Flight of the Falcon

Reviewed by Usman Ansari

Publisher: Vanguard Books
ISBN: 978-969-402-526-1

flight_of_the_falconLast month I had the opportunity to meet what we may describe quite honestly as one of Pakistan’s ‘living treasures’, Air Commodore Sajad ‘Nosey’ Haider. If people have heard of him at all its because he led the Pakistan Air Force’s strike on the Indian airbase of Pathankot on the opening day of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war proper when he was commanding Peshawar-based No 19 squadron. That same morning he and his men stopped the Indian Army’s thrust on Lahore dead in its tracks. Not bad for a day’s work.

I’ve met him before on a few occasions, but this was during the launch of his autobiography, ‘Flight of the Falcon’. It was attended by a few of Pakistan’s other ‘living treasures’, the first two indigenous heads of the air force, ACM Asghar Khan and ACM Nur Khan. Past Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Mohammad Abbas Khattak, who served under Haider as a young fighter pilot in 1965, was also present, and described what it was like to serve under him. Some of the Air commodore’s other PAF colleagues were sat in the audience. Two of the ones I recognised were Air Commodore Bill Lateef, and Air Commodore Altaf Sheikh, two more ‘living treasures’ of great standing that Pakistanis should know the name of, but probably don’t.

I’m not going to give a run down from start to finish of what is in the book. I think you should buy it and read for yourselves, for what it contains is the story of a man who was closely intertwined with Pakistan’s history, either making it or watching it happen.

As a witness to history in this respect he has seen Pakistan torn away from the vision of its founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, by those cynically wanting to secure their own positions. He was a witness to the cynical betrayal of Kashmir in 1965, when the Indians had no hope of defending it, but the cowardice and incompetence of Ayub Khan, (a good candidate for Pakistan’s biggest ever coward) and Gen Musa Khan (the then Chief of Army Staff and of whom the less said the better), plus the machinations of others simply gave it away.

Having looked at the cataclysm which was instrumental in making Haider a household name in Pakistan, he then deals with a far greater one that saw the death of Jinnah’s united Pakistan, and the birth of Bangladesh with the separation of the eastern wing. As a Wing commander based at the home of PAF in Sargodha in 1971 he witnessed first hand the cowardice and stunning incompetence which essentially led to the betrayal of the eastern wing.

Both these events make up the ‘meat’ of the book, and as defining events in the history of what is still a fairly young nation, they are events that should be analysed and dissected. Having spoken to him I got the impression that this is something which drives him relentlessly forward. He lost good friends in both wars, and the sense of betrayal is quite palpable. In ‘Flight of the Falcon’ it’s no less so.

Sadly both of these monumental events in Pakistan’s history are surrounded by myths and lies. Every year Pakistan celebrates the 1965 war as a victory, when it was in fact a shambles. In both wars the men on the frontline fought like men possessed. Their bravery and professionalism hasn’t been questioned by Haider, but those at the top and in a position to make crucial decisions in both wars, the men who are responsible for betraying those doing the actual fighting, get the light shone on them. Haider’s purpose in doing this is that Pakistan needs to learn from the past, not swathe it in the myths and cynical lies which are taught in Pakistani schools. I can honestly say that Haider’s version of history of these events is the history that should be taught in schools.

That Haider is a hero on the personal level is beyond doubt, but readers should brace themselves for just how well Pakistan rewards its heroes, and compare this to the treatment meted out to the mediocre officers who were responsible for the failures that led to defeat and massive under performance. The post 1971 aspect of Haider’s story is therefore a real eye opener, (look out for a character called Zafar Chaudhry, compare and contrast his antics with his later position as treasurer for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan – you can’t make this kind of stuff up), and by the time his story gets to the arrival of Zia ul Haq (self appointed God’s annointed on earth) on scene it’s clear just what has gone wrong with Pakistan. For those who constantly whinge that Pakistan has gone to the dogs, this is how it happened. He accurately narrates just how Pakistan has arrived at its present juncture, seemingly besieged by extremists and run by mediocre, corrupt, and self serving politicians.

There are mistakes in the book, (the SA-6 is not a shoulder fired missile unless you have massive shoulders), but any mistakes are trifling ones. The essence of the book is sound and needs study. Any serious student of military or political history in Pakistan or South Asia needs to have this book on their shelf.

‘Flight of the Falcon’ is available from Vanguard Books (info@vanguardbooks.com).

More information (including contact information) about Air Commodore Haider is available via his website: www.sajadhaider.com