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Flight of the Falcon

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Title: Flight of the Falcon - Demolishing myths of Indo-Pak wars 1965 & 1971
Author: Air Commodore S Sajad Haider
Publisher: Vanguard Publishers, Pakistan 2009
Price: Rs 795
ISBN:  9789694025261
Pages:  429
Rating: alt

 


 

Reviewed by Dr Shiv Shankar Sastry

Added August 2010

“The Flight of the Falcon”, a 422 page magnum opus by Air Commodore Sajad “Nosey” Haider – a retired Pakistan Air Force veteran is an easy book to read, but difficult to review because it offers a wealth of facts, dates and names that make it a valuable historic record. The cover of this hard-bound volume announces that it is about “Demolishing myths of Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971”. In actual fact the book goes far beyond that and serves to demolish other myths as well as add new information that is of interest not just to the military historian but to any Pakistan watcher.

The work is autobiographical, starting from 1951, before Haider joined the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and extending nearly three decades to 1980 when he left the PAF. His life story involves adventure, war, two ejections from crashing aircraft, American girlfriends, three wives, a kidnap to reclaim a beloved son, a personal friendship with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, intrigue, betrayal and imprisonment on charges, of all things, of a plot to assassinate Z.A.Bhutto.

For convenience, the book may be divided up into five sections: the period before the 1965 war; the war of 1965; the period before the 1971 war; the 1971 India Pakistan conflict and the period after the 1971 war until Haider retired, scarred and hurt emotionally it may be said, from the PAF. Each of these sections bring out a number of interesting insights.

In the period before the 1965 war, the Haider shows how deep American influence ran in the Pakistan Air Force. By 1958 there were already four squadrons of F-86 Sabres in the PAF. Haider says that American aid provided about 100 Sabres and a “handful” of bombers in exchange for “selling our sovereignty”, but he believes that far more were needed. Haider himself was among several teams of PAF pilots who went to Germany for training with NATO air forces, and at least one Pakistani pilot became a legend flying RB-57 reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union from Pakistan.

A few tidbits from this era are Sajad's memories of American girlfriends being allowed inside Pakistani air bases – an act which was not and is not possible in India. Among Haider's other personal achievements were the participation in a spectacular 16 aircraft flying display and being the only PAF pilot to have ever been in an Aircraft Carrier take-off and landing. Haider recounts the shooting down of a Canberra over Pakistani territory on the day of Eid-ul fitr in 1959 saying that "The Indian leadership thought that on this sacred day at the end of the holy month of Ramadan the PAF would either be rejoicing, sleeping or in the mosque”. It is one thing to recount a victory, but another thing altogether to imagine to know the thoughts of an enemy. The tendency to second-guess imagined Indian thoughts and weaknesses seems to be a Pakistani characteristic from as far back as the 1950s!  Another interesting point is that the PAF had been used in anger against “Afghan Mercenaries” as far back as 1965.

Haider gives his take on why neither the Indian Air Force (IAF)  nor the PAF played a role in the Rann of Kutch action in early 1965. He says that the PAF thought it was based too far away to be of help. He goes on to state that the IAF could have committed its fighters with virtual air superiority and claims that the IAF did not do that because the PAF chief Asghar Khan called the IAF Air Chief Arjan Singh (whom Haider repeatedly refers to as Arjun Singh)  and requested him not to commit his aircraft. He further goes on to say that Arjan Singh believed wrongly that the PAF was close by and was reluctant to commit Indian aircraft. The two reasons do not sit well with each other. Recounting another non-event, Haider says an Indian Canberra over Pakistan in May 1965 was not shot down because the President of Pakistan, Ayub Khan “had the jitters” and refused permission.

All in all Haider is uniformly scathing and bitterly critical of General Ayub Khan and his  army commander-in-chief General Musa for failing to fulfill seemingly achievable objectives in the 1965 war with India and in the end claiming a “contrived victory” in the 1965 war. Sajad Haider is yet another Pakistani who has been forthright enough to admit that Pakistan did send in infiltrators into India who “blew up bridges, attacked the Indian Military HQ, laid ambushes against convoys” etc. But he seethes at the statements of later historians including some by Gen. Ayub Khan's son Gauhar Ayub that his father “did not know that the Kashmir venture was not pragmatic and achievable” or else his father (Ayub) would never have allowed the infiltrations to take place. He accuses Ayub Khan of cowardice and rails against the Army leadership of Pakistan for having kept the PAF out of their war plans, claiming that early PAF involvement would have changed the course of the war. Haider points out that Ayub Khan had seen action in Burma in World War II where his British senior officer had relieved him of his post because he “chickened out” and displayed a lack of courage. Haider says that Ayub ensured that a coterie of similar people remained around him and that Ayub's Army C in C, Gen Musa was both a coward and a liar for having failed to order an attack on Akhnur when the time was appropriate but denied it later. Interestingly Ayub Khan's directive to his C in C quoted by Haider had a line that read “As a general rule Hindu morale would not stand more than a couple of blows delivered at the right time and place. Such opportunities should therefore be sought and exploited

Haider lays bare the unhealthy inter-services rivalry in Pakistan. He claims that the Chief of the army, General Musa envied the Chief of Air staff Asghar Khan for his “superior qualities and the way the PAF had gained national and international stature” and believed that the PAF had taken the limelight away from the sister services. He accuses the “micro-minds” of the Pakistani army of keeping the PAF out of the war plans.

Haider became famous for leading the PAF attack on the Indian air base of Pathankot early in the 1965 war in which a significant number of Indian aircraft, including some newly inducted MiG-21s were destroyed on the ground. Apart from good planning and his leadership, Haider attributes part of the success to a mistake on the part of the Pathankot base commander in refusing to allow a flight of Gnats to take off on a CAP. Such air opposition would have stymied their otherwise successful attack. Haider is generally contemptuous of the Indian Air Force's leadership which he describes as “inept”. Interestingly Haider describes the Islamic ritual he prescribed as morale booster for his pilots before the Pathankot raid. He asked for a bucket of cologne in water to be brought in and towels dipped in it for the pilots to rub themselves before the attack so that in case any of them were killed they would be smelling good for the “houris and angels” who would receive them at the gates of heaven. The PAF leadership too comes in for some criticism and Haider is bitter about the way the air war was, in his view, mishandled at the Sargodha air base.

In the period between the 1965 and 1971 wars Haider states that the Chinese provided the PAF with 70 fighters, and the PAF also managed to do a deal to acquire 70 F-86 Sabres from Germany that were flown in via Iran despite US opposition to the deal. In the run up to the 1971 war Haider puts the blame of splitting Pakistan firmly on the actions of Ayub Khan, whose Punjabi cabal he claims helped set in motion the factors that led to the breaking away of East Pakistan to create Bangladesh. However Haider admits that they (West Pakistanis) had an “attitude problem” about Bengalis and in one part of the book Haider is critical of slow Bengali labor. 

Haider also believes, without offering a shred of evidence that there was a conspiracy in India to break up Pakistan, with Soviet assistance. He bolsters this theory by claiming that the airlift of three Pakistani infantry divisions via Sri Lanka was because this conspiracy was known to Pakistan. For all his putative honesty in the rest of the book Haider completely sweeps under the carpet the dastardly and well documented genocide of three million Bangladeshi civilians by the Pakistan army and clams only that innocent West Pakistanis were slaughtered in cold blood by “Indians and their new found brethren, the Mukti (Bahini), Mujib and their goons”(page 213). He also describes the Hindus of Bangladesh as a “Trojan Horse”. Haider has done his own narrative a great disservice here. If his credibility is to be unquestioned in other parts of the book, it fails miserably in this section where his words amount to lies of omission and refuge in surreal conspiracy theories.

Haider labors  to try and save the mauled reputation of the PAF  after the 1971 war. He claims that he PAF were holding themselves back to support a spectacular attack on India by Pakistan's II Corps. He claims that the attack never came because Gen. Tikka Khan and his coterie were hoping the American 7th fleet would come to Pakistan's rescue. Once again Haider does himself a great disfavor here by writing as if Pakistan's humiliation belongs to the nation, but glory belongs to the PAF. Haider is similarly bitter about the  Pakistan Navy's lack of acknowledgment of PAF support but blames the “blue on blue” fratricide of a PAF F-86 Sabre attacking a Pakistan navy ship on the navy itself.

The last 150 pages of the book are reserved for the period after the 1971 war. It shows up the mess that the Pakistani Armed Forces descended into after 1971. There was a coup against President Gen. Yahya Khan  and virtual mutiny in the PAF. In later years Haider became implicated falsely in the so called “Attock conspiracy” against Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His description of mental and physical torture and solitary confinement serve only as firm confirmation of the methods that are apparently still in use by the ISI and the Pakistan army. It is ironic that in the trial that followed, Haider was let off and the conspiracy against Bhutto was called a “Qadiani” conspiracy. In the light of the May 2010  massacre of Qadianis in their mosque in Lahore, it is easy to imagine how much further Pakistani attitudes against Qadianis have moved in the twenty plus years since  Haider's trial was held.

Haider tops off his book with an expose of the extreme corruption that has gripped Pakistan. The first hint of kickbacks to middlemen in Pakistan comes early on in the book when a wealthy Pakistani middleman was present for the trials of Hispano-Suiza  rockets by the PAF in the late 1950s. But Haider singles out the Zia ul Haq regime and the period after that for its extreme corruption where kickbacks were “received on every commercial deal” (page 388). A US $ 890 million deal with France for Submarines was inflated to US$ 1.2 billion for the kickbacks. In a later deal shoulder fired Mistral SAMs were hurriedly acquired on the pretext that an Indian and Israeli attack was imminent on the Kahuta nuclear complex, despite the fact that such missiles would be useless in the event of such an attack.

Haider says that his inspiration to write this book came after the attack on the Indian Parliament and he saw the depths to which the country he loved and served loyally, Pakistan, had sunk. Overall the book has more plus points than negatives going for it and it really is essential reading about Pakistan. I would give the book a score of 4 on 5 for the value it adds to the growing body of literature on a little studied and deeply dysfunctional country, Pakistan.


Reviewed by K V Ramesh

Autobiographies by their very nature are highly suspect. Usually convenient facts are mentioned or embellished while inconvenient episodes are left out, glossed over or entirely missing. However Nosy Haider’s autobiography , like the man, is a straight shooter that grabs you from the time he volunteers and is accepted into the Pakistani Air Force. Haider makes no bones about the way he is and calls himself a proud , passionate , Pakistani. The passionate part is very readily visible in the way in which Haider always goes for the jugular , be it leading a demonstration for visiting dignitaries or his out of uniform experience of chasing the fairer sex which he readily admits as his weakness.

For the Indian reader there are many interesting vignettes of life in Pakistan and its Air Force . Some of these facts ,can be summarized as below : 

  1. He takes a critical look at the Pakistani experience of his generation and how Zia and gang perverted Pakistani society . Haider calls him outright “an evil dictator”. He holds both Ayub Khan - for starting the lies – and Zia for perpetuating the myths and lies. Zia comes under opprobrium for killing Bhutto for whom Haider has lot of respect as Bhutto was one of Haider’s consistent supporters. 
  2. Struts, lauds his “beloved PAF”. Quoting extensively from the Indo-Pak Air War by PVS Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra, he has nothing but derisive contempt for the IAF of 1965 but grudgingly accepts that in 1971 the performance of the IAF was far ahead of what it had been and most importantly had learned from its 1965 mistakes while the PAF hadn’t and continued to repeat the same mistakes of timid commanders leading aggressive pilots. Haider sneers  at some of the people who greased their way to the top and whose main qualifications are knowing the right people – surely this is not something that is confined to Pakistan and it has echoes in India and the Indian Armed Forces.
  3. Haider once and for all debunks the 5 aircraft in 23 seconds story of Alam. He claims that the PAF performed much better than has been popularly known and saved Pakistan many times over. His famous Pathankot raid is mentioned in extensive detail and is clear example of fine leadership transforming into a devastating attack. He also acknowledges that everyone ended up claiming Migs while there were lesser Migs than was claimed.
  4. There is many a mention of institutionalized corruption. Here Haider’s autobiography holds resounding echoes for Indians in that he characterizes the deep malaise of Pakistani society in practically every arms deal how millions had been siphoned off while well meaning Pakistanis are blissfully unaware of the facts. Replace Pakistan and Pakistanis with Indians and the truth is far closer to home.
  5. No holds barred colorful life – married three times, liaisons galore and he openly talks about it without any hesitation or malaise.
  6. Superb arrogant confidence in his abilities as a fighter pilot and great glimpses of the other side of the hill. Here Haider can’t be faulted in the way in which he describes the hard training that the PAF did and how he escaped death by whisker in his first jet, the Supermarine Attacker.
  7. He has derision for the IAF’s refusal to press home attacks and overall timid performance in 1965 and gloats as to how on many an occasion benefited Pakistan and how it held out against the combined might of IAF on both fronts .  The Kalaikunda raid is also mentioned to prove the overall aggressive spirit of the PAF.
  8. The biggest opprobrium is reserved for Zia ul haq and Ayub Khan .  The former is roundly – and perhaps justly – condemned as the man who institutionalized much of Pakistan’s current explosive combinations of mullahs-drugs-submissive judiciary-homegrown taliban while the latter is painted out to be a plain and simple coward. He calls Zia an ”evil dictator’  while Ayub is mentioned as “vain despot’. This is where Hyder scores strongly – for he wants the blatant lies of the 1965 and 1971 wars to be swept away and history to be presented as it is to the people of Pakistan. Again strange echoes for us too – except for us ‘knowledgeable guys’ , how many of the aam janta know – or even care about 1965 or 1971?
  9. Proclaims himself to be a “rabid, passionate Pakistani’ and yet in spite of that , it is possible to see through it and sometimes even admire his moral courage in standing up to his superiors who try to frame him in the Attock conspiracy . This chapter smacks of cynicism for he suddenly discovers that Allah has been with him and decides to acquit him along with some others. However the descriptions of mental torture and him breaking down on seeing his son all ring true. Samba Spy case anyone?

On the whole this is not a bad book and I would heartily recommend it for a look at ‘the Other side of the hill’ . It praises the PAF and Pakistan sky high , yet shows the deep rooted rot and malaise that has affected both. Echoes again ?

The subtitle of the book is also very revealing – "Demolishing the Myths of the 1965 and 1971 Indo-pak War". Here Haider goes all out to demolish many myths including the Alam episode and the mistaken Gnat landing at pasrur which Pakistan always claimed that it was because of the vaunted F104 forcing it down. 

Once and for all he puts to rest that the entire 5 aircraft in 23 seconds story is purely a myth because Alam himself was shifty when Haider questioned him about the episode.

Here Haider’s ire knows no bounds as he says this was the start of the pervasive corruption that ended up claiming the country and then its Air Force – Haider traces this corruption to the economy of facts and inability to deal with the truth. His mention of the 1971 events are more revealing – he is probably the only Pakistani who would readily acknowledge that the Bengalis of East Pakistan were given a raw deal and it was no wonder that they rose up aided by ‘treacherous Indians’.

For India and Indians , Haider has nothing but pithy adjectives – maybe this is the passionate Pakistani talking. For any Indian reading the book, this consistent ranting against India/ Indians sticks out like a sore thumb.

Keeping that aside, the book is entirely balanced and takes a highly critical look at the way in which the PAF performed in both the 1965 and 1971 wars. The conclusion of the book mentioned the 2002 parliament attack in passing and hints that this has been done deliberately by Indian agents to garner support for anti-Pakistan feelings and swiftly concludes that Pakistan and its air force is ready for any Indian misadventures.

Haider sometimes has the hallmark of an innocent in a dangerous jungle but he is candid enough to admit that his innocence goes by the name of honesty. He wonders why trouble always precedes him wherever he goes , not having learned the fine art of pointing out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. In any hierarchically controlled organisation, especially the strictly hierarchical military, this is bound to cause trouble and Haider attracts trouble in the same way he attracted flak in his combat attacks. It is also a hallmark of his honesty that he admits that he doesn't know the fine art of diplomacy and much like the thorough fighter pilot that he is , he shoots straight throughout the course of the book and this quality is thoroughly admirable.

Though the book is about Pakistan there are many echoes for the Indian reader and one can easily identify with Haider as he fights against pervasive nepotism and corruption all around. It’s clear that his personal integrity is intact all the time that he was in Air Force . In sum this is not such a bad book – barring the Anti Indian sentiments and feelings , this is a good description of the PAF and its wartime performance in the 1965 and 1971 war, told by an insider who was there and had seen it all and done it all. In short , very much readable and enjoyable. 

Purchase this book in Pakistan or in India 

Last Updated on Saturday, 28 August 2010 03:52  

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