Saturday, May 16, 2009
Shireen M Mazari
When the mainstream biographies by civil and military bureaucrats in Pakistan tend to be tedious rationalisations of their stay in the corridors of power, including military dictatorships, Air
Commodore Sajad Haider's book, "Flight of the Falcon" breaks this mode. Newly launched by Vanguard Books, it is a most fascinating study of not only Haider's interesting and adventurous life but also
of the Pakistan Air Force itself. Sajad Haider has always been outspoken with a "no-holds barred" approach to life and his life story reflects this most vividly, with his near-death encounters while
flying as well as his turbulent times fighting against an unjust court martial which eventually exonerated him. Interesting anecdotes abound in the book reflecting different facets of Haider's life
in the PAF – including his run-in with the Shah of Iran in Washington, his unfulfilled true love and other amusing flirtatious encounters.
However, the book is an important "must read" for all Pakistanis, because it opens up the evolution of the institution of the Pakistan Air Force and the brave and audacious officers who laid the
strong foundations. Haider shows the commitment of the early officer cadre, which flew their machines without high-tech back-up systems in a seemingly cavalier fashion. It is more than just the story
of the institution. Haider provides the human element to the story of the Pakistan Air Force. In fact, by describing the lifestyle of the PAF reflected in its socialising patterns in the Officers'
Mess, Haider draws a picture of the elite lifestyle of Pakistan during the pre-Zia days and the social tolerance that was taken for granted. He also paints a nostalgic picture of days when officers
rode motor bikes or old cars, travelled in second-class railway compartments and barely had enough money for fuelling the borrowed car of a friend. That these facts are described in an affectionate
and matter-of-fact manner shows how simple and unaffected the officer of those days was. Committed to flying and his country and taking risks for a national cause – the fighter pilot was a heroic,
romantic and dare-devilish figure who cast his imprint on the PAF in its heyday.
The tragedy of institutional decay that set in into the PAF is also recounted vividly. As we have watched our armed forces move from being venerated to being critiqued for their continuous political
interventions, we can understand how individuals have played a major role in institutional strengthening and decay. Haider shows us the invaluable contributions of air chiefs like Asghar Khan and Nur
Khan as well as their early successors. He also shows how the political machinations of certain air chiefs began the professional rot within the PAF. Describing the Attock Conspiracy case, and the
court martial that ensued, Haider describes the latter as "a virtual genocide of gallant fighter pilots, most of them with Sitara-e-Jurats pinned on their chests". We see the politicisation that
crept into the military, and understand why military heroes were gradually replaced by military villains in the eyes of the Pakistani nation.
Some myths about the 1965 and 1971 wars are also exposed. Haider of course was the decorated war hero of the 1965 war and he has critiqued the role of the GHQ leadership in both these wars. What is
fascinating is his assertion that the PAF did even better in the 1971 war with India than it had performed in 1965. According to him, in 1971, the "plans and performance of the PAF were superb and
indisputably better that in 1965" and to support this claim he cites Indian government figures of Indian Air Force losses. According to Haider the military debacle of 1971 can be laid firmly at the
feet of the president and GHQ whose plans were "flawed". As he put it, the "leadership had cold feet when the moment of truth arrived on November 24, 1971, as the Indian invasion of East Pakistan
Perhaps it is not surprising to see how Haider ended his career with the PAF – an institution he joined after being inspired by Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah's words at a gathering where he was
present. After having gone through the rollercoaster of the PAF in the Bhutto years, Sajad Haider finally called it quits after he stood up to Dictator Ziaul Haq and told him exactly what he thought
of his regime, regretting the level to which the military had been reduced in civilian eyes. Thus ended the illustrious career of a fighter pilot of the Pakistan Air Force – undaunted in the face of
adversity; but unwilling to compromise on his beloved PAF.
The writer is a defence analyst. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org