Gentlemen Astaghfirullah : Witness to Blunder Kargil Story Unfolds

Reviewed by Haris Masood Zuberi

WITNESS_TO_BLUNDER-Col_AshfaqThe chief players on either side of a war all have something to say once the national disaster is over. The bare truth however often remains a perpetual casualty when narrated by former decision makers. In this regard anyspilling of the beans by people who were directly involved albeit in a non-decision making role plays a significant part in shaping the information deprived public’s perception of what really happened.

‘Witness to Blunder – Kargil story unfolds’ is Colonel (retd) Ashfaq Hussain’s account of the Kargil War, but goes farther than merely dissecting the ‘Kargil Crisis’. Published in September 2008 it coincides with the passing of a decade since the operations initiated on the snow-peaked mountains in the winter of 1998-1999.

Having been a Colonel serving at the Inter Services Public Relations Directorate (ISPR) at the time the author recounts his experiences and observations to narrate the story of the war and relates his perception of the entire debacle as it unfolded. Being a military observer with a journalistic background as well as nature of duties at ISPR, he has no inhibitions and expresses his findings based on personal interaction with senior commanders, leaders as well as the middle level and junior officers and men of the Pakistan Army directly involved in the fierce battles.

A precise background of the Kashmir Issue reads through the opening chapter, introducing readers to the history and national psyche of reverence for Kashmir. Picking up the story of Kargil from an exercise at the School of Infantry & Tactics, Quetta few decades ago, the writer begins to identify the key characters from the Pakistan Army involved in conceiving and planning the operations and shares in detail their respective traits, ambitions and shortcomings.  An introduction to the norms of high altitude mountain warfare and the human difficulties involved in manning posts and serving at such snow-covered terrain under sub-zero temperatures follows. The regiments and units involved in the operations are given due mention along with respective areas of responsibility. The corresponding maps with accounts of the many posts established and occupied by Pakistan Army offer a fair perspective of what the locations and command structure had actually been like. Information on type and use of weapons, tables bearing details of artillery rounds fired, disparity on each side, and the difficulties in moving and maintaining the field guns to forward and high posts makes informative reading.  Particulars of senior commanders, their appointments and level of involvement is narrated in detail down to the time and location of briefings, including the 28 March 1999 visit by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and his key officers to the ‘Zakaria’ post held by 12 Northern Light Infantry (NLI) regiment ‘11 KMs ahead of the LOC’.

Mentioning the Lahore Declaration between Prime Ministers Sharif and Vajpayee as the diplomatic relations thawed for the first time since the nuclear tests of May 1998, the author points at the futility of conceiving an offensive military operation at this point in time. Meanwhile the extreme secrecy of the plans implies the generals did not find it fit to involve the PAF and Navy chiefs, let alone the civil leadership, including the Defense Secretary Lt Gen (Retd) Iftikhar Ali Khan. It is claimed even Nawaz Sharif was kept completely in the dark and learned of the situation first through a phone call from Vajpayee. It was allegedly only this unplanned revelation which forced the generals to formally brief the government. The anticipation of surprising the enemy and depriving it of any advantage thereby moving ahead on own advantageous terms was the plan, however the Indian Army by chance discovered the troops occupying the posts which messed up the strategy.

The author very fittingly dedicates several inspirational chapters paying tribute to a few of the many warriors of Pakistan Army who oblivious of the dynamics of politics and higher military command served their country and wrote tales of exemplary valour. Often despite being faced with the oddest of odds. The story of Captain Karnal Sher Khan Shaheed being narrated in detail for the first time by an established military biographer is a valuable read. One would have however expected a more thorough profile from the writer who has previously authored a celebrated biography of a Nishan-i-Haider recipient as ‘Faateh Saboona’ on the life of Major Shabbir Sharif Shaheed. Although addressing a serious subject he lives up to his signature humorous and suave expression. The reader finds of particular interest several portions that incite smiles. Like the strangely brave case of Major Tariq Mahmood’s sudden nap while indulged in direct intense firing with the enemy closing in few hundred yards ahead. Or using the phrase ‘…another feather in his already feathered cap’ for an allegedly over-ambitious Major General in an amusing reference to the vibrantly plumed beret of the Punjab regiment. Meanwhile reproduction of a letter from an Indian Lt Col handed over to Pakistan along with the body of Captain Imtiaz Malik Shaheed raises goose-bumps and is a tribute to the profession of arms and the bond men in uniform share regardless of the side.

The concluding chapter titled ‘The longest day’ covers the author’s experiences on 12 October 1999 while he was serving at the V Corps, Karachi as Deputy Director ISPR. His eye witness account of the day the Pakistani nation witnessed movie-like situations unfold when the Prime Minister ordered the COAS General Musharraf’s flight from Colombo to be refused landing at Karachi as scheduled is an action thriller. What followed is no secret, however the workings of the generals involved, revelations regarding everyone’s back-saving tactics which resulted in the swift coup undoubtedly adds a new dimension to the story of 12 October. A profile of the mysterious Lt Gen Ziauddin Ahmed who was handpicked by Nawaz Sharif as General Musharraf’s replacement in his obviously bizarre move which had surprised his own officials, and the step by step actions till the middle of the night when the COAS eventually addressed the clueless nation makes exciting reading.

It is the first time Colonel (retd) Ashfaq Hussain has penned a book in English along with its Urdu version aptly titled in sync with his ‘Gentlemen’ series as ‘Gentlemen Astaghfirullah’. He has clearly declared the Kargil adventure a ‘blunder’ and the title ‘Witness to Blunder’ is out of apparent inspiration from another book from the 1970s narrating the story of another such ‘blunder’. ‘Witness to Surrender’ was also authored by an Army officer, Brigadier Siddiq Salik Shaheed, who narrated his experiences as an ISPR Major stationed at Dhaka in December 1971. ‘Witness to Blunder’ however is supposed to be a far less gloomy narrative, since thankfully enough, neither did the nation get amputated nor was the author taken POW.

This review was published in Dawn ‘Books & Authors’ on Sunday, 1 March 2009.