A weirdly amusing yarn with an unsolved ‘whodunit,’ that has myriad possibilities in Pakistan’s bubbling politico-military cauldron.
A succession of disobedient yawns testified to the excruciatingly long day that the Operations staff had been through. Air Marshal Anis, the Operations boss, had gone to his bedroom to attend an important telephone call, just when the extraordinary meeting was about to be wound up. Air Marshal Anis had called the meeting at his residence to review the efficacy of water-tight measures that had been put in place for the defence of Pakistan’s airspace. Air Commodore Nawaz, in-charge of the Plans Directorate and Group Captain Tufail, of the Operations Directorate, were the only two participants of the meeting. It had been half an hour that the Air Marshal had been talking on the phone and Air Cdre Nawaz and Gp Capt Tufail were alternately heaving their shoulders and flinging their hands in amazement. Were it not for the beeps on their watches that had successively confirmed the time past midnight, they might have waited out their boss’s gossip but now it was starting to get unbearable. Both were slovenly sprawled on the Air Marshal’s sofas, as if under some kind of influence.
Finally, Air Marshal Anis emerged ashen-faced, seemingly bearing the news of someone’s demise. “Here, you guys have a look at this,” as he handed over a small piece of paper to Air Cdre Nawaz. “What do you make out of it?” he queried.
Gp Capt Tufail shuffled up closer to Air Cdre Nawaz to have a look. Air Marshal Anis asked Air Cdre Nawaz to read the hand-scribbled note slowly.
TOP SECRET PD FOLLOWING ADDITONAL INSTRUCTIONS TO EARLIER OPERATIONS ORDER FOR ALL CONCERNED CLN AMEND TO READ MIKE ROMEO AIRCRAFT TO BE POSITIONED ONE HOUR BEFORE PULL UP CMM INSTEAD OF HALF HOUR CMM ATTACK AS PER PLAN CMM HOWEVER ATTACK DIRECTION MAY REQUIRE SLIGHT ALTERATION DUE TO SUN POSITION AT TWILIGHT AND SHIELDING BY MIKE HILLS PD EMPHASISE RADIO SILENCE PD HIGHEST READINESS TO BE MAINTAINED PD NEXT FORTY EIGHT HOURS CRITICAL PD
After Air Cdre Nawaz had read it over twice, to be sure, Air Marshal Anis asked Gp Capt Tufail to read it yet again. “Don’t read out the periods and commas,” he instructed. Everyone became more confused with each reading, which was not surprising, as the three of them had had some very hectic days – sixteen intense hours daily, for the whole of the previous week. To soothe the nerves, Air Marshal Anis ordered another round of coffee while teasingly suggesting that an order for breakfast be also placed while the cook was around.
“Who gave this message, sir,” Nawaz and Tufail asked Air Marshal Anis in unison.
“The top military spook himself,” replied Air Marshal Anis. “He informed the CAS first, who told him to discuss the nuts and bolts with me. Of course the PM was informed instantly. Our guys were able to break into their top secret cipher he whispered,” as he craned forward.
A hush fell in the room, only to be broken by an old number, ‘zulf da kundal khulley na, akhh da kajjal dulley na’ wafting in scratchily from the direction of National Defence College.
“Hmmmm …. Mike Romeo, Mike Romeo ….. hmmmm …. Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft is all I can guess,” announced Air Marshal Anis.
“Sir, it could be anything. Multi-Role aircraft, maybe,” suggested Air Cdre Nawaz. “Can you help, Tufail?” asked Air Marshal Anis. “I know you don’t start your office work till the daily crossword is solved,” he added, with a twinkle in his blood-shot eyes.
“Sir if Mike Romeo was to be Maritime Reconnaissance, we are surely talking of the sea. In that case, shouldn’t Mike Hills be somewhere near the Arabian Sea?” Gp Capt Tufail counter-questioned.
“Wait, let me see if my geography is correct. Makli Hills, does that make sense?” Air Cdre Nawaz asked enthusiastically. “I am sure you know of the Makli necropolis near Thatta,” he continued.
Air Marshal Anis suggested something more intriguing. “If we take it to be Multi-Role, then we have a wider usage and a number of interpretations for Mike Hills. Margallas for instance.”
“Sir, we seem to be closing on to two interpretations, then. An attack from the seaward side, whereby some kind of maritime reconnaissance aircraft would provide support measures like spoofing etc, or even controlling the strike package during its initial ingress. The other possibility is an approach from the north, involving multi-role aircraft, configured for different roles. Margalla Hills do demarcate the zone boundaries of some of the most sensitive areas,” continued Gp Capt Tufail, quite adept at summing up complex situations. After all, he had been an old hand as an instructor at the Air War College.
“Time, gentlemen, is of essence,” Air Marshal Anis reminded the two officers. “We have just two days to refine our response, in which anything could happen. Nawaz, it says forty-eight hours, right?”
“Yes sir, within forty-eight hours, but if you noticed this twilight bit in the cipher, it could be as early as four hours from now,” Air Cdre Nawaz replied, sending a chill down everyone’s spines.
“What was the last cricket score, if anyone heard the commentary?” Air Marshal Anis suddenly changed the topic as the batman brought in the coffee tray. “Though he has been working with me for fifteen years now, you never know when these people trip up for a few dollars,” he added cautiously.
“So where were we… Mike Romeo? Any more ideas?” asked Air Marshal Anis.
“Sir, does Medium Range mean anything?” asked Gp Capt Tufail.
“It could also be Mentally Retarded, hein?” The strain was showing through as Air Marshal Anis tried a light-hearted banter. “Okay, let’s settle on the first two and do a re-run. Our defensive plan caters for both approaches. Does this Makli or Margalla change anything?” asked Air Marshal Anis.
“Sir we already have fighter patrols and plenty of SAMs and AAA covering both these places,” assured Gp Capt Tufail. The only spanner in the works is that this cipher leads us to believe that an attack from the north is also a possibility, depending on how we interpret Mike Hills. We had assumed an attack on the Chagai Tunnels via a southern approach as the most likely. I don’t see how the planned tests can be stymied by attacking the sites in the vicinity of Margallas. They have been operational for over a decade. Uranium-Hexafluoride has been enriched by the heaps and can sustain a nuclear weapons program for years. Most importantly, the warheads are dispersed and reportedly, dot every gridline on Pakistan’s map. I think our initial appreciation holds correct, that they would bomb our tunnels and stop the testing process in its tracks. Then, painful arm-twisting and blackmail would follow and, they would ensure that we never try such a thing again. For both sides, it is now or never,” Gp Capt Tufail articulated his views.
“Okay, so both of you agree that this cipher does not alter anything by way of our defensive measures, except that it hints at something imminent?” asked Air Marshal Anis.
“Exactly, sir. We have sprung up like a porcupine’s quills. I don’t think they will be able to get through to Chagai without being pricked badly. We have taken every step that we possibly could,” asserted Gp Capt Tufail.
“Sir, I agree with Tufail,” Air Cdre Nawaz observed briefly, before he broke into yet another riotous yawn, complete with a rude little yelp.
“Okay, I think we can break up now. Dekhi jayegi. Now you have about two hours to catch some sleep. If the sirens hoot, just rush to my house. We will drive down to the Ops Room together. Air Marshal Najib is already manning the air defence battle station there….and don’t keep the phone off the hook,” Air Marshal Anis instructed, half in jest. “And Tufail, I have some more instructions for you; stay back for a while. Nawaz, if you want to hang around you are welcome. I am sending Tufail out to visit a number of bases this morning to check that my instructions have been implemented to the last detail.”
“Sir, I will stay back; Tufail has to drop me in his staff car as mine has been withdrawn for use by some visitors,” Air Cdre Nawaz explained.
“Go visit the two forward bases in the south, talk to the pilots, explain all the measures that are in place and, get a run down of how they have implemented our instructions that we issued three days ago. Leave out the morale-boosting bit. That is their Base Commanders’ job. Take the Air Defence assistant chief with you so that he can explain the details of the radar coverage. Also take the Director of Operational Facilities so that he can get a report on the navigational aids, etc. After you are done at the forward bases, repeat the same at Quetta and then stay the night there. Come back the next day. It is rigorous, but I know that you are very fit and can hack it,” finished Air Marshal Anis. “Have you sold off your mountain bike? Haven’t seen you riding around for some time,” he broke into the mundane, as all three got up, finally.
“And yes, take the Y-12. Travel in style, it is at your disposal,” Air Marshal Anis instructed Gp Capt Tufail.
Sunrays stealing through the curtains startled Gp Capt Tufail. Had he missed the sirens? He had asked his wife to wake him up even if Simba, their pet tomcat mewed.
“Did any phone ring?” he asked his wife. “Did Sally call?”
“No, nothing,” she replied.
Picking up the cordless, he dialled Air Cdre Nawaz’s number. At the other end, all hell seemed to break loose.
“Huh, what happened? Has it happened? Who are you speaking?”
“Sir, relax, this is Tufail. Seems safe, so far. I am off to the Air Movement for my tour. You have a good day.”
Gp Capt Tufail drove off to Chaklala Airport where he was met by Air Cdre Ajmal carrying huge map sheets rolled up under both his arms, along with Gp Capt Pervez Mahmood wearing his friendly smile. The Y-12 pilots were waiting and, within seconds they hustled the three passengers into the aircraft. They had submitted a flight plan for a ‘special’ mission which would get them preferential clearances. “VIPs on board,” the pilot called out loudly while asking for taxi permission. The three passengers exchanged grins, quite amused by the importance being given to them that morning.
After a two-hour flight, they reached Sukkur and immediately got down to business. A short briefing by Air Cdre Ajmal and Gp Capt Tufail to the aircrew was followed by a quick drive-through visit to the operational areas. The Base Commander explained the daily air patrol schedule and contingency plans for his base. He then opened up the AHQ instructions and ticked each item after confirming it to Gp Capt Tufail. After the tour was over and they were proceeding to the aircraft, the three visiting officers cheered up the Base Commander by remarking that their readiness state looked 20/20.
The Y-12 took off for Jacobabad around midday. The loadmaster walked up the aisle with a serving of tepid drinks poured out of a thermos marked VIP. Within half an hour, the aircraft landed in what seemed like a hellish other-world. Except for some paddy egrets flapping around their nesting colony adjacent to the runway undershoot, there was not a living being in sight. The pilot announced an outside air temperature of 52°C and, as the visiting officers emerged out of the aircraft, a rush of searing air slapped their faces. By the time they got to the briefing room, they were drenched to their coccyxs. The Sukkur routine was replayed and the readiness state at Jacobabad reviewed. Everything seemed in order and it was noted with satisfaction that the contingencies had been well-rehearsed. The excitement of the aircrew was unbounded and they were ready for action. Pakistanis could sleep tight, thought Gp Capt Tufail.
After a two-hour stay at Jacobabad, the tired and perspiring visitors left for Quetta. The stark Kachhi Plains started to transform into harsh barren hills. Sibi lay nestled a little east of the track, in the trough formed by the Suleiman and Brauhi Ranges. These badlands once harboured the fierce Baluch brigands with whom Brig John Jacob had seasonal spats in the mid nineteenth century. Temperatures in this cauldron routinely cross 50°C during summers.
“Sir, this is a no-fly zone and ours is the only aircraft aloft, other than patrolling fighters. The missiles and guns are free to fire in the area west of Kalat,” explained the pilot as he stood at the cabin door for some leg-stretching.
Suddenly the co-pilot asked the captain to come back to his seat. After some discussion, the captain returned and told Gp Capt Tufail that they had orders to land immediately. Tufail told him to tell the air traffic control that it was a light aircraft and it could not speed up much. “Expedite, expedite,” the controller insisted. Air Cdre Ajmal got up to the cockpit to check what was going on. The pilot told him that the controller wasn’t saying anything more than ‘expedite, expedite,’ every time he called to find out if something was the matter.
After some tense minutes, Quetta airfield was visible and the pilots set up for a straight-in approach. An uneventful landing was followed by fast taxiing to the dispersal, but there seemed nothing extraordinary. Air Cdre Ajmal, Gp Capt Pervez and Gp Capt Tufail picked up their brief cases and maps and drove down to the Base Commander’s office.
Bill Clinton had been in touch with Prime Minister Sharif, for the whole of past three weeks, trying to emphasise the demerits of going nuclear. All the while, Clinton had tried to entice Sharif with firm security incentives. He assured Sharif that he would be rushing his Defence Secretary William Cohen to discuss Pakistan’s shopping list of conventional weapons. Sharif, with a smart politician’s savvy, insisted that a minimum of 72 ‘fully loaded’ F-16s be a starting point and, that he would appreciate if Lockheed set up a factory near Raiwind.
Tough negotiations between the two countries continued day after day while the Pakistanis got restive. Clinton’s National Security Advisor, ‘Sandy’ Berger, had been updating his boss about the situation in Pakistan on an eight-hourly basis and, his recurring conclusion was that people there wanted nothing less than an ‘earth-shaking’ response. “Jang newspaper is the pulse of that nation,” Berger observed. “You look at the pictures of the snarling crowds, it scares you,” he went on.
Berger’s biggest concern was that the khakis in Pakistan were belligerent also, and in no mood to settle for the F-16 sop. He suggested to President Clinton that the package could additionally include 70-odd Abrams tanks, plus 40 Cobra helos that might please the army men. He emphasised that it was most important to keep all power centres in Pakistan charmed, at least publicly, and cajoling and shoving be done back-stage.
“Holy numbers, Sandy,” noted Clinton, as he recalled his high school inter-faith studies.
Time was running short and Berger informed his President that nuclear testing equipment had been in place near the tunnels in Chagai Hills for several days. The tunnels, which had been readied a decade ago and had been plugged, were now being reopened and the work was almost done. “They are all wired up and ready,” announced Berger.
Pakistani scientists had been clearly identified through satellite zooms; the cameras had panned two teams camped some miles apart, one lead by the loud Dr A Q Khan and the other by the civil Dr Mubarakmand. Both were eagerly awaiting a go-ahead, it had been learnt.
Berger suggested to President Clinton that Sharif could be roped in with a plausibly deniable, vague commitment about an F-16 factory and, this could help buy time. All the same, it was extremely important to appease the khakis as signals emanating from Rawalpindi reflected a vigorous determination to detonate rather than deliberate.
“Mr President, if we don’t act fast, we will have only the Buddhists without a bomb,” Berger had noted in his midnight memo to the President on 27 May 1998.
“Congratulations!” uttered the elderly-looking Air Cdre Sethi as he welcomed Air Cdre Ajmal, Gp Capt Pervez and Gp Capt Tufail to his office. Maybe he had picked the wrong interjection to welcome them, thought Gp Capt Tufail. “We have done it!” Air Cdre Sethi uttered excitedly, grabbing both the visitors in effusive bear hugs one by one. Seeing that both officers were puzzled about the situation, he turned to them and dramatically thumped his foot on the wooden floor. “The earth shook like this. You must have been up in the air. It happened a while ago. There was a big tremor and then a smaller one. Right here in Quetta, all the way from Chagai Hills. If we weren’t expecting it, we might have thought it was another of those usual Quetta temblors. Twenty-eighth of May, what a day to remember!” Air Cdre Sethi sighed happily as he looked up at the ceiling.
“Okay, now you can wash up while tea is brought in,” Air Cdre Sethi continued. “I had arranged for you to retire to the beautiful new guest house for the night but unfortunately, that would not be possible. Your boss wants you back. If you are able to take-off in twenty minutes, you should be able to get there before last light. Maybe we can have a sajji roast for you, next time.”
A quick cup of tea and the visitors begged leave. Air Cdre Sethi, courteous as ever, saw them off at the aircraft which had been rapidly turned around.
The three were dog tired and just fell into their seats as the aircraft took off for another two-hour flight home. They were too exhausted to discuss the day’s happenings and nodded off, as their snorts and snores played a bassoon concerto in the midst of the propellers’ drone.
Sooner the aircraft landed at Chaklala Airport, the Warrant Officer on duty at the Air Movement asked Gp Capt Tufail to call up Air Marshal Anis immediately. Gp Capt Tufail closed the office door and dialled his boss.
“Hello….er…..Congratulations sir, it is Gp Capt Tufail here.”
“Congratulations to you too. You guys must be very tired. Okay, we will discuss business tomorrow. There are many important issues. The contingency isn’t over yet, so I had to call you back. Okay, now find an office with a secraphone and call me up again,” instructed Air Marshal Anis.
Gp Capt Tufail bade good bye to Air Cdre Ajmal and Gp Capt Pervez and, drove off to the Staff Operations Officer’s bunker. Sending everyone out, he called his boss again.
“Yes sir, it’s me again… Tufail.”
“Okay, not a word about what we discussed last night. I have told this to Nawaz also. You are not to discuss the cipher with any one,” whispered Air Marshal Anis on the phone. “It’s like the lovers’ secret,” he allowed a hearty chuckle.
“Yes sir,” confirmed Gp Capt Tufail hesitantly.
“Intriguing stuff,” Gp Capt Tufail mumbled to himself as he drove back home. Enigmatically, as he stopped at the traffic light, the adjacent taxi’s radio was sputtering out the last lines of a song that he had heard only a night before,“….. bhed pyar da khulley na!’
 The ringlets of the tresses mustn’t straighten, the kohl of the eyes mustn’t run.
 We’ll see.
 ….. the lovers' secret mustn’t unravel
©M KAISER TUFAIL