April 03, 2020
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Nelson’s Late Triple One

A truth-teller amongst Musharraf’s plotters, and how others fared

Nelson’s Late Triple One
Illustration by Sorit
Nelson’s Late Triple One

It was late on a thick, foggy night in December 1999 that we were returning from dinner in Lahore’s Gulberg area to our guest house. The retired general at the wheel was talking about Pakistan’s politics—it was less than two months since General Pervez Musharraf had conducted his coup. The drive seemed longer than usual and I asked, “General, are we lost?” “You should know by now that generals are never lost in Pakistan. Hainji?” he winked.

Earlier that evening, I had marvelled at the clockwork precision of the coup against Nawaz Sharif even when Musharraf was away in Colombo. “I am sure it had been war-gamed,” he had observed.

He should have known—years ago, he had been the chief of general staff (CGS). The CGS, along with the commander of the Xth Corps in Rawalpindi, has had a crucial role in all Pakistani coups d’etat. Because of its involvement in military coups, the ‘Triple One Brigade’ of the Xth Corps is even known as the Coup Brigade.

It now turns out that preparations had gone beyond war-gaming—standing ord­ers for the coup had been issued before Mus­harraf left for Colombo. This has been con­firmed by Lt General (retd) Shahid Aziz, the then Director-General of Military Ope­r­ations, in his book Yeh Khamoshi Kab Tak (How long this silence?). Aziz’s disclosure proves that only those closest can betray you—he is a relation of Musharraf.

In his autobiography In the Line of Fire, Musharraf describes the events of that fateful evening on October 18, 1999, as if they were impromptu occurrences in response to news of his removal as army chief by the Nawaz Sharif government at 5 pm: “The Chief of General Staff , Lt General Mohammed Aziz Khan, and Lt General Mahmood Ahmed (Rawalpindi Corps commander) were playing tennis in an army club in Chaklala, about three miles from the Army headquarters. Two commanding officers, lieutenant colonels Shahid Ali and Javed Sultan, belonging to the crack Triple One Brigade of the Rawalpindi Corps, were playing squash at the same club.” They abandoned their game and rushed back to HQ on hearing the news.

The DGMO, Lt General Aziz, had just reached home and was untying his shoelaces. “When the news reached him, he retied his laces and rushed back to headquarters, telling his wife...that he did not know when or if he would be back. He already sensed what he had to do.”

Musharraf’s narrative implies an entirely unpremeditated res­ponse. Lt Gen Aziz, however, discloses that before leaving for Colombo, Musharraf had given verbal orders to him, CGS Lt Gen Aziz Khan and to Lt Gen Mahmood Ahmed, making them “individually authorised”—in case the three were unable to meet—to issue orders for the coup. Even the Triple One Brigade had been issued its orders to be on standby.

This carefully planned coup is projected as a spontaneous expression of loyalty by Musharraf. “Apart from being their chief, I played squash with the two commanding officers, Shahid Ali and Javed Sultan. Mohammed Aziz Khan was my appointee.... Mahmood Ahmed had been my regimental commanding officer. The DGMO, Shahid Aziz, is my relative.” And so on.

It was Shahid Aziz, according to Mus­harraf, who gave orders to the Triple One Brigade. Lt Col Shahid Ali sealed the prime minister’s house, putting him under arrest. Javed Sultan did the same at the president’s house and ordered the take-over of Pakistan Television.

Javed Sultan was then appointed Pakistan’s military attache to India with the rank of brigadier. A warm and genial per­son, he was still in New Delhi when Mus­harraf’s autobiography was published in 2006. When teased about his chief paying him rich tributes for conducting the coup he denied it, saying: “That is some other Javed Sultan”. Afterwards, he extracted a promise that I would not write about it as it served no public purpose in India.

He once told me that when he met the crown prince of Bhutan (the present king), he had joked that he too was a crown prince in Pakistan. “Should I ever become the army chief, there is a possibility that I might be king. Every Pak army general is a crown prince,” he laughed.

Unfortunately, his helicopter met with an accident in South Waziristan on February 7, 2008, where he was leading the troops against the Taliban as General Officer Commanding, Kohat. His partner in the coup, Shahid Ali, retired as a brigadier. Lt General Aziz Khan became chairman, joint chiefs of staff committee, and is writing his memoirs. Lt Gen Mahmood Ahmed was appointed director-general, ISI, but rem­oved unceremoniously after 9/11. He has joined the Tablighi Jamaat and preaches Islam. Gen Musharraf, who forgot to war-game his return, is lost in the fog of Pakistani politics.

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