By Brigadier F.B. Ali (Retd.)
Brigadier F.B. Ali (Retd.), who fought in the ’71 war, gives his account of the events that resulted in the dismemberment of Pakistan and left behind a legacy of shame.
The Supplementary Report of the 1971 War Inquiry Commission (headed by Chief Justice Hamoodur Rahman) has recently been published in the magazine India Today.
There is little doubt that this is a genuine document. It is unfortunate that, even though 30 years have passed, the Commission’s report has not been made public in Pakistan, and we are forced to depend on foreign sources to learn of its contents in dribs and drabs.
Why this report has been buried so deep in secrecy is a simple question to answer: it is a scathing critique of the conduct of many leading politicians and senior military officers, and recommends that many of them be tried for their actions and failures which led to the shameful defeat and dismemberment of the country. Since neither Z.A. Bhutto, who set up the Commission, nor any succeeding government was prepared to execute these
recommendations, they were unwilling to make them public and then face the inevitable questions and public anger. In Bhutto’s case, his complicity in the break-up of the country (which must have been clear in the Main Report of the Commission) was added reason to keep the report secret.
The devastating account in this Supplementary Report of the despicable actions of a large number of senior officers in East Pakistan in 1971 could create the false impression that these strictures apply to all officers in that theatre, even though the Commission has itself cautioned against this. Even among the senior officers there were
outstanding exceptions. Major General Shaukat Riza, one of the finest officers to serve
in the Pakistan army, vehemently disagreed with both the military strategy adopted as
well as the policy of excessive use of force against the civilian population. He was
promptly removed from East Pakistan, as was Major General Khadim Hussain Raja
later, for similar reasons. Many officers, such as Lt. Colonel (later Brigadier) Mansoorul
Haq Malik, refused to participate in the violence against civilians and other
unethical military conduct, even though there were very strong feelings of revenge
among the troops because of atrocities committed by the Mukti Bahini. Another
erroneous impression that has persisted, and which the Commission report may
reinforce, is that the Yahya regime was established and propped up by the Pakistan
army. That is not the truth. The Yahya regime was brought into power by a small
group of generals and top civil servants. It stayed in power because of the strong
tradition of discipline and obedience in the army. It further consolidated its position by
promoting its own henchmen to senior positions while removing those who would not
go along. Moreover, it ensured the loyalty of its henchmen by giving them full licence
to indulge in corruption and moneymaking. The rest of the officer corps watched with
increasing disgust as the regime wallowed deeper and deeper in this filth while leading
the country to disaster. It is either not well-known, or often forgotten, that it was the
Pakistan army that removed the Yahya regime, as I shall relate further on. Major
General M. Rahim Khan has reacted violently to the publication of the Hamoodur
Rahman Report. He doth protest too much. Surely the Commission did not invent the
details of what they term his “shameful cowardice and undue regard for his personal
safety”; these were based on the evidence of persons who witnessed these events first
hand. In fact, General Rahim should be thankful the Commission did not investigate
the murky episode in which he had himself flown out of Dhaka to Burma just before the
I find it amusing that General Rahim shifts all the blame on Z.A. Bhutto, while
attempting to distance himself from him. General Rahim was part of the inner circle of
the martial law regime. After the People’s Party won the 1970 election in West Pakistan,
General Rahim began to establish relations with Bhutto. I was there, I saw it. In fact, he
engineered a reconciliation between the regime and Bhutto, and became the link
between the two as they conspired to wreck the newly elected National Assembly, in
which the Awami League had a majority. General Rahim was also one of the main
contributors to the plan to use military force to crush the popular uprising in East
Pakistan that would inevitably follow the scuttling of the political process. It was
because of his special equation with Bhutto that the latter appointed General Rahim as
Chief of the General Staff upon his return from Burma, and later on elevated him to the
rank of Secretary-General, Ministry of Defence.
Major General Rao Farman Ali Khan has confirmed that the report published in India is
genuine. In this report, the Commission has completely exonerated General Farman,
and has even bestowed words of praise upon him. In the interests of historical
integrity, this picture needs to be balanced. General Farman was not in the inner circle
of the Yahya clique, but he was a key member of the regime’s Election Cell, which used
extortion, intimidation, and bribery to ensure a victory for the Jamaat-i-Islami and other
religious parties in the 1970 election. Huge sums of money were illegally raised and
channelled to these parties. When this attempt failed and the Awami League won in
East Pakistan, General Farman initially supported the efforts of Lt. General Yaqub Ali
Khan to arrange a peaceful political settlement. But when this policy was rejected by
Yahya Khan and General Yaqub was sacked, Farman saw which way the wind was
blowing and trimmed his sails accordingly. As he said to me at the time: “I was a dove,
but when the doves lost out I became a hawk and showed them that I was the most
hawkish of them all.” He also became one of the principal architects of the plan to use
force in East Pakistan.
In his evidence before the Commission, General Farman sought to deflect any blame
that might attach to General Tikka Khan for his role in East Pakistan. The Commission’s
report is itself remarkably silent on his role (Tikka was the army chief when this report
was written). It is well-known that Tikka Khan was fully involved in the use of military
force in East Pakistan.
Generals Rahim and Farman were contemporaries of mine; I knew them both. They
were intelligent and capable officers. In their private lives they would be considered
good and decent men. That is why they must be held to higher standards, and judged
more harshly for their failures (propelled mainly by ravenous ambition) than generals
like A.A.K. Niazi.
The Commission’s Supplementary Report deals mainly with the events in East Pakistan.
The war in West Pakistan was covered in the Commission’s Main Report, which is still
suppressed. I participated in these operations, and appeared twice before the
Commission. I have no doubt that in its Main Report the Commission paints an equally
black picture of the conduct of the war in West Pakistan, and is as scathing in its
condemnation of the regime and senior military commanders who lost large areas of
the country and then cravenly accepted an ignominious ceasefire.
The details of the faulty strategy that were partly the cause of this debacle are no longer
of general interest. But we must not forget the essence of what transpired; we must not
let vested interests whitewash the dark truth or bury it. Nations that forget history are
condemned to repeat it. My experience of the 1971 war is one window into the past as
it really happened.
I commanded an artillery formation in the Sialkot-Narowal-Gujranwala sector, which
was defended by 1 Corps under Lt. General Irshad Ahmad Khan. Since I was
simultaneously filling several other command positions, I was able to observe all that
went on in this sector. The war was initiated by Pakistan on December 3, 1971 with a
few very limited attacks. GHQ had given strict orders that nothing was to be done
beyond this; all the requests of local commanders to be allowed to exploit the success of
the initial attacks were firmly rejected. It appears that the Yahya regime started the war
in the West just to put pressure on the international community to intervene and
impose a ceasefire in East Pakistan.
This did not happen, and after a few days the Indians recovered from their initial
disarray and began to push into our territory. There was total paralysis in the
command on our side: GHQ gave no orders, while the field commanders were content
to sit and wait for directions from above that never came. Meanwhile, every day the
enemy was advancing, every day we were giving up territory, every day we were
steadily losing the war. I had about 14 or 15 regiments of artillery available to me, and I
made the necessary plans and preparations to mass them against the enemy advance.
From December 8 onwards, I tried every method I could, official and unofficial, formal
and informal, to persuade my superiors and GHQ to use this great potential of
firepower available to them, but in vain.
One day, in my capacity as Commander Artillery of Army Reserve North, I attended a
meeting called by General Irshad, Commander 1 Corps, at his HQ in Gujranwala. After
the dismal opening briefing about more areas lost the night before, I asked General
Irshad why he wasn’t doing anything about this continuing loss of territory. He replied:
“You are worried about this territory; according to the GHQ plan I can give up all the
area north of the MRL canal.” (This was many times the area we had already lost!) I
was so fed up that I said rather roughly: “If you are not going to use your reserve
armoured brigade why don’t you give it to us so that we can try to recover the lost
territory?” For a few moments he was too shocked to reply; then he burst out: “Don’t
forget that after the war you will come back under my command and I will write your
ACR (Annual Confidential Report).”
This general spent less time commanding his corps than he did on improving the
security of his HQ and living quarters. The War Inquiry Commission recommended
that Lt. Gen. Irshad Ahmad Khan should be court-martialled for surrendering nearly
500 villages to the enemy without a fight.
The territory we lost in West Pakistan was given up without a fight because the army
was not allowed to fight by its commanders. In the few places where we did fight, the
younger officers and soldiers displayed extraordinary valour and self-sacrifice. But the
bulk of the army was kept out of battle. Halfway through the war it became a
commonplace saying among officers: if you want to fight this war, forget about the
generals and do it yourself.
On December 17, after Yahya Khan announced the acceptance of the ceasefire, I was
quite certain, as were most other people, that he and his government would accept
responsibility for the debacle and announce that they were quitting. That evening I
handed in my resignation from the army, in acknowledgment of my responsibility
(shared by all other senior officers) for having silently acquiesced in the takeover and
maintenance of power by these corrupt, self-seeking generals who had brought the
country to this sorry state.
Next day, on December18, I was stunned to learn that Yahya Khan had no intention of
leaving; instead, he announced that he was going to promulgate a new constitution.
Meanwhile, angry public demonstrations demanding that the regime should quit had
erupted all over the country. There was a real danger that Yahya Khan might use
troops to quell the public outcry, which would have imposed an unbearable strain on
the discipline of the army, itself angry and upset over what had happened. I became
convinced that the regime had to be clearly told that it no longer had the support of the
army and must go. I tried to persuade my division commander, Major General M.I.
Karim, to send such a message to the government through GHQ, but, although he
appeared to share my views, he hesitated to take such a step. Finally, on December 19,
I could wait no longer, and took over effective command of the division from General
Karim. He tacitly accepted this, and gave me valuable support throughout the
In this action, I also had the support of some other senior officers who felt as I did. Our
position was that the regime should quit and hand over power to the elected
representatives of the people, and that all those incompetent and corrupt commanders
who had led us into defeat should be sacked. In practical terms, this meant handing
over power to Z.A. Bhutto and his People’s Party, who had won the 1970 election in
West Pakistan. Even though I was by no means a fan of Mr. Bhutto’s, I believed that
their elected status gave them the right to govern, and obtain the allegiance of the
Colonels Aleem Afridi and Javed Iqbal went to Rawalpindi with a message from us for
Yahya Khan: he should announce by 8 p.m. that evening his readiness to hand over
power to the elected representatives of the people. In addition, all those generals who
had led the army into this disaster should also quit. In case such an announcement was
not made by 8 p.m. then we could not guarantee control of the situation, and any
resulting consequences. The two officers met with General Gul Hassan, Chief of the
General Staff, and asked him to convey this message to Yahya Khan. Gul Hassan went
to General Hamid, the Chief of Staff, who said he would arrange for a meeting with the
President at 7 p.m. General Hamid then went into a flurry of activity. He called several
army commanders to see if they could help to restore the situation,
but they all expressed inability to do anything. Major General A.O. Mitha, another
stalwart of the regime, tried to get some SSG (commando) troops for action against our
divisional HQ, but was unable to obtain any. The failure of these efforts, and the
obvious absence of any support in the army, left the Yahya clique with no option.
Shortly before 8 p.m., the broadcast was made that Yahya Khan had decided to hand
over power to the elected representatives of the people.
After this announcement General Gul Hassan and his friend, Air Marshal Rahim Khan,
the air force chief, in consultation with G.M. Khar, a PPP leader, arranged for Z.A.
Bhutto’s return from Rome, where he was sitting out the crisis, apparently because he
was not sure about his personal safety if he came back. When Bhutto arrived on the
20th, Gul Hassan and Rahim told him that the military was behind them, and it was
they who had removed the Yahya regime. That night Mr. Bhutto made a broadcast to
the nation, in which he announced the retirement of all the generals in Yahya Khan’s
inner clique, saying that he was doing this “in accord with the sentiments of the armed
forces and the younger officers.” He also made Lt. General Gul Hassan the army chief,
and confirmed Rahim Khan as the air force chief, though they did not last long when
they proved insufficiently pliable.
Bhutto made no attempt to purge the armed forces of the rotten layer at the top, even
though he must have known how discredited these officers were in their own services,
especially with the War Inquiry Commission hearing evidence of their misdeeds, which
were becoming generally known. It suited him to have weak commanders who
depended on him for their positions and lacked the respect and support of those under
them. But he readily acquiesced in Gul Hassan’s removal of a few remaining upright
and competent generals, namely, Major Generals Shaukat Riza, Ihsanul Haq Malik and
Khadim Hussain Raja. Then, in August 1972, Bhutto retired me and five other officers
who had been the principals in the removal of the Yahya regime. He publicly accused
us of having engaged in a conspiracy to prevent the elected representatives of the
people from coming into power in December 1971!
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had a glorious opportunity when he became President. The people
of Pakistan were shaken to the roots of their national psyche. They looked longingly for
a leader to guide them back to the right path; they were prepared to make a new
beginning as a cohesive people ready to work together again to achieve the vision that
had created their homeland 25 years ago. All they needed was a leader who felt the
same pain and yearned for the same goal.
But at this great crossroads in history, the man of the hour was found pitifully wanting.
His lack of vision, meanness of spirit, and pettiness of mind, all led him to see this
historic moment as just an opportunity to grab personal power. Even the use of this
power was affected by his limitations: witness, as one of his first acts as President, the
arrest and public humiliation of persons against whom he harboured personal grudges.
When it became clear that Bhutto was not going to remove the incompetent and corrupt
officers still remaining in the senior ranks of the military, a wave of anger spread
among the younger officers of the army and the air force. Many of them began to talk
about changing the government if this was the only way of purging the armed forces.
This talk became serious among the brightest and bravest of them, who felt most deeply
the shame inflicted upon the armed forces and the country in 1971, and for whom the
profession of arms was an honourable calling in the service of the nation. The moving
spirit in the army was Major Farouk Adam Khan, while in the air force it was Squadron
Leader Ghous. They got in touch with Colonel Aleem Afridi, who contacted me. The
gnawing sense of responsibility that I felt for the existing situation would not let me
stand aside; I decided to explore whether I could undo what I had done, even though I
knew the risks and difficulties that the undertaking involved.
Matters had not gone beyond the serious discussion stage when a traitor in our midst,
Lt. Colonel Tariq Rafi, betrayed us to the generals. Early in 1973, a large number of
army and air force officers were arrested in a particularly brutal fashion, confined under
very harsh conditions, and tried by courts martial at Attock and Badaber. Bhutto saw
this as an excellent opportunity to teach a lasting lesson to anyone else in the armed
forces who might think of acting against him.
In spite of a superb defence led by Mr. Manzur Qadir, the outcome was a foregone
conclusion: all the accused were convicted and many of them were given long prison
sentences, including life imprisonment for Aleem Afridi and me. Manzur Qadir was ill
but continued to defend us, even though we could barely pay enough to cover his
expenses (his normal fees were totally beyond our means), and lived for long periods in
primitive conditions in the Attock rest house, as did his colleagues, Ijaz Hussain Batalvi,
Aitzaz Ahsan and Wasim Sajjad.
The emotions that drove these young officers to contemplate such a drastic step,
involving grave risks, and then stoically suffer such harsh consequences, were
poignantly expressed by Major Saeed Akhtar Malik in his address to the Attock court
martial trying him for his life. He said: “When the war became imminent, I took leave
from the PMA and joined my unit, with thanks to the CO who requisitioned my
services. The next day the war started. But instead of glory, I found only
disillusionment. The truth was that we were a defeated army even before a shot was
fired. This was a very bitter truth. With each corpse that I saw, my revulsion increased
for the men who had signed the death warrants of so many very fine men. Yes, fine
men, but poor soldiers, who were never given the chance to fight back, because they
were not trained to fight back. When they should have been training for war, they were
performing the role of labourers, farmers or herdsmen, anything but the role of soldiers.
This was not ‘shahadat.’ This was cold-blooded murder. Who was responsible for this? I
was responsible! But more than me someone else was responsible. People who get paid
more than me were responsible. What were some of these men, these callous, inhuman
degenerates, doing when their only job was to prepare this army for war? Were these
men not grabbing lands and building houses? Did it not appear in foreign magazines
that some of them were pimping for their bloated grandmaster? Yes, generals, wearing
that uniform (he pointed at the court’s president) pimping and whore-mongering!”
High on the roll of honour of those great patriots who suffered and sacrificed for this
country must be inscribed the names of Majors Saeed Akhtar Malik, Farouk Adam
Khan, Asaf Shafi, Ishtiaq Asif, Farooq Nawaz Janjua, Nadir Parvez, Munir Rafiq,
Iftikhar Adam, Sajjad Akbar, Tariq Parvez, Ayyaz Ahmed Sipra, and Nasrullah Khan;
Captains Sarwar Mahmood Azhar and Naveed Rasul Mirza; Lt. Colonels Muzaffar
Hamdani, Iftikhar Ahmed, and Afzal Mirza; Colonel Aleem Afridi; Brigadiers Wajid Ali
Shah and Ateeq Ahmed; Squadron Leader Ghous, Wing Commander Hashmi and
Group Captain Sikandar Masood.
To the reader whose eyes have just skipped over the last paragraph I would say: Pause
a moment. These are brave men who fought for you and your children and your
country, not only against the foreign enemy but also against the dark night of tyranny
that was descending over this land. Even though they did not succeed, at least they
tried, when so many others just sat and watched, or wrung their hands, or joined the
victors. The least you can do is pay them the tribute of reading their names.
Equal honour is due to our families, especially those whose husbands and fathers spent
long years in prison. Effectively reduced to widows and orphans, in a hostile
environment created by a powerful government that branded their men as traitors, they
refused to be cowed down or give up. They waged constant battle in the courts of law
and in the court of public opinion, all the while sustaining us with steadfast support.
Without it many of us could not have survived.
I was instrumental in bringing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto into power in December 1971. This
had an immediate effect upon the career of one Brigadier Zia-ul- Haq, who had recently
returned from Jordan (where he had been a military adviser) under something of a
cloud for his involvement in the crushing of the PLO by King Hussein. Bhutto made
Zia’s friend and patron, Gul Hassan, the army chief, who promptly promoted Zia to the
rank of Major General. As a junior general, Zia was picked to be president of the Attock
court martial. Bhutto took a strong personal interest in the progress of the Attock trial
and required Zia to provide him with regular briefings; these private sessions gave Zia
the opportunity to convince Bhutto of his personal loyalty. Bhutto wanted very much to
have a few of the Attock accused sentenced to death. Zia assured him that he could
manage to do this in my case and Aleem Afridi’s. So sure were they of this that the
gallows in Campbellpur Jail was prepared, and we were both moved next to the jail so
that as soon as the court passed the sentence it could be immediately carried out.
However, to accomplish this, Zia needed the votes of some of the younger officers on
the court, but they did not agree.
Having failed to get me hanged, Bhutto continued to pursue me with a vengeance.
When he learnt that ‘life imprisonment’ meant, in practice, 14 years behind bars, he had
the rules changed so that such court-martial sentences really meant imprisonment for
life. As required by prison regulations, all the Attock case prisoners were moved to jails
near their homes except me. When my wife questioned this, she was told that all
decisions in my case were made by Bhutto. She then tried through Nusrat Bhutto and
others close to him, but to no avail. So I spent about 4 1/2 years in solitary confinement
far away from home. Finally, after Zia-ul-Haq dethroned Bhutto, I was moved to Kot
Lakhpat Jail. Shortly thereafter, Bhutto arrived there as my neighbour, housed barely a
100 yards away. We were both in solitary confinement, but he was in a death row cell
while I was in an A-class suite.
After the Attock trial, Zia assiduously built upon the foundation he had laid there to
convince Bhutto of his fealty. When the time came, Bhutto picked him to be the next
army chief, even though he was the junior-most of the five contenders. Not one of these
other generals, any one of whom Bhutto could have picked instead of Zia, possessed the
ruthlessness required to have him hanged later on. But it was Zia whom he picked.
But for his early promotion in 1972 and the resulting opportunity provided by the
Attock court martial to establish a personal equation with Bhutto, Zia-ul-Haq would
never have become army chief. If he had not been so chosen, Zia would not have
become President of Pakistan. Perhaps then he would not have been riding in that plane
over the Bahawalpur desert.
I sit in a faraway land, and it is but rarely that I view the events of the past unfold as if
on a dim stage. Sometimes the side curtains move, and it seems to me that in the
shadows there, I catch a glimpse of the grinning face of History’s Black Jester.
Following the 1971 war, Brigadier Furrukh B. Ali was retired by Bhutto in 1972 and spent five
years in prison after the Attock conspiracy trial. He moved to Canada in 1979 and worked in the
civil service there. Married with two children, F.B. Ali now leads a retired life in Toronto.
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