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We never learn from history - 6

October 31, 2004

Just occasionally, a rarity nowadays, we come across a little bit of good news. The indefatigable warrior of our skies, Air Marshal Asghar Khan, is well and still striving to do right by his country. He is in the throes of correction the proofs of his latest book on the sad and sorry history of Pakistan, which he has aptly entitled 'We've learnt nothing from history'. It will be published in the coming few months.

At 83, the air marshal is expected to be slightly hard of hearing, but even he who lives a fair distance from the Islamabad Marriot Hotel heard the explosion last Thursday evening. We had a good laugh over the telephone yesterday over the ridiculous attempt by information minister Sheikh Rashid to pull the wool over everyone's eyes and try to kid us, and the rest of the interested world, into believing that the blast was caused by a short circuit in the hotel's electric system. What a joke. He thinks we are all dumbos. Well, we may well be since we tolerate the governments thrust upon us, but we are not dumb enough not to be able to differentiate between a bomb and an electrical blooper. Neither are the Americans, or anyone else for that matter.

Talking with Asghar Khan about his book brought back memories of the days of President General Ziaul Haq and my meeting with him in July 1977. He had sent for me to ask me to accept an appointment as his 'adviser on ports and shipping'. My reaction, realistic, was to decline on the grounds that he would very soon have to sack me. He laughed, and assured me that if he appointed me no one could sack me. Maybe not, but there will be pressure on you to sack me. Twirling his moustache, he exclaimed, 'Pressure? What pressure?'. He soon found out that the navy could also fire a shot or two - but that is another story.

That day, July 25, Zia asked what I could do for ports and shipping within the space of 70 days. What is magic about the number 70, I asked. Phineas Fogg went round the world in a balloon in 80 days. And at that, with great humility the general informed me that he had promised the nation when he took over that in 90 days he would be back in his barracks - 70 days now remained. Well, I told him, always remember Winston Spencer Churchill who once remarked that the last general to give up power and go home to his farm was Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus and that was in 458 AD, and I suggested that he read Basil Henry Liddell Hart's book, 'Why Don't We Learn From History?', with special reference to the chapter entitled 'Pattern of dictatorship,' and one rather telling sentence : "They [dictators] claim that they want absolute power for only a short time (but 'find' subsequently that the time to relinquish it never comes)."

Wily Zia noted the details of the book and had the Army Services Book Club obtain a copy and reprint it. But the government being government, it printed the fourth impression of 1946 rather than the latest revised and expanded edition published posthumously by Hawthorn Books of New York in 1971. Much of what Liddell Hart has written holds true to this day. Had the provider of the mysterious crate of mangos not managed to bring down Zia's C-130 he may well have still been ruling over us, with his cherry-blossom hair and sleek moustache.

Preceding columns published under this same heading in July and August 2002 record the names of some 50 beneficiaries of our money, the people's money, in the context of the human rights case filed in the Supreme Court by Asghar Khan relating to the misuse of secret funds. Many of the 50 are well-known, recognized rotters (OED : 'objectionable on moral grounds') and quite a few, for various reasons of expediency, have been put in place by General Pervez Musharraf either in his cabinet or in his assemblies. This information is recorded in public documents filed in the court. The Supreme Court has yet to hear the case.

To refresh the memories of the honourable judges and of the president and all his men, I quote from a column printed on August 4, 2002 :

"On April 25 1994, this newspaper carried an editorial entitled 'Our secret godfathers', which opened up : 'Two basic points emerge from General Aslam Beg's admission that in 1990 he took Rs.14 crore from the banker Younus Habib and that part of this money was spent by the ISI during the elections that year .....'. And closed, saying '... it is time now for some sort of check on the rogue political activities of our intelligence agencies ...'. It was not time, and apparently it is still not time.

"In 1996, Air Marshal Asghar Khan filed a human rights petition in the Supreme Court against General Mirza Aslam Beg, former chief of army staff, Lt-General Asad Durrani, former chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence, and Younus Habib of Habib and then Mehran Bank, concerning the criminal distribution of the people's money for political purposes (HRC 19/96). In this case, Lt General Naseerullah Babar filed an affidavit in court supported by copies of various documents and a photocopy of a letter dated June 7 1994, addressed by Durrani to the then prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who during her second term in office, appointed him as her ambassador to Germany, which reads in part :

"The operation not only had the 'blessings' of the president [Ghulam Ishaq Khan] and the wholehearted participation of the caretaker PM [Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi], but was also in the knowledge of the army high command. The last mentioned will be the defence of many of us, including Gen Beg (who took his colleagues into 'confidence' but that is the name that we have to protect).

"The point that I have 'war-gamed' in my mind very often is : what is the object of this exercise?

"(a) If it is to target the opposition, it might be their legitimate right to take donations, especially if they come through 'secret channels'. Some embarrassment is possible, but a few millions are peanuts nowadays. (b) If the idea is to put Gen Beg on the mat : he was merely providing 'logistic support' to donations made by a community 'under instructions' from the government and with the 'consent' of the military high command. In any case, I understand he is implicated in some other deals in the same case. (c) GIK will pretend ignorance, as indeed he never involved himself directly. (d) Of course one has to meet the genuine ends of law. In that case let us take care of the sensitivities like special operations and possibly that of the army.

"It was for these reasons that I desperately wanted to see you before leaving. I also wanted to talk about my farewell meeting with the COAS [General Waheed Kakar]. In the meantime you must have met often enough and worked out what is in the best interest of the country.

"I keep praying that all these natural and man-made calamities are only to strengthen us in our resolve and not in any way reflective of our collective sins."

Could it be that the judiciary is failing us?