder and sapping of it’s energies by the deathly grip of the military on it’s jugular.It is time to answer to the people who live in misery to support their life-styles without returning anything to the country.It is good to see the military shake it’s own house through it’s inglorious brass.


More in Opinion