Admiral Fasih Bokhari, RIP

Former naval chief and chairman of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) Admiral Fasih Bokhari. — AFP/File
Admiral Fasih Bokhari, Pakistan Navy

Have had the occasion to meet several Chiefs of Staff of the Pakistan armed services over the years, mostly during the trips I made to Pakistan, most of them in the decade following the nuclear tests by both countries in May 1998. Among them are/were Generals (the Azamgarh-born) Mirza Aslam Beg and Khalid Mahmud Arif, and Pakistan naval chief Admiral Fasih Bokhari. Arif carried the most heft. As Vice Chief he ran the army during General Zia ul-Haq’s extended tenure as COAS. But Zia was busy as Martial Law Administrator and later President of the country, and trusted his fellow Araini from Jallandar to mind the store and manage the army and, for his troubles, handed Arif his 4th star, making him the first and so far only Vice Chief of Staff in the subcontinent with the rank of full General.

I found Beg to be cautious and calculating; Arif, who died earlier this year on March 6, to be straight forward and, surprisingly, for someone who was the second most powerful man in all Pakistan, without airs. I recall that in our first meeting Arif explained the entire 1987 Op Brasstacks episode when he exposed the approaches to the Indus River line by concentrating his Army Reserve South at the chicken’s neck to cut off India’s access to Jammu & Kashmir — a stunningly audacious move that dared General K. Sundarji and the Indian government to make the exchange — try and cut off Pakistan at its waist as he severed India from Kashmir and took it. He bet that while his forces would take Kashmir, Indian forces wouldn’t be able to bisect Pakistan (with Op Brasstacks transitioning to Op Trident). In any case, that bait was not taken. Asked why he thought he would get away with risking so much, Arif replied with five-words dipped in contempt and etched in my mind as if with acid ever since — “Kyon ki aap buzdil ho” (“Because you are cowards”). When I once asked Sundarji (then residing in a bungalow within the Signals Enclave in Delhi) about Arif’s ruse de guerre he confirmed the essentials of the situation as the Pakistani General had described them to me but didn’t, other than shrugging his shoulders, either dilate on Brasstacks or respond to Arif’s taunt.

Arif, incidentally, provided an essay — “Roots of Conflict in South Asia: A Pakistani Perspective” for the 1994 compilation published by Penguin which I edited — ‘Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and Beyond’ — unfortunately out of publication. Among the other notables who contributed to the book were Sundarji, K Subrahmanyam, US Senator Larry Pressler, KPS Gill, Foreign Secretary AP Venkateswaran, and the then US Deputy Under-Secretary of Defence for Planning & Resources Dov Zakheim during the Reagan Presidency, who in the George W Bush Administration was appointed the US Under-Secretary of Defence and Comptroller of the Pentagon.

Beg is alive, Arif and Bokhari are gone. They are/were, as expected, stout defenders of Pakistan, the Pakistan ideology and Pakistan’s national interests. Except the CNS, 1997-1999, Bokhari, a submariner was almost the exact opposite of Arif — his sophistication and easy-going urbanity and charm a contrast to the rough-hewn self-conscious toughness of Arif. In another profession, Bokhari would have made for a cultured, gentle-spoken, professor who commanded respect for the logic and persuasiveness with which he put forth his views.

Bokhari became CNS when the Pakistan Navy was passing through a hard time, its reputation stained by his predecessor Admiral Mansurul Haq’s being drummed out of service on corruption charges relating to the Agosta-B submarine deal with France. Haq escaped to the US, was extradited, and imprisoned by the Nawaz Sharif regime on an anti-corruption drive. His military credentials and spotless record led in 2011 to Asif Ali Zardari appointing Bokhari chairman of the National Accountability Bureau set up to collar the corrupt within the establishment. Bokhari’s appointment by Zardari was on the basis of the former’s success in cleaning up the naval procurement system, with the new naval acquisition system configured along the lines recommended by Ayesha Siddiqa — as she explains in her obituary of the Admiral ( https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/750707-remembering-fasih-bokhari ), who was back home with a PhD from King’s College, London, and impressed Bokhari by her new thinking. He appointed her ‘Head of Naval Research’. This reaching out to an outsider for fresh ideas was typically Bokhari.

He reached out to me — having heard of the views I had aired on nuclear and other issues relating to South Asian security in a session chaired by the former foreign minister Agha Shahi, ex-ICS, Madras cadre, at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, whose Board Shahi presided over. Shahi informed me of his pulling time as Private Secretary to the Premier of the Madras Presidency, C. Rajagopalachari — “Rajaji” to one and all — in the late 1930s and, in fact, opened his conversation with me in his office with a flourish, in what sounded to me like pure, flawless Tamil! I was taken aback but recovered sufficiently to remind him that my birthplace in Karnataka (mentioned on my passport) did not make me a “Madrassi”. He said he knew I was not a Tamilian but hoped nevertheless that I could speak his native tongue at least a little because, he said, with not little nostalgia, he wanted to show off his Tamil! Shahi hailed from the small but distinguished community of shia Muslims of Madras. He then spent half an hour speaking of Rajaji, and the latter’s run-ins with Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and generally about the exciting political times on the cusp of freedom, as a young ICS officer attached to Rajaji, and relayed many tales of the “great man” he had served. But I digress!

Bokhari wanted to discuss matters of South Asian security and contacted me in my hotel (if I remember correctly). He invited me for lunch; I readily accepted. He picked me up from my Islamabad hotel and once in his Pajaro Bokhari informed me that he was taking me to Murree for the meal! I informed him that my visa, while absolving me of the daily trip to the police station to mark hazari, restricted my movement. He told me not to worry about it and the police and army jawans manning the several check points we passed on the way, did not bother to inquire about his passenger, and we breezed through. At Murree and in numerous discussions thereafter the one thing that struck me was the complete absence of dogma in everything the Admiral said. There was the light-hearted tittle-tattle about life under General Pervez Muharraf, more serious stuff about how he, along with the CAS, Air Chief Marshal Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi, had not an inkling of Musharraf’s and the army’s plan to occupy the Kargil heights, and the fact that they were informed of these actions by the Northern Light Infantry elements by Musharraf some time after the launch of this operation. Bokhari said he protested vehemently but was stopped short by Musharraf wondering how the Pakistan Navy would have contributed to the operation, implying that because the navy had no role, Bokhari was not in on the planning, and that the Kargil action would have sailed through anyway with or without the CNS’ concurrence. But, considering how that episode panned out, Bokhari sounded relieved he was not party to this ill-conceived and failed military venture.

Bokhari particularly liked a lot the idea I had developed in a 1996 issue of ‘The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of international Affairs’ in London of having the Indian and Pakistani armed services restore their old, pre-Partition, social, cultural, and sporting ties as a “confidence and security-building measure” between the two countries. He thought it doable once the passions aroused by the Kargil conflict were spent, and talked of the mechanisms of such interactions, the procedural hurdles at both ends, etc., and even proposed that the naval chiefs of India and Pakistan meet to break the ice.

Like many senior military officers, Bokhari wanted India-Pakistan peace. But unlike quite a few of them, he did not pivot peace on prior resolution of the Kashmir dispute which position, he indicated, he had communicated to Musharraf and which view the latter accepted or came to realize on his own as the Open Sesame to a negotiated settlement. The broad contours of such an accord were broached by Musharraf to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and external affairs minister Jaswant Singh in the July 2001 summit in Agra, and later to Manmohan Singh. Pity, it didn’t work out on either occasion. Because the central concept was of a joint Indo-Pak mechanism to oversee developments in J&K which solution, if only Delhi had pushed for it, could have included Hunza and Gilgit-Baltistan as well, and combined with Pakistan’s acceptance that natives of PoK and Northern Areas and of J&K travelling freely across the LoC on the basis of their residential papers being stamped, would have satisfied both sides. This last provision essentially would have formalized and internationalized the India-Pakistan border on the Line of Control, something the MEA had at that time determined was a satisfactory remedy. The joint mechanism on the other hand by creating the fiction of Pakistani oversight in Kashmir would have salved the ego of the Pakistan Army. All these years later, there still is no better solution.

Admiral Bokhari, exactly six years my senior in age, and I corresponded sporadically via email until that correspondence petered out some years back because we knew what we agreed on and neither of us had anything new to say to each other. But the goodwill remained until this morning when I read Dr Siddiqa’s obit of Bokhari. I cannot claim to have known him well, but what I divined of the Admiral as a gentleman and a man of honour, and through his email-messages, was his clear-eyed frustration with how the situation was unravelling in his own country and in the subcontinent at-large, causing loss and pain to Indians and Pakistanis alike, and reducing both India and Pakistan in Asia. But I cannot but think that with the generations on either side of the Great Divide that still believe that rapprochement and even intimacy is somehow possible between India and Pakistan passing inexorably from the scene, hope grows dimmer.

Admiral Fasih Bokhari. Rest in Peace.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, corruption, Culture, Decision-making, Defence procurement, domestic politics, Europe, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Politics, Islamic countries, MEA/foreign policy, Military Acquisitions, Military/military advice, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Pakistan nuclear forces, SAARC, society, South Asia, Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Admiral Fasih Bokhari, RIP

  1. The reaction of Gopalaswami Parthasarathy (Former High Commissioner to Pakistan), dated
    Nov 29, 2020 is as below:

    This is an excellent factual analysis of officers of the Pak armed forces, many of whom I had got to know during two tenures in Pakistan. The reality is that with the passage of time the Punjabi-dominated army was, and is, becoming more and more Islamist.

    The only exception to this radicalization was Musharraf in the period 2003-2006. He made a genuine effort to resolve the Jammu and Kashmir issue and toned down cross-border terrorism significantly, for nearly three years. In the end, he found resistance to his efforts from his successor General Ashfaq Kayani insurmountable, and could not move ahead. On our side, Dr. Manmohan Singh was finding the domestic resistance too strong. He also put the Kashmir effort on hold. The Yanks were kept broadly in the picture and some details of the negotiations appeared in the New Yorker Magazine.

    The rest is history.

    Warm regards,

    G Parthasarathy

    • Sankar says:

      “The Yanks were kept broadly in the picture…” –
      What for? They have been acting as an honest broker overtly for peaceful settlement (whatever that means), but covertly stoking the fire for the plebiscite ever since the 1950s. Read the US Professor Christine Fair’s expert political analysis (and her other incisive writings) that India has no case to answer for Kashmir and Pakistan has been the aggressor. Also, it is recorded in history that the Maharajah had signed the same document as all other Princely States for accession for the formation of Indian Union. Hence on the international political stage, India needs to stand up for recovering her sovereign territory under Pakistani occupation now.

      “The reality is … the Punjabi-dominated army … becoming more and more Islamist” –
      The reality is 98% of Pakistanis voted for the “Islamic State” when Gen Zia conducted his referendum in the past. And there is no sign to date to believe that the Pakistanis en masse would change their mind from that position if a vote is held today, only the politically naive would think otherwise.

  2. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    India and Pakistan should formally recognize the current border between both the countries. Fact of the matter is neither India can ever take back the so called POK, nor can Pakistan ever take back the so called IOK. Bury the past. Conduct a poll in both the so called IOK and POK. People who wish to move from the former to latter and vice versa, let them go. Have open borders, free trade and people to people exchange between India and Pakistan, on the lines of EU (European Union) model.

  3. Sher says:

    Gen K M Arif was a Kakazai Pathan from Jullundar and not an Arain.

  4. smjalageri says:

    ಸರ್, ಖುಷಿಯಾಯ್ತು.

    ನೀವ್ಯಾಕೆ ಒಮ್ಮೆ ಕನ್ನಡದಲ್ಲಿ ಬರೆಯಬಾರದು?
    ಒಂದೇ ಒಂದು ಸಲ… (translation:
    Sir, glad. Why shouldn’t you write in Kannada once?
    Only once.)

  5. DEBANJAN BANERJEE says:

    Thanks for another wonderful obituary by Mr. Karnad. Do you think that Pakistan can build a larger navy and do you think that it is in India’s interest to offer a larger security tole to the Pakistani navy in the Arabian and Indian oceans ?

  6. Ghk says:

    Does indian armed forces invests time in coming up with new concepts and testing out those ideas like for instance how china came up with unrestricted warfare .Is training more rote based ie using old concepts as template for every situation.Does IMA produce John Boyd,Rommel ?Is there a urge to be the best ?
    Do armed forced have the freedom in matters related to doctrines ,planning ?Do armed forces hype about too much government involvement ?

  7. Tony says:

    Aap buzdil ho was said and meant with everything it implies , Hindus have been on receiving end for last 800 years minus quite a few exceptions and resistance but a having met many rich educated muslims from pakistan I can vouch for that they all mean it . That their small impoverished dirt poor corrupted country can keep much bigger richer talented India on its toes and bleed it regularly gives their mujahid e momeen egos super boost and with extreme regret I have to say rightly so.

  8. Ghk says:

    Indian armed forces leadership is filled with warrior poets who just give gyan about morality in ruthless business of war. Rightly, the Chinese have assessed that Indian nuclear weapons are just status symbols thus diluting their deterrence value.

  9. Sankar says:

    I wonder for whose consumption this article is meant. Let me deal with one or two points here.
    “Bokhari wanted to discuss matters of South Asian security…” –
    And here is the stark reality of South Asian recorded history a propos security:
    https://theprint.in/opinion/indians-should-thank-these-three-journalists-for-bringing-1971-bangladesh-genocide-to-light/557443/
    To quote: “… Even the name for their operation was apt. A searchlight can be used either to ‘search for’ or to ‘illuminate’. This operation met both aims. Search out every person suspected of being a politician, a student leader, a teacher of Bangla, or a cultural activist. Don’t hide the deaths, but emphasise the gruesome details of these deaths as symbols and signals to illuminate the choices before people who didn’t kowtow. ….
    The intensity of the genocide in Bangladesh surpassed that of the Holocaust. The Nazis had cruelly notched a monthly average of over 80,000 innocent lives between 1941 and 1945, but the Pakistan Army broke the Nazi speed-record five times over in 1971, with their savage murders averaging about 400,000 Bengalis each month, not counting their rapes and other unspeakable atrocities. The ‘Gear 5’ intensity of the Pakistani Genocide stands out — the Pakistanis had committed approximately three million murders in nine months, and more than 200,000 rapes.” –

    The question is would that character Bokhari have acknowledged that recorded events and would have been prepared at least for an apology as a true Pakistani? As you say “Arif and Bokhari …. They are/were, as expected, stout defenders of Pakistan, the Pakistan ideology and Pakistan’s national interests.” … What an ideology and national interest!

    As you write about Arif: “He then spent half an hour speaking of Rajaji, and the latter’s run-ins with Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and generally about the exciting political times on the cusp of freedom” – Has Arif ever cared to explain how the nation’s power structure of the “newly created Pakistan in 1947” was hijacked from the Eastern wing to the Western? The historical fact is, without the “East” Pakistan (Muslim Bengalis) there would be no “West” Pakistan today since at that time the population of the East exceeded more than one and a half times of the West. In fact, the Muslim League would not have succeeded the partition to create Pakistan without the Bengali Muslims joining since they would not have had the numbers.

    • When I write a sort of obit it is a personalised take on the person I knew. Bokhari would have acknowledged the wrongs done in the then East Pakistan pre-1971 — had we talked about it, which we never did; it is unlikely Arif would have done so, whence I wrote about the former on his death.

      The material in your last para in my post referred to Agha Shahi, not Arif.

      • Sankar says:

        First, it was a slip on my part on the names Arif or Shahi.

        I took your write-up of the obituary perfectly in the positive light. I hold the moral position that no one should cast aspersions in writing an obituary since the dead cannot come back to defend himself. Thus, no obituary has been written for Hitler. The good points you have noted have been taken properly. The same holds for Pandit Nehru in regards to his obituary. This does not imply that beyond the confines of someone’s obituary, his failures cannot be picked up. That is what I have done here as I also try to object to Nehru’s Hindi-Chini bhai bhai.

  10. Kunal Singh says:

    Sir , Can IN’s Proposal to Acquire a Third Aircraft Carrier materialize

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