Book review: Challenging martial histories

This book review was published in The Friday Times (June 19-25 2009 issue)

This was a hot May afternoon when I found myself at the book launch of Flight of the Falcon. I had no plans to be in Islamabad until the author informed me of the launch, an event to be remembered in the culturally stifling environs of Islamabad. I have known Air Commodore (retired) Sajad Haider for years. He is an exceptional man, able to connect across generations. The articulate and hospitable Haider can hold forth on any subject under the sun without cavil. As a young man, I had heard the delightful, adventurous and sometimes sad accounts of his stint with the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). In many ways, the rise and fall of the PAF is a mirror image of Pakistan’s institutional trajectory, depicting how good we are at making a hash of things and persecuting our heroes.

Flight of the Falcon essentially sums up Haider’s grand story of valour, tribulations and commitment to the country. As he told me, this book “is my endeavour to fulfil my small responsibility towards my country. During the 1965 and 1971 wars with India, which I participated in as a commander leading the No 19 Squadron of the Pakistan Air Force, and as head of the fighter tactical wing respectively, I was a witness to history in the making”. During the 1965 war, Haider had collected the best fighter pilots and put them under the ‘warriors’ training regime. The results achieved by his squadron were spectacular: an unmatchable six Sitara-e-Jurats were bestowed on the pilots, including the fighter-author. The 19th Squadron carried out the most difficult missions of the 1965 war and these have been documented by British, Indian and Pakistani experts. Whilst most accounts recall the operational episodes narrated by second-hand sources, Flight of the Falcon attempts to provide a candid account of these two controversial wars from the cockpit of a fighter air craft. Interestingly the book challenges the conventional mantra of victory trumpeted by state histories: in both the wars, there was no clear winner, and the book chronicles that honestly.

Haider holds that after four decades, the truth about what happened must come out without any embarrassment. “We owe it to our future generations, particularly today’s young commanders and students of military history, to set the record straight”,he adds. Not surprisingly, reticence to carry out an honest analysis of the lessons of the wars against India is rooted in the effort to protect the incompetent and short-sighted leaders whose mistakes cost the lives of many gallant men, not to mention the tragic break up of Pakistan in 1971.

Flight of the Falcon is not just a dry historical account. It is an eminently readable autobiography as well. Sometimes, the episodes appear stranger than fiction, especially when Haider’s air chief framed him in a conspiracy to overthrow the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and charged him with treason and with inciting mutiny. We also learn how the Shahinshah of Iran, Raza Pahlavi, told Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to punish Haider for denigrating him. The sensational bits make the book impossible to put down. There is the incident where Zia ul Haq lectured the armed forces, trying to explain the reasons why he had carried out a military coup, and why the nation was not fit for democracy. The author retorted, “The pride with which I have worn this uniform and defended my country with my life has been denigrated to the point where I see contempt in the eyes of Pakistanis who had once adored the sight of this very uniform. As part of your constituency we are now the conquerors of Pakistan rather than its defenders”. Of course, Haider lost his career and Zia was reported to have said that he wanted to see Haider with a begging bowl in his hand!

The story gets more inspiring as Haider, instead of acting as a depressed careerist, does not look back, and rebuilds his life as a successful businessman. The message is clear: “never cave into coercion, nor surrender to the self-righteous”. These are words that are most relevant as we wage war against the forces of darkness in twenty-first century Pakistan.

We also read interesting anecdotes about Haider’s personal life. His father emerges as a role model, held in high respect by the Baloch Sardars; and his mother is revealed as a woman who emphasised education for all her children. From a ‘mama’s boy’, the author landed into the rough terrain of life and achieved success on merit, and through sheer dedication and hard work. The role of Air Marshal Asghar Khan in upgrading the PAF also gets illuminated through the text. But the sad events following Ayub Khan’s coup in 1958 get a detailed treatment. Indeed the author, many would say for the right reasons, is unsparing towards the 1958 coup – “a midnight coup supported by second rate generals of the army”, to use Haider’s words. The only person to challenge Ayub was Asghar Khan. The Pakistan army since the 1960s has followed “a course of nepotism, corruption and cronyism that has been hard to rectify in all these years”, laments Haider.

Pakistan’s client status is also discussed at length when the author narrates how the Americans pushed Ayub Khan into creating a spy base at Badaber near Peshawar. Haider laments how this tradition was carried on by Ayub’s successors, especially Yahya Khan, who kept waiting for the 6th fleet in 1971, which was checkmated by the Soviets.

The false sense of importance that we have nurtured and polished as the core to our foreign policy continues unabated.

Haider tells us how Ayub feared his own shadow and constantly suffered the trepidation of coups and assassination attempts which was more of a phantom. Purges from within the ranks led to a situation where the army was starved of young captain and major level officers. In Haider’s words, the “not so obvious young Turks managed to survive”. Ayub pushed Pakistan into the 1965 war, which turned out to be a tactical debacle leading to the dismemberment of Pakistan. As we find out from Flight of the Falcon , the PAF was kept completely in the dark about the plan to annex Kashmir through guerrilla warfare, and Asghar Khan was deliberately kept out of the loop until the Indian air force rattled the rafters of Musa and Ayub’s bunkers. Tragically, the leadership thought that India would not react violently against Pakistan. The gallant men who infiltrated into Indian- held Kashmir were ill-trained. Some youths from the streets of Azad Kashmir towns were given as little as three weeks training to fight a guerrilla war of attrition. “There was no plan of exfiltration, and the secrecy of this plan met its Waterloo when two Muslim Kashmiris reported the presence of Pakistani Mujahid forces to the Indian police as well as to the local army headquarters. A tragic massacre of our valiant men followed”, says Haider. We have been bleeding due to the Kashmir conflict for decades, and brave men have shed their blood without knowing the power-games and megalomania of our leaders.

Truthful accounts of the military and its various operations have been a rarity in Pakistan. Haider’s book brings out many an uncomfortable truth, and gives us a view of what was happening within the corridors of GHQ during 1965 and 1971. It is for this reason that those who are interested in Pakistan’s past and its future must read this book.

When Haider bid farewell to the PAF, he had Rs.17,000 as his total earnings. No plots and other assets that we are now familiar with. In his own words, he started from ground zero. But his lesson for the men in uniform is: “If you serve with total dedication, without running after plots and money-making ventures, nature rewards you for your pride in the profession and your courage to fight greed for collecting assets”.



The judges took their seats and there was a deathly pin drop silence before the President of the court, AVM Nawaz addressed everyone. My eyes were like a radar beam, moving from the members on the extreme right through each one of the seven to the last one on the left, W Cdr Ismail. My first scan did not achieve any lock-on with any pair of eyes. The President was shuffling some papers and the members of the court wore a completely blank expression. I hated them all just for those few seconds. Then I picked up the last man on the left, Ismail and got a lock-on to his eyes for a fleeting second and his fist, which was visible between the piles of evidence, moved and I saw his thumb rising from the horizontal upwards, but I could not tell if he was indicating a middle of the way decision or one that was in my favour. On this day, at that moment in my life I understood the true essence of the maxim ‘Poetic Justice’. I believe that I suddenly matured into a man on that day. I must have been shaking with excitement, relief and euphoria, as I stood up and thanked the court with these words: “Your Honours, today by confirming my innocence you have upheld justice and may well have saved this great air force. This is not only my victory but also yours for standing up to coercive authority”. The members were leaving their chairs and were not likely to come and congratulate me for good reasons. The readers would think just as I did that my trial was over. Not true, because the Air Chief had too much to lose if he let me go that easily. The President of the court received orders from the Chief of Air Staff (Zafar Chaudhry) immediately after he was conveyed the news of my exoneration by AVM Masood Khan, to keep me under arrest at Bedaber. This was indubitably an open admission of his crime of malice and vindictiveness seething inside him for years. He had lost the war against me even though he had won many battles on the strength of his rank. Now was the time for him to resign as he had promised in front of a gathering of all the commanders of the PAF. But he was not of the mettle who place honour above all else. The following happened subsequent to the court’s announcement as narrated to me by friends and especially AVM Masood Khan, an officer of unimpeachable character, but a cautious person. That was why it took him 21 years to think it was alright to spill the beans. Masood Khan told me in 1995, “the news was received by the Air Chief as though he had been hit by a bolt from the sky”. He turned pale and stared at me looking somewhat bewildered. Then he said “I want you to contact the DAI immediately and tell him to inform Nawaz (AVM Nawaz – President of the court) to keep this chap Haider under close arrest and he is not to leave the detention camp”. Masood, of course had no choice but to pass the message on, but as he narrated the story, he said, “Sajad, every one knew that they were hunting you, but I realized that day how petty AM Zafar Chaudhry really was after I witnessed his reaction and his appalling response”


Ali Afridi wasted no time and put up a strong petition to the Defence Minister appealing for strong action against the violation of law and sheer injustice to a person who had been vindictively framed in the conspiracy. I did not know what was going on behind the scenes, but apparently the petition reached Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was also the Defence Minister at the time. In the meantime, he had also received information through the agencies about my unlawful detention ordered by the Air Chief. One morning, I went to the common lavatories as usual and was going to brush my teeth before taking a shower…My mouth was full of tooth paste, when I heard unusual boot steps resounding loudly in the corridor…The steps came to a stop near the lavatories and lo and behold who was there, but Butt, the prosecutor. The brush in my mouth was caught by me under my teeth and some wild ideas circulated in my mind before I spoke to this loathsome character. “What the hell do you want now; have you come to take me back? It would be difficult for me to recapture the complete change in his demeanour, his shattered self-esteem and degraded humility as he opened his mouth and said: “Sir, I have good news for you…I apologize for being insubordinate and for anything wrong that I may have done”. He had not an iota of self-esteem in his body or soul, he was the most pitiful human specimen I had seen crumble so quickly from such a high perch. I continued brushing my teeth as I heard him say that the CAS had ordered my immediate release and a service car would be there to drive me home My faithful Pathan servant Toreh, who was tough and bull-dog faced but loyal to the core, came running out from the rear of the house. He stopped not knowing if he could embrace me, but I got my arms around him as he cried unashamedly, talking at the same time and abusing the people who had taken me away. Once he got himself under control and opened the lock to the main entrance, he swore that he would kill all those people who had been cruel to me. Believe me he was very serious. I was back and I was free!

An Extract from Flight of the Falcon: Story of a Fighter Pilot, by S. Sajad Haider. Published by Vanguard Books, Lahore

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