19 November 2008

Jacobabad Tales

The dawn of New Year 2002 was dense with fog as I surveyed the water-logged soil and shrubbery that had been perennially enduring the salts of the badlands known as Jacobabad. Determined to be on the go at a war-time air base that was infamous for its heat and dust, I commenced my introductory round with an early morning jog in the ‘technical area’. While I was awaiting the traffic light to turn green at the runway crossing, a guard approached me and asked if I could speak Urdu. Half in jest, I let him know what should have been obvious. That he wasn’t amused by my reply was suddenly apparent when he bellowed at me in his Isakhelvi accent, demanding to know what I was doing in the ‘Pakistani area’. My explanation that I was a ‘fauji’ like him prompted a demand for an ID card. To prevent its loss in the rough and tumble of sporting activities, the card is occasionally left behind in the barracks. Regrettably, I was now at a loss in proving that I was not an American, which he stupidly kept mumbling I was! My stylish sports kit was indeed incongruous in a place like Jacobabad, but my skin colour and language should have made him think twice about the outlandish inference that he had made. My pleading with him was getting me nowhere and I suspected that he was about to begin the ‘hands up, don’t move’ drill. I tried to ease his apprehensions by switching to Punjabi, which somehow got him growling again. It was a comical sight which could turn nasty any moment. The guard said that he knew his job well and wasn’t going to be fooled by an ‘Amreekan Sikh’. “I will sort you out,” he muttered in crass vernaculars.

I was near the Air Defence Alert complex and was wondering if I could shout at someone to come and bail me out of this flop, but poor visibility precluded any such opportunity. Suddenly a vehicle approached us and incredibly, the driver recognised me, probably having worked with me somewhere earlier. Oblivious of what was going on, he profusely paid his compliments and offered a lift back to the Officers’ Mess. I could see the guard’s countenance change rapidly as he realised his mistake in mixing me up with – what I later learnt was true – a couple of Americans of Indian origin on the Base, one of whom was a Punjabi-speaking airman surnamed the usual Singh!

I trotted off to my 8’x8’ quarter, had a quick shower and changed into the more urbane uniform rather than the all-too-common flying coveralls, as I thought it was important for a first impression. The guard who had stopped me in the morning was still on duty, and spotting the flag and star-decked vehicle, he collected himself for the mighty salute reserved for the Base Commander. I purposely slowed down to repay his compliment, and slyly asked him if he now knew what I was doing in the Pakistani area? It took him a while to recognise me and when he did, he turned pale in the face and mumbled what a fool he had been. He insisted that he must be punished – a naïve attempt at atonement for an offence that he had, of course, not committed. I told him that he had done a good job at looking out for intruders. In the days to come he came to admire me, as was evident from his earth-shaking salutes, and I reciprocated generously during the few times that we criss-crossed each other.

I had opted to be moved to Shahbaz Base at Jacobabad, soon after tensions had flared up with India yet again in late 2001. At the Air War College, where I had been working as the Deputy Commandant, courses had been discontinued so it was expected that the staff would be attached for operational duties. To me, deployment to a war-time Base meant action, no matter that the presence of US forces stifled our adversary’s options, or so at least, against Shahbaz. Even if no shot was fired, commanding a fully mobilised Base would be excellent on-the-job training for the future command assignment that I was looking forward to. Inter-action with US armed forces personnel was a welcome opportunity as well, since there was a whole lot to be learnt from them. More than anything else, I imagined it would be great fun as the top dog rather than be shepherded by a bearded collie, so to speak!

My predecessor at Shahbaz, the late Air Cdre Muzaffar Ali received me at the office, gave me a short brief and then took me around for a drive-through tour of the operationally important areas. I was quite familiar with Shahbaz, where I had deployed earlier for exercises, but I was more keen to know about the US presence and all that went with it. An introductory meeting with the genial Commander of the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW), Col Ronald Newsom , followed by a tour of the US cantonment area within the Base, gave me an idea of the extent of my involvement vis-à-vis the US forces. PAF’s No 7 Squadron was also deployed on the Base so I visited them in their bunker, cheering the pilots who were ostensibly raring for a fight.

The US forces, mainly USAF elements, had deployed at Jacobabad in October 2001 with the understanding to the Government of Pakistan that no combat operations would be undertaken from the Base, and it would only be used as a logistics and reconnaissance hub for supporting the euphemistically-named Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ inside Afghanistan. Logistic support took the shape of supplies being flown in mostly by C-17 Globemasters and C-141 Starlifters from European and Middle East bases to Shahbaz, where these were sorted and re-distributed to bases and field units in Afghanistan by airlift. A dozen USAF C-130s and eight Army Chinook helicopters were based at Jacobabad for the purpose. Additionally, a couple of MC-130s and a flight of Black Hawk helicopters belonging to the Special Operations Forces were deployed for Combat Search and Rescue operations, in case fighter aircrew carrying out bombing missions (mostly flying from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea) were to eject in hostile territory. A strange aircraft on the Base was the unmanned Predator, which had earned notoriety as much for its long mysterious missions, as its propensity to go out of control and crash once every month during my five-month stay there.

The US cantonment within the Base was heavily defended by all sorts of contraptions including concrete barriers, sand-bagged berms, concertina razor wire, steel spikes, motion sensors, and soldiers equipped with gizmos that would be the envy of James Bond. 100% ID check of all entrants was the norm and the only exception was the PAF Base Commander or someone in his company.

Row after row of large rectangular air-conditioned tents, numbering several hundred, could be seen adjacent to the parallel taxi track. Although the exact count was never known, the estimated number of US personnel peaked at about 2,500 towards the middle of the 2002. Such a large number were billeted, fed and kept occupied with disciplined efficiency. A visitor could be excused for being overawed by the sheer magnitude of the effort that had gone into this deployment.

Murmurings of discontent about the basing of US forces at Jacobabad had been heard from some Pakistani political parties; also, there were serious security concerns, particularly in view of Sindhi and Baluchi sensitivities which could be exploited effortlessly. The Base perimeter had been cordoned off by a battalion of Pakistan Army, while the outskirts had been handed over to the para-military Sindh Rangers. Within the Base, the Defence Services Guards (whose efficiency I had unwittingly tested on the first day) and PAF’s Ground Combateers guarded various Vulnerable Points. Not to be left behind, organs of various Intelligence outfits were ever-ready to discharge what they thought was their duty and I had to water down some silly observations every once in a while. Invitations to the monthly grand lunch gave the spooks a chance to ogle around, which was just fine with me as it took the wind out of their ‘fraternisation with foreigners’ reports in no time. I must say that my officers showed utmost discretion in such matters and there were no reports of ‘unusual’ contact.

The handing/taking-over duties done, I bade farewell to Air Cdre Muzaffar who reported back to his previous assignment at Sargodha. It did not take long for me to settle down in my new job. I fell into a routine whose highlights came to be the daily meeting with my US counterpart, a visit to some deployed PAF Unit and an evening jog along the runway. Were it not for some unusual happenings this narrative would dourly end here, but the reader wouldn’t be disappointed as Jacobabad was more than just heat and dust.

Taliban on the Base!

One day, Col Steven McCain, the handsome and athletic new Commander of 438th AEW, rang me up and said something important had to be discussed. “My place or yours?” I inquired, to which he replied that he was hurrying over to my office. We skipped the usual exchange of pleasantries and McCain sombrely started by asking me if I had any intelligence information of some infiltration on the Base. “Not that I know of,” I replied, taken aback and somewhat embarrassed that as the Base Commander, I wasn’t aware of such a serious breach. “I would request you to look into it,” McCain suggested. “What kind of infiltration is it?” I inquired, to which McCain replied that it was highly classified, but “I will let you into a bit of it; we have credible reports that there are Taliban on the Base.” Phew! “This surely needs to be checked in quick time,” I replied and requested more details but wasn’t able to extract any more information. I immediately informed the Director General Air Intelligence (DGAI) about this development, who seemed as surprised as I was. Given the intelligence gathering wherewithal the Americans had, we were sure that something serious had happened which had somehow escaped our notice. I immediately went into a closed-door session with my intelligence staff and apprised them of the development. The consensus that emerged was that unless more details are known, all we could do was to intensify security checks and be more alert, which were rather loose plugs for a serious breach. After a day of intense speculation, I again met McCain and told him that I needed a lead to make some headway, for which he may have to get special permission from his Headquarters. This time he promised to get more information and shortly after our meeting, he again dropped by my office.

“There are several Taliban who have been identified on your Base. While we are keeping them under observation, at this point in time I can confirm at least ‘one Taliban’ who could be an imminent threat to us. He has been observing our activities and has been making copious notes which need to be immediately retrieved. Any delay could endanger American lives,” continued McCain. Where, pray, does he operate from, I wondered, when McCain volunteered more information. “There, I will show you,” as we shuffled out of my office. “You see that water tank, there … right under it. He is there, right now, according to our latest reports.” I had to rush to see this ‘Taliban’ in the act so I sped off, waving a see-you-later to McCain.

As I approached the water tank, I saw a familiar figure sitting on a chair under the tank. The other day, I had stopped by to inquire about the overflowing water and he was there to explain a problem with the float valve. I asked him if he had anyone else to give him company to which he replied that he had to do an eight-hour shift, alone at a stretch, which was just as well as he got time to prepare for his private studies. I inquired if I could have a look at his notes, which he was more than keen to show me. A valve operator couldn’t have made better use of his time, if his poetry and prose notes were any indicator of his activities. I asked him about the American way of life that he was exposed to and he replied that it was amusing to see men and women working like ‘ants’. “We have a lot to learn from them,” he suggested, as I walked back to my jeep.

I called up my Field Liaison Unit officer in-charge to keep a tab on the water tank attendant and report his activities and his contacts over the next few days. Next morning I confronted McCain and asked him about the remaining Taliban. He said that his people were keeping them under watch, but the water tank guy was of greatest concern to his higher-ups. When I told him that he had been interrogated, his ears lit up. He heard with disbelief when I told him that the guy was an employee of the Military Engineering Services and was performing his duties as a water tank attendant for some years. The notes had not been retrieved as his exams were nearing, which got him wondering if I was talking about the right person. “Wasn’t he wearing a grey ‘Taliban’ dress and had a beard? Has he not been observing stuff being off-loaded from transport aircraft? Does he not maintain a log of all activities on the tarmac?” Intelligence information could not have been more fetid, I thought, as McCain rattled off those questions while I wryly smiled, much to his consternation. “Yes,” I replied, “he was wearing a ‘shalwar-kameez’ and had a beard but by that criterion, quite a large portion of Pakistani population could be classified as Taliban. The fellow had never seen such large aircraft disgorging tons and tons of cargo, off-loaded in minutes, so obviously he was keen to see what was going on. When he was not distracted by US personnel jogging on the tarmac in the mid-day sun, he got back to his studies, taking notes. I don’t see what is all the fuss about,” I curtly told McCain. He agreed to pass on the results of my investigation to the concerned authorities. In the event, there was a silence over the Taliban affair as the paranoia subsided.

A Memorable Visitor

One sweltering afternoon, with the electricity gone off, I was standing in the office veranda trying to catch some breeze, which only added to the misery as hot air pummelled the flesh. I was eagerly looking forward to a drive in my air-conditioned vehicle as pack-up time approached. I watched with amazement how the US personnel dutifully worked on the sizzling tarmac, attending to various chores. One particular person, red as a tomato from as far as I could see, was walking down the road in my direction and I felt like telling him to take a break in this heat. As he moved closer, I noticed that his collar was thick with rank insignia. When the stars started to take shape, the only thought that came to my mind was that he must be an enlisted person, possibly a Warrant Officer or something, whose insignia I wasn’t familiar with. Nay, four stars there were, but they belonged to the high and the mighty who travelled in limousines, as I knew. “Hi, General,” he flatteringly addressed me (an Air Cdre) as he came nearer. “I am General John Handy, Commander of the US Armed Forces Transportation Command.“ “Good afternoon sir, but I did not know of your visit,” I said in astonishment. “Oh, nothing formal; I just thought I’d pay my respects to the Pakistani Commander,” he replied. For me, it was something awesome: to have a four-star US General walk into my office, to pay respects to me! I started by apologising for the electricity, but he put me at ease by saying that the office shade was mercy enough. “Sir, why don’t you move in a vehicle? This heat can cause illness; it’s nearly 50°C,” I said. “Awww, it doesn’t look proper. I feel better doing the rounds on foot like everyone else,” he replied. Used to seeing our VIPs drive their aides and attendants hysterical, I was amused to know that he had waived off Col McCain from being in attendance. “He received me last night. He surely has better things to do now,” he said, when I asked him about McCain. We had a brief tête-à-tête for about 15 minutes. He explained that the US Armed Forces Transportation Command coordinates missions worldwide, using both military and commercial transportation resources. The component commands include the Air Force's Air Mobility Command, the Navy's Military Sealift Command and the Army's Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, each commanded by a three-star General/Admiral. Gen Handy’s very superior position was at odds with his simplicity and humility, which added to his aura as he sat relaxed in my office.

Not having a fridge stocked with beverages, I asked Gen Handy if he would like to take some water? “Awww, I’d like to make some first,” he matter-of-factly answered, as he shuffled towards the toilet. I hurriedly cautioned him that the water tank had not been replenished as there had been no electricity for some time; the bucket had some water, I added. “In the forces, life’s like that,” he chuckled, putting me at ease again. He emerged fresh, and gulping the glass of water I offered, took leave most graciously. I beckoned him to use my transport, but he insisted that he was still in ‘great shape’ and could complete the round on his feet. I thanked him for dropping by and we exchanged crisp salutes before he trotted off. To this day, I am effusive with admiration for a person who was surely larger than his lofty rank.

SAMs in Jacobabad

Coming on the heels of the Taliban-on-the-Base affair, McCain announced in one of our morning meetings that an attempt had been made to shoot down one of the Chinook helicopters! Duty demanded that an investigation be launched immediately, no matter that I viewed the report with some scepticism. McCain explained that one of the Chinooks, while returning from a mission in late afternoon, had been ‘targeted’ near the Base within the approach funnel. No missile had been fired, but the ramp-gunner had seen a man carrying a missile on his shoulder, in the undershoot of the airfield. Apparently, he scurried off when he saw the machine-gunner aiming at him. I assured McCain that the matter would be investigated, and immediately set about alerting the Rangers, in whose security purview the airfield approach funnel was. I went to the purported scene of action, and was more than satisfied with the state of security. My estimate was that since the Rangers had deployed fairly heavily in the approach funnel, there was no possibility of an unnoticed intrusion; certainly not so with a missile on one’s shoulder. The Rangers’ squadron commander told me that possibly, what seemed like a missile from the air may have been some farming implement being carried by a farmer. The approach funnel land was under cultivation and the farmers had been allowed to move about with Rangers’ permission.

Next morning I assured McCain that the security was very tight, and it was virtually impossible for an intruder to undertake such a daring foray into Rangers-controlled territory. He expressed satisfaction, more out of politeness than conviction, as I sensed his demeanour to be somewhat tentative. A few days later, he again complained of yet another targeting attempt on a Chinook helicopter, which was quite discomfiting for me. I again went through the exercise of checking with the Rangers who had the same answer as last time. To be sure, I asked the DGAI to take up the issue with the GHQ, lest the PAF is blamed for not addressing security issues earnestly. I thought it prudent to let the Army make its own assessment and recommend reinforcements, if it was necessary.

In the meantime, I was told by McCain that the USAF’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI) wanted to make an on-site assessment and sought my permission to let its agents scour the area. I was under strict instructions not to let any US personnel out of the Base but, in the event, I passed on McCain’s request to the DGAI. After necessary consultation he gave the go-ahead, with instructions for complete secrecy and safety of the agents. When I conveyed the permission to McCain, he was very grateful and told me that two agents would visit me and take necessary instructions for the recce tour. Minutes later, two very excited young men bulging at the biceps, whom I had seen before but did not know of their identity, knocked at my office. By way of an introduction, they told me that they had undertaken many dangerous missions in various theatres of operations, some involving use of force as well. I told them that this may not be necessary since it was going to be more of a cultural tour from within the confines of my 4-wheeler. All they needed was a new Pakistani dress, which would be arranged for them. One of my staff officers was instructed to buy two pairs of shalwar-kameez and help them lash the drawstrings, etc.

In late afternoon, I drove to my office to collect the two agents, who actually turned out to be three. The third one was an American of Pakistani-origin who had been contracted by OSI to help with translations during investigations. They were waiting inside a Humvee, the ubiquitous US troop utility vehicle, and on seeing me, emerged with big grins on their faces. They were completely unrecognisable and two of them looked more Pathan than American. One had a colourful ‘duster’ over his shoulder while the other kicked off the charade with a pair of Peshawari chappals. All were ‘well-kitted’ as they told me, which I understood as meaning well-armed, going by the bulges in their dresses. They moved into my vehicle and we drove off through the dung-lined streets and appallingly filthy neighbourhoods of Jacobabad. Once clear of the embarrassing mess, I regained my composure and put on the hat of a tour-guide. The OSI agents seemed awe-struck by the sights and sounds; they found it strange that everyone was wearing the ‘Taliban dress,’ and most of them had beards and turbans. People were returning to their villages after shopping in Jacobabad and everyone seemed to be using their heads as luggage racks, deftly balancing the wares. I spotted one Baluch family carrying a ‘Quetta stove’ in bits and pieces, including a long chimney pipe balanced on the shoulder of a young man. I couldn’t resist taking a dig and allowed a prize to anyone who could spot a SAM in the next 30 seconds. The hint was well registered as the agents started asking about the ‘other uses’ of the pipe! Shortly thereafter, we spotted a man with the side-beams of a ‘charpoy’ slung over his shoulder. “What could that be,” I muttered? “Hmmm,” was all I heard in reply. During the drive, I was lucky to be able to point out at least a dozen men with items on their heads or shoulders that could be easily construed as missile launchers from a distance. After driving for about 45 minutes, I thought we were near the risky Baluchistan frontier and decided to turn around. On the way back, I pointed out the Rangers’ deployment in the approach funnel of the runway and the agents seemed quite satisfied with the security measures in place. Next morning McCain dropped in my office to thank me for the useful recce tour and said that he had been briefed about everything. “We now have a better perspective of life in this part of the world,” he noted, much to my relief.

‘Big Shot’

One afternoon, just as I was moving out for my evening jog, I received a message on the walkie-talkie to be available in my room for an important telephone call. An aide to the Sindh Governor called to let me know that the Governor’s wife was arriving shortly at the Base by road, and if I could be in my office to receive her. She wanted to meet the PAF Base Commander, he explained. I found this to be somewhat unusual, but hastily changed and went to my office to coordinate her entry into the military area. Soon her vehicle stopped in front of my office and I received her along with another lady whose face seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place her at all. Begum Soomro, the Governor’s wife, introduced her friend, Bianca Jagger to me. Oh, of course! Mick Jagger’s one-time wife. I knew of her only as a celebrity but wasn’t aware of her social and political activism about which she very soft-spokenly briefed me. Bianca was on a humanitarian tour of Sindh as a personal guest of Begum Soomro. Happening to be in Jacobabad (the Soomro family home-town), they wondered if it would be possible to see the American deployment first-hand? I called up Col McCain and told him to come to my office to meet some visitors. Seeing the two ladies, McCain was all charm and he immediately arranged for a drive-through tour of the US cantonment area. Back in office we had a photo-session and some refreshments, after which the ladies begged leave. I saw them off at the tarmac as they flew off in the Governor’s jet. McCain and I were thrilled at meeting the elegant celebrity. I thought we had done better than pop singer Billy Joel, who kept crooning about a failed date with Bianca in his song titled ‘Big Shot’!

F-18 in Emergency

Early one morning, I got a call from the air traffic controller that a US Navy F-18 with a serious emergency was coming in to land at Shahbaz. His wingman was with him. The controller told me that the visibility was very bad and it had been conveyed to the pilots. A more serious issue was that both the aircraft were armed with 4,000 lbs of bombs each, as they were on a bombing mission to Afghanistan. I drove down to the de-arming area to quickly evacuate personnel, if any. There I met a USAF Warrant Officer who rechecked about the local de-arming procedure with me. I asked him where were other technical personnel, to which he replied that he, along with another technician, would take care of everything. “Has Col McCain been informed?” I asked. “Sir, I am not sure, but he need not be here. I am the Airfield Safety Officer and can handle such stuff.” After a few minutes the two F-18’s landed and taxied to where we stood. The Warrant Officer steadily went ahead, supervised insertion of the safety pins in the bombs by the armament technician and gave a thumbs up to the two F-18s to taxi back to the main tarmac. As the taxiway was blocked at the other end by PAF Mirages, the only option for the F-18s was to switch off, as a U-turn on the narrow taxi track was not possible. To my utter surprise, I saw the wings of the aircraft fold 90° up and they did the U-turns as ordinary vehicles would do on the road! As the aircraft taxied in front of me, I saw that the canopy of one F-18 had been shattered and large panels near the side and front of the cockpit were missing. I later learnt that the aircraft had a nasty scrape with the refuelling probe of an aerial refueller. The stricken aircraft switched off on the tarmac while the other F-18 did a ‘hot-refuelling’ (with engines running), and in a matter of minutes, took off alone for a recovery on its aircraft carrier.

Back in office, I called McCain to check if he knew about the emergency. “Yes, they called me,” he replied. He understood my concern and added, “I am a C-130 guy, and I bet I would have messed up things if I’d been there. I am sure the safety officer did a good job. He is trained for it.” In the handling of this emergency, I was struck by the confidence every supervisor had in himself as well as his sub-ordinates. Authority had been duly delegated and there was no interference by the higher-ups, whatsoever. A JCO and a couple of NCOs had handled a very serious emergency with remarkable ease.

Rare Animal Sighting

A road that led to the Base had been in bad shape and some heavy supplies for the US forces could not be brought in by road from Karachi and elsewhere. The US authorities had agreed to have it repaired so that their airlift workload could be reduced. In this connection, the USAF Commander of Engineering Services along with his deputy, wanted to do a survey. We coordinated the visit and I drove them outside the Base, to the road that was to be surveyed. No sooner had we exited the Base, we came upon a roadside brick kiln, where hundreds of thousands of bricks were laid out in various stages of manufacture. The US personnel requested me to stop as none of them had seen a kiln before. They just couldn’t believe that everything was being done manually. Women were kneading the mud; little children were carrying it on their heads to the moulding area. Men were stoking the furnaces with long rods. Animals were transporting the baked bricks from the kiln. Suddenly, the young US security officer let off a yelp. “Is that a donkey?” he asked in total disbelief. “What else?” I annoyingly replied. “Sir, I am a New Yorker and I have never seen one before,” he explained. Somehow seizing the moment, one of the donkeys started braying which sent the Americans into peels of laughter. As we all stood there, little children started to gather around us. “Why are they so fascinated?” someone asked. I replied that they had, perhaps, never seen an American before. “Wow, that’s strange,” mused the security officer. “What’s strange?” I retorted. “You haven’t seen a donkey and paradoxically, they haven’t seen someone who hasn’t seen a donkey!” We all jumped off into the vehicle laughing to ourselves, thoroughly amused with the little outing. I later learnt that the donkey sighting in Jacobabad remained quite a popular story for some days.

Bird-shooter’s Episode

I was at my desk in the office (it was 12 Feb) when I heard some commotion outside. Just to check what was going on, I stepped out and was jolted by a sight that made my blood boil with rage. A PAF airman in handcuffs was being taken out of a Humvee, with several US security guards pointing their guns at him. “What the hell is going on?” I shouted. As if to provide evidence of the crime, one of the guards stepped forward and placed a few shotgun shells near where I was standing. “We found these on his person,” he added. I immediately guessed what might have happened. Fuming, I told the US security NCOs to immediately remove the airman’s handcuffs and summoned Col McCain. The airman, AC Nauman Ahsan, was told to relax in my office, and was calmed down with a glass of water. All US personnel were told to clear off from the Base Headquarters premises immediately. The airman’s story confirmed my hunch. Three airmen had been detailed as bird-shooters along the runway. (Bird-shooting was a routine activity, meant to keep the birds clear of the aircraft taking-off and landing.) In response to ATC’s call to scare off birds in front of the ATC area, one of the three airmen was given a lift by a senior PAF officer in his staff car and dropped near the centre of the runway, in full view of the US pickets. The airman, who was clearly identifiable in PAF uniform, fired up at the birds, well clear of the US cantonment. (At Shahbaz, the US troops had been watching the activity daily.) Yet, the US guards violated the PAF premises by several hundred yards and apprehended the airman most disgustingly, without any provocation. I resolved to myself that amends would have to be made, and that it would never be allowed to happen again.

Col McCain, halfway through a haircut, rushed to my office. The affable fellow that he was, he listened to my protest without any counter-argument. When I had finished, he defused the situation by accepting full responsibility for not having ensured that all security pickets knew about bird-shooting activity. He offered that the US NCOs could apologise to the PAF airmen as it had been dereliction of duty on the formers’ part. I disagreed and insisted that it was more serious than that: host nation’s sensibilities had been callously disregarded and the sanctity of PAF’s premises had been rubbished. “If I were you, I would have made these important aspects clearly understood to my men on such a deployment,” I stressed. Without flinching, McCain personally accepted the blame and asked me how we could resolve the issue. I told him in no uncertain terms that a personal apology by him to the airman involved might help. He conceded this demand after thinking for a few moments. “In that case, I will bring the airman in tomorrow, as he is too disturbed now,” I told him, lest the matter be considered over in a few minutes.

The same day, a monthly co-ordination meeting between various Pakistani and US armed forces key staff was scheduled to be held. The moods were too glum for the meeting to proceed so I postponed it indefinitely; so was the grand lunch that was to follow the meeting. The following weekend, a volleyball match between PAF and USAF personnel was to be held, for which excitement had been building for some weeks. Determined to drive a stern message across, I also called off the match till matters were resolved.

Next morning, Col McCain was in my office at the agreed time. AC Nauman was called in and made to sit on the sofa next to us. McCain shook hands with him, exchanged pleasantries and then, apologised in clear terms for what had happened. Nauman proudly stood up, and looking at me uttered, “I accept his apology.” Relations between McCain and me had been very friendly, so this situation was naturally uneasy for both of us. I was, however, glad for the airman, as his pride had been restored. He walked out with his chest up, a far cry from the shivering, wretched creature he had been the previous day.

I had informed the Air Headquarters about the matter through a formal incident report. I was, however, not sure if I would be berated for having acted entirely on my own and caused, what may have been perceived as a diplomatic faux pas. Word had spread about my reaction, and men were generally satisfied, but I couldn’t say if it was the same at higher echelons.

Next day, while driving around on a visit to some of PAF’s land holdings on the outskirts of the city, I got a message on the walkie-talkie to reach the nearest phone as Chief of the Air Staff would like to talk to me. I rushed back to my room and told the exchange operator that I was available. Air Chief Marshal Mus’haf rang up directly, without the operator and opened up: “Shaabash … I like your actions … you are my man there, do as you think is appropriate … I have full trust in you!” I thanked him for his support as I puffed up a bit. His words of appreciation were entirely consistent with his audacious personality, for he was never the kind to take things lying down. Later, he would ring me up directly every month, to check about the goings on at the Base, my welfare and other gossip which he enjoyed exchanging in his inimitable ‘Lahori’ style.

The matter was apparently over, when I learnt that CENTCOM’s Senior Liaison Officer in Islamabad, Brig Gen Curtis Bedke would be visiting Shahbaz the next day, to apologise to the airman. The incident had, no doubt, been viewed with seriousness at the highest levels on both sides. AC Nauman was again called over to my office where he received a formal apology from Brig Gen Bedke.

As enough regrets had been expressed, there was no need to press for any further inquiry. I, however, found out that a canine-loving US Army Captain had actually been instrumental in instigating his security personnel to arrest the PAF bird-shooters, as he had taken offence to dog-shooting by them an evening before. (Animals on the airfield, including dogs, jackals and boar are often shot as they are a more serious threat than birds; PAF had lost an F-16 to a pig in 1986.) The US Captain, notorious for his tobacco-snuffing as well as his foul language, was removed from duty at Shahbaz on grounds of indiscipline a few weeks later.

A Friendly Match

After the bird-shooter’s unfortunate episode, the long-awaited volleyball match seemed just the right activity to get things back on track. The match was to be played adjacent to the PAF airmen’s barracks, outside the US cantonment; McCain, therefore, requested my permission for a US security detail, to which I agreed. When we arrived at the venue, I was overawed by the US security measures. Four Humvees were positioned in the four corners of the playfield and several temporary pickets had been established, complete with machine guns, camouflage netting and antennae sticking out. The US security officer was asked to ease things up since the place looked more like a battlefield headquarters. Except for a few sentries, everyone else was moved off and we got some breathing room.

The weather was unusually pleasant with very low clouds having moved in. We had arranged some fanfare in the shape of local music. The musicians were playing merrily. The lilt of the ‘shehnai’ in concert with the Sindhi long drum was so overpowering that some of the US youngsters started to dance; quickly, word was passed that this wasn’t the done thing here, specially by females. The best that the youngsters could manage was to remain seated in the chairs and do the fanny wiggle within tolerable limits.

The match was soon underway, with the PAF winning the first game. The US combined services team won the second game, while the decider in the best-of-three was won by PAF. The game was so intensely contested that it was decided to extend it into a best-of-five match. PAF won it again. It was an excellent opportunity to display our sporting prowess as much as the spirit behind it. Some delicious snacks followed. All in all, the activity was a resounding success and Col McCain offered a challenge for another match after some days, which was duly accepted. In the event, PAF won the return match as well; it was rounded off by a sumptuous barbecue hosted by the US forces. Half way down the roast, the issue of ‘halal’ meat come up but a convenient ‘fatwa’ issued from somewhere saved the day!

Sand Fly Inspectors

There had been some newspaper reports of sand fly epidemic in upper Sindh. The female sand fly bite can lead to a painful lesion which worsens over time, causing leishmaniasis in which the wounds are deeply infected. The steps that we had taken were essentially preventive involving covering up of the arms and legs as well as using a topical insect repellent like Mospel®. Additionally, we had a stock of orally administered therapeutic drugs, particularly those that were known to be effective against the South Asian sand fly. The US medical authorities, however wanted to determine if the Sindh variety was drug-resistant, in which case immunotherapy (stimulation of the body’s own immune system by inoculation) might be the answer. We had not paid attention to this issue, though.

Col McCain told me that a team of US pathologists from Oman would be visiting Jacobabad and requested that I facilitate their entry to various parts of the Base, outside the US cantonment, so that sand fly samples could be taken. I was expecting two officers in my office next day, but wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Two persons kitted in white coveralls, with beekeepers’ bonnets and masks, surgical gloves and sample collection bags stuffed in their pockets arrived in my office. They also had butterfly catchers – stringless badminton rackets with a conical gauze trap. They could have been at home in a Nat-Geo Special. One introduced himself as a Lt Colonel and the other a Captain. They excused themselves for the ‘fancy dress’ they were in, but it was official kit, they explained. They had to collect the samples in the water puddles rather early, before the sand flies took off for the day. I wished them good luck.

After a few hours the pathologists reappeared, happy with the hunt. They had collected enough sand flies and had to rush back to Oman, before the creatures melted into gruel. I was told that the Colonel and his mate were down in the gutters and slushy ponds to collect the samples themselves. It was amazing how seriously an assignment was taken.

After a few days we got the report that the Sindh variety was not drug resistant, which was a consolation. There had been a few reported cases of sand fly bites but since there was no infection, it was presumed that mostly benign males had been at work!


On the morning of 26 May, a Sunday, I had just finished my breakfast when I heard a hissing noise followed by a thud. Moments later the ATC tower called me to let me know that a rocket had been fired from somewhere and had landed in the fields, a few hundred yards outside the Base. I raced off to my office in my jeep. After some inquiries, I got a report from the Police Station that the launch site had been detected. I set out for the place under police escort. After about 10 km from Jacobabad town, we went off-road to a clump of bushes where the site had been cordoned off from curious villagers as well as some alert newsmen.

I learnt that two rockets had been fired, while several others (probably five) were still lying set on crude tripods, primed to go off automatically in a most ingenuous way. The rocket primers had been connected to emaciated motor-cycle batteries and left unattended in the bushes the previous night. With the sun coming up, the charge of the batteries would boost up due to heat, and the rockets would go off one by one, randomly. The angle of inclination had been calculated trigonometrically and the projectiles were expected to traverse the required range with a fair degree of accuracy. The rockets were very heavy, of ex-Soviet stock, and had been transported by a farm tractor. The automatic launch technique was indeed a marvel of ingenuity which had been perfected by the Mujahideen during their war against the Soviets.

Bomb disposal teams had already set off from Sukkur. By the time I returned to the Base the rockets had been defused and after some time, were brought to Jacobabad Police Station for forensic investigation by experts. I told my security officer to keep the OSI agents informed about the latest progress.

Around three in the afternoon, I got a call from my newest counterpart, Col Robert Holloway, who requested if I could see him in his office as it was extremely important. I immediately set forth, but on the way, I sensed something was not right. I could see Humvee vehicles patrolling the roads with US soldiers showing victory signs and waving American flags. Many of them had flak jackets on despite a searing 50°C. Everyone was wearing a helmet, but one had to be excused if it seemed like a daytime Halloween’s: there were people in pyjamas with helmets, joggers with nothing but shorts and helmets, and so on. The tarmac was full, with hundreds of US personnel sitting on cargo transportation pallets. I was sure something very serious, perhaps a major ‘5/26’ had happened somewhere in America, with the local rocket attack thrown in to express solidarity.

Reaching the US Wing Headquarters I saw guards everywhere, one of whom offered me a helmet to wear which I perkily declined, much to her dismay. I just didn’t know what had gone wrong. Inside, a terse Col Holloway welcomed me. I immediately asked, “Is everything okay?” “Sir, don’t you know?” he inquired. “What?” I asked in astonishment. “We are on red alert since morning. The weather has been awful and things are getting intolerable. I am sure, it’s the same with you,” he said. Ah, so they had been in this awful state of precaution since morning! Taking care that I did not sound like I was poking fun, I proposed that he should stand down as there was no threat any more. I told him that we had not felt the need to go on red alert as the rockets had been defused very early and the same had been conveyed to the OSI office. “Yes, but your saying so in person has a different meaning,” he assured me. I told him that if he wasn’t sure, he could have called me earlier; I was just a phone call away.

It seemed like the rocket threat had been perceived as a long-drawn one, rather than a one-off affair and the US authorities had decided to make their own weighted assessment of the situation. It came out clearly that a good degree of mutual confidence and understanding develops over time, something that the previous Commander, Col McCain, and I had managed to build up to a highly accommodating level. In the event, nothing was lost, things cooled off and the heart-burn was gone in no time; sun-burns took a while longer, though!

I am not aware about the results of the investigation into the attack, but the Jacobabad security cordon was extended out further, which was a deep strain on our ever-dutiful forces, especially when the external security situation was serious.


This narrative could go on and on, what, with most of the 150 days of my stay at Jacobabad filled with something surreal. The above-quoted incidents are just a sampling of what went on during the US deployment. Since their personnel were rotated every 90 days, the newcomers never let the routine become dull from the Pakistani commanders’ point of view (who stayed on for longer tenures). The opportunity of working with the Americans while on an operational deployment was surely unique, and I feel that much of their work ethic and many of their practices can be emulated by our military without any discomfiture. As can be gleaned from the previous, some of the American traditions surely strike a resonant chord with our teachings which, regrettably, are sacred to us in name only. I have short-listed a few of the more important observations during my short interaction with the US forces and I am convinced that, having seen them in practice with wonderful results, they can do us no harm, but all good.

Encouragement of lateral viewpoints (rather than trodden, linear thought processes) in which experimentation and initiative forms the backbone of any exertion, comes out on top of the list. Dignity of labour comes a close second, where officers as well as men have extreme pride in doing any kind of work with their own hands. Disregard of protocol and archaic practices, while still being able to sustain the hierarchical framework on which the armed forces are structured, needs to be looked into, lest an increasingly divisive elitism sunders the top from the bottom.

An America-centric and adolescently naive world-view, bordering on a complete lack of understanding of other people’s norms, may also have been apparent to the reader. This attitude of theirs cannot be wished away but its understanding could help those who intend interacting with the Americans in offices as well as the field, if for no other reason than to be able to establish a working relationship at any level.

Looking back, I enjoyed every moment in Brig John Jacob’s much-loved Sindh frontier town which he founded in 1847, light-heartedly called ‘sand fly and scorpion country’ by the Americans. Even though the heat was overbearing and the dust suffocating, just being in a different place was an invigorating pause during a long journey of thirty summers. I too ‘endured’ freedom. Adieu Jacobabad!


This article appeared in Defence Journal, Jan 2007 issue.


Anonymous said...

Amazing anecdotes sir!


The event of suspected Taliban was amazing. Common sense could have differentiated poor guy from the lot of Taliban.

Anonymous said...

The guard said that he knew his job well and wasn’t going to be fooled by an ‘Amreekan Sikh’.

Can't stop laughing at his action.

Aizaz said...

This is a marvellous essay and it shows how people can overcome their fears and prejudices with a little patience and by trying to understand each other better. I am sure without a shadow of doubt that people in this world want to simply get on with their lives as best as they can. This article will go a long way in explaining how that can be done. Wished this could have been sent to a wider audience. Well Done Air Commodore and most certainly PAF!

Anonymous said...
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Qamar said...

Wow ... A worth reading, enjoyed every bit of it... Rolling with laughter too. Thanks Sir

Anonymous said...

As I started reading your article I wondered if you had been the Jaccobabad's Base Commander at the time the Super Hornet incident happened. I had read about it earlier from the pilots point of view and you can imagine my excitement when I read the part and found out that you were directly involved in the inciden .

If I recall correctly the Rhino pilot described that his takeoff, after his jet had been fixed, had to be low and fast since American aircraft flying in and out of that base were regularly fired upon by the locals.

As an aviation enthusiast I thoroughly enjoy your writing. Cheers