Saturday, January 9, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Three Presidents and an Aide - Life, Power and Politics

Published in Daily Times / 9 Jan 2010
Author: Ambassador Arshad Sami Khan SJ
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

MY DEAR COUNTRYMEN - three ‘nation altering words’ followed by some standard lines that come from an equally standard speech typically associated with the beginning or ending of a takeover. In Pakistan anyway. It is an increasingly familiar pattern, an unfortunate legacy and a well acted performance from otherwise green actors – that every generation gets to experience, analyze, dread and crib over for the remainder of their lives. It is also one that they seldom understand fully, can never challenge and forever speculate about. The camera eventually pans away from the triumphant or vanquished knight in fatigues! – the haze of mystery surrounding the men who wielded a nation’s fate in their hands oh so casually, remains.

What happened next – is always more interesting than scripted moments of history.

As an Aide-de-Camp (ADC), Arshad Sami Khan was perfectly positioned with an all access backstage pass into 3 presidencies. He witnessed the skilfully manipulated rise and cleverly orchestrated fall of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto - as their ADC and glimpsed the inner machinations of the Prime Ministers House as Chief Protocol Officer of Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister. Aided by notes and an innate gift for story telling, Sami Khan proceeded to arrange his experiences in the form of a book. With 6 years of service in that high profile appointment, he had a treasure trove of stories. But even though this would not be classified as an expose per se, being a relatively tame account by comparison, the book still took ten years to see the light of day.

Now that it has – we finally get to know what these three – Ayub and Yahya in particular, were up to when they were not leading news at local gossip columns, planning disastrous Operations (Gibraltar) or watching the dismemberment of Pakistan from their lofty perch. Their ADC is privy to all the details – after all, aides are there to ‘assist the senior officer’ 24/7 - a glorified nanny, if you will. But while he manages to keep the readers interested without vilifying his bosses or delving into scandalous details, even going so far as to change a few names, it is still hard to keep true natures from surfacing now and then, however unwittingly.

Flt. Lt - Sami Khan (SJ) had flown maximum combat missions in 1965 War while in the PAF. As a war veteran, he takes us back to the 1971 War from a military mans perspective and as an aide he provides a unique insight into the political wrangling preceding the fall of Dacca and following the aftermath. As he saw the Federation crumble away in the East Pakistan debacle, Sami Khan has his own interpretation about what (not who) exactly was responsible for the ultimate break-up of Pakistan. And, according to him, it is not the oft reviled Yahya Khan. Sandwiched between the amusing anecdotes is an incisive examination showing why religion is not enough of a motivator to prevent countries already divided by geography, from getting torn asunder with just a little prodding. Excruciating as it to relive that horrific phase, these chapters are worthy of attention. Crisis after crisis rocked Pakistan – just as it does now. The era was defined by insurgencies, intrigues, war, sugar hikes and remembered for reshaping the political landscape.

The history lesson is an added bonus and there are enough light-hearted moments to relieve the tension. The writer takes pains to clarify the especially sleazy rumours, as he entertains with titbits like Yahya Khan’s escapades a la ‘Roman Holiday’ fascinates with a kaleidoscope of imagery taken straight from the ‘photo frame of history’ and shocks with Mr. Bhutto’s itinerary during ‘71 War/debacle. There is also an amusing little episode concerning our Friends not Masters! when books and movies about ‘The Ugly American’ were making international rounds and the living example was doing the local circuit.

Though those were dark times and none of the presidencies had happy endings, Sami Khan keeps the book from getting pulled into a black hole. The 280 page long narrative flows smoothly but the story ends rather abruptly and on a curious note. The writer is discomfited by how much Libya’s Gaddafi seemed to be in sync with Pakistan’s internal (and often secret) affairs but does not explore this bizarre interest further, leaving the reader disturbed , concerned and a tad frustrated.

Ambassador Sami Khan joined the diplomatic service in later years. His 6 year record as an aide remains unbroken to this day. An ADC is regarded as a trusted friend of the family. Such is the nature of his relationship with the Head of State. That trust has not been misplaced. The Curtain fell on the men he served long ago. Sami Khan also passed away in 2009.

His book would be a valuable addition to the archives. These 3 Presidents have been cast as heroes in their own story, play arch - villains in their rival’s edition and tyrants/traitors/victims depending upon which version of history one chooses to believe. Fortunately for them, this ADC extraordinaire was loyal to the end. Sami Khan’s book gives them a new identity, as ordinary men in extraordinary positions - who messed up. ‘Three Presidents and an Aide’ is the closest one could come to feeling some empathy for an otherwise controversial set of characters. And that is something!

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