Generals Do Not Like to Hold Fire

Gulf News, April 24, 2005

Why did Lieutenant General Safdar Hussain, Commander of the Pakistani forces in the North West Frontier Province, react so strongly to comments by American Lieutenant General David Barno that Pakistan was about to launch an anti-terrorist operation along its border with Afghanistan?

According to media reports, Lt Gen Hussain described his American counterpart’s comments as “highly irresponsible”.

According to Lt Gen Hussain, Lt Gen Barno “should not have made that statement. It was a figment of his imagination. There is no bloody operation going on until we have the right intelligence”.

Since the day Pakistan chose to become an American ally in the war against Al Qaida, it has been assumed that the two sides share intelligence and quite often plan operations together. But Pakistani generals are highly sensitive about what appears in the press even though in practice they are known to concede the right of making important decisions to the more powerful partner in their alliance, the United States.

The spat between Lt Gen Barno and Lt Gen Hussain tells us something about the relationship of generals in the two countries, the United States and Pakistan, to their respective public. Lt Gen Barno commands the troops of a democracy, where officials are answerable to the people and their elected representatives. He deems it necessary to speak to journalists and while he probably spins every now and then, he is expected to reveal at least part of the truth most of the time.

Lt Gen Hussain, on the other hands, has reached the second highest rank in an army that is used to holding civilians accountable but which considers itself answerable to no one. He talks to the press only to tell them what he thinks and if he does not want something to be revealed he can warn reporters that they should not report it “in the national interest”.
Pakistan’s history is replete with instances where the Pakistani people learnt about what was happening in their own country through the foreign media. The surrender of Pakistani forces in erstwhile East Pakistan is one example. The facts of what happened in Kargil are another.

In all likelihood, Lt Gen Barno did not shoot off his mouth. He just made public something Lt Gen Hussain and his superiors did not want the Pakistani people to know. There have been many instances when the Pakistani military has kept its cooperation with the United States hidden from the nation, albeit “in the national interest”.

Secret base

Does anyone remember that Pakistan hosted a secret US base near Peshawar during the 1950s and 1960s for spying missions against the Soviet Union? The Pakistani people only found out about that base after one of the American pilots taking off from there, the now famous Gary Powers, was shown on Russian television after his plane crashed over Soviet territory.

Lt Gen Tommy Franks, the Commander of US Central Command during the Afghan war of 2001, published his memoirs not long ago. In that book titled American Soldier, General Franks writes of his efforts to forge strategic ties with Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf. For Lt Gen Franks, dealing with General Musharraf was a soldier-to-soldier matter. “His military needed help; so did we. Maybe we could make a deal,” Franks believed.

American generals and their Pakistani counterparts both make military to military deals. It is just that the Pakistani generals like to keep their end of the bargain secret whereas the Americans have no such compunction. General Franks tells of basing Combat Search and Rescue missions in Quetta and Dalbandin during the war in Afghanistan and says, “Musharraf had also agreed to a detailed list of 74 basing and staging activities to be conducted in Pakistan, from Combat Search and Rescue, to refuelling and operating communications relay sites, to establishing a medical evacuation point near the Afghan border.

“In return Musharraf requested that the campaign plan not involve the Indian Government or the Indian military, especially in any way that would put Pakistani forces in Pakistani air or sea space. He also asked that the Coalition not ‘advertise’ Indian political involvement, which would inflame sensitivities in Pakistan.”

Franks reveals that Musharraf first mentioned to him the possibility of Osama Bin Laden being in Tora Bora and said that his intelligence officers would know if Bin Laden crossed into Pakistan. But the most important revelation in Franks’ memoirs relates to a purported agreement about hot pursuit.

“And he confirmed our earlier agreement about incursions by Coalition forces over the ill-defined border into Pakistan when ‘in hot pursuit’ of Taliban and Al Qaida. ‘Your troops are very discreet’, he commented, ‘I know they will be discreet’.”

Lt Gen Hussain’s anger with Lt Gen Barno seems to be about not maintaining that discretion. But as an ordinary Pakistani, I am grateful to Lt. Gen Franks and Lt Gen Barno for occasionally informing us hapless 150 million citizens what is transpiring in, or along the borders of, our beloved country. If our rulers insist on keeping secrets from us, let our rulers’ allies tell us the truth.