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One of a kind

January 31, 2016

NAMING the new Foreign Office building the Sahibzada Yaqub Khan Block and, earlier, naming the National Defence University library the Sahibzada Yaqub Khan Library bear testimony to the role he had played in the armed forces during his long army career and his almost equally long stint as one of Pakistan’s leading diplomats and foreign ministers.

To him goes the credit of visualising and then pushing through the idea of setting up the National Defence College (now the National Defence University) as the seat of higher learning for officers of the armed forces (and some of their civilian counterparts) graduation from which would become the prerequisite for holding senior command posts.

From his deep study of German military doctrines emerged an emphasis on Clausewitz’s Schwerpunkt, the recognition that in any military operation there had to be a main point of effort to determine the course of battle.

If today the NDU is recognised globally as a seat of higher military training comparable to the best in the world it is because the university has stayed faithful to the idea that intellectual development comes through research.


For Sahibzada, diplomacy was the first line of defence.


I first met Sahibzada sahib in 1966 when as chief of general staff he came to Moscow as part of a military delegation led by Air Marshal Nur Khan. As a junior officer who had over a year of study acquired no more than a working knowledge of Russian even while living in Moscow I was awestruck by the fluency with which he addressed complex issues in impeccable Russian, which he had taught himself.

At an evening reception talking to Soviet scholars from the Institute of Oriental Studies, he quoted verbatim from the works of Ghalib and Faiz with more than passing references to such giants of Russian literature as Tolstoy and Pushkin — again an oddity given that Urdu or Russian literature were not subjects taught at the formal schools he had attended before joining the army. It was hard for me to reconcile this with the generally accepted image of a military officer.

It was only right I thought when president Bhutto pulled him out of retirement, following the East Pakistan disaster, and appointed him to ambassadorial assignments in France, the Soviet Union and the US from 1972 onwards. After all, as Sahibzada never tired of emphasising, for any country ‘diplomacy’ was the first line of defence; it was only when diplomacy failed that the military as the second line would need to be called upon.

These were not easy years for Pakistani diplomats in any of these countries but his linguistic skills certainly helped as I learnt from officers who served with him in these countries.

Assigned to Washington in 1979, I myself found goodwill had been created for Sahibzada and Pakistan by the role he played in resolving the crisis created by a group of black Hanafi Muslims taking control of buildings in Washington and holding hundreds of people hostage in March 1977. Sahibzada, along with the then Iranian and Egyptian ambassadors, negotiated with the hostage takers for over 70 hours. Many leading figures in the administration said it was Sahibzada more than his Iranian and Egyptian colleagues who swung the hostage takers towards the compassion and mercy that the verses of the Holy Quran he quoted called for.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and even before becoming foreign minister, he visited Washington to set the tone for a new US-Pakistan relationship. My own relationship with him grew during this period and he persuaded me that rather than taking an ambassadorial assignment I should return to the headquarters to be part of the team he was putting together.

For the four and a half years I worked with this team in Isla­ma­­bad my unalloyed admiration for a man I saw as my teacher, mentor and friend only grew.

He made his mark internationally by the grand sweep of his understanding of global issues and developments but his recommended policies were grounded in a clear understanding of current and potential realities. Always he sought an identification and the Schwerpunkt of the issue being discussed.

It is sad that he chose not to write his memoirs. He was always more comfortable with the spoken rather than the written word. But the absence of a clearly written exposition of his views on Afghanistan and India is a vacuum that needs to be filled if our present-day rulers are to benefit from his sage counsel.

A fitting epitaph comes from an old South Asia hand from the State Department: “Conversations with him were part philosophical tour de force, part grand tour of geopolitics … He was one of a kind. We shall not see his like again any time soon.”

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Published in Dawn, January 31st, 2016