My Icon, Mentor and Friend
By Talat Masood
Sahabzada Yaqub was a man of exceptional qualities who left an indelible impression on me from the first day I met him. His career spanned over a historic period, both pre- and post-Partition. As aide-de-camp to both Lord Mountbatten and later to Mohammed Ali Jinnah, he experienced firsthand the evolution of Pakistan as well as the global forces at work. Fortunately, his subsequent career was also an excellent mix of military and diplomatic experience at the highest level.
The first time I came in contact with him was when he was commanding 1 Armored Division in 1961 and I was posted to 19 th Lancers as the Light Aid Detachment officer. I had just returned from abroad after doing a post-graduate course. Sahabzada Yaqub’s deep fascination for technology and interest in scientific developments provided me the opportunity to interact with him at a very early stage of my military career. He had a great grasp over strategy and was aware of the close relationship between technology and strategy and its impact on the nature of conflict.
If he found any episode or conversation intellectually stimulating, then rank was not a barrier and one such experience, in 1967, illustrates the point. I had returned from China after doing a course on T-Series tanks when our paths crossed after a considerable gap at an army reception. Having learnt that I had just returned from China, he invited me to prepare a paper on my impressions of the situation there as it was undergoing the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution. I was one of the few foreigners living in China who had witnessed from the sidelines the momentous unfolding of the Revolution. In his capacity as Chief of General Staff, he sent my paper to then army chief General Yahya Khan and arranged for me to address GHQ officers on my impressions of our new strategic partner China, with special reference to the Cultural Revolution and the internal power struggle in the country. I was frank and honest, and must have got something right, for a mere Major (as I was then) does not normally address the GHQ nor was a junior officer’s written report sent to the army chief as this was clearly an unusual practice. But for him, dissemination of knowledge took precedence over trivial considerations. He knew that once China stabilizes internally, it would be a global power of great consequence.
Sahabzada Yaqub belonged to a different breed — honest to the core, an intellectual of a high order with an incisive mind. As a diplomat, he can be ranked among the best Pakistan has produced. His speeches at the UN and other world forums made a mark. His brilliance and grasp of world affairs was internationally recognized and President Nixon in his letter of September 27, 1985 had this to say: “General Al Haig has always told me that he considers you to be one of the world’s most outstanding strategic thinkers, and after our talks I can underline that in spades.” Henry Kissinger was a great admirer and valued his views. World leaders across the political divide sought his analyses and advice on global and regional affairs. After retirement, the King of Morocco asked Sahabzada Yaqub to deliver a series of lectures at the Center for Strategic Studies in Rabat where he spoke on national strategy and various levels of military strategy. He was one of those rare thinkers who predicted the fall of the Shah of Iran as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The bold and courageous, principled stand that he took over the insurgency of East Pakistan is a true reflection of his stature. If only the government of the time had heeded his advice, the great tragedy of violent separation could have been averted.
His contribution in the establishment of the National Defense College, which later was granted university status, will always be remembered. Even after retirement, Sahabzada Yaqub continued to promote education and was appointed chairman of the board of trustees of the Aga Khan University.
Of course, Sahabzada Yaqub had his weaknesses. His elitism kept him somewhat detached and invited criticism and allegations of being snobbish and beholden to the West. He belonged to that class of military officers for whom politicians were an anathema and politics remained disdainful. He was more comfortable in the company of military rulers, foreign dignitaries, intellectuals, and less with politicians. However, at a personal level he remained correct to a fault and gave his best while serving as Benazir Bhutto’s foreign minister and as ambassador during the senior Bhutto’s tenure.
Sahabzada Yaqub’s gracious wife, Tuba Begum, was an invaluable companion and a huge support to him in every facet of his life.
His interest in life never faded. Even during the Second World War, when he was taken prisoner in northern Africa while his formation was fighting against German-Italian troops, he learnt several foreign languages that gave him insight into other worlds and access to their literature, poetry and culture. He believed that gaining proficiency in a foreign language gives the advantage of seeing the world through a different lens.
Sahabzada Yaqub’s formal education was basic, but through self-education and a passion for learning, he had developed insights that many leaders would envy. Interestingly, despite his Western orientation, he remained erudite in Urdu and Persian poetry and an ardent admirer of Saadi, Ghalib and Faiz. He could recite hundreds of verses from memory while being equally at ease in quoting Clausewitz, Aristotle or Shakespeare. He set new standards of intellectual discourse and always introduced elements in his conversation and lectures that would challenge the best of minds.
The standards set by Sahabzada Yaqub for professional competence and how an officer should conduct himself remain the benchmark even today. He continues to be a role model for our diplomats and statesmen to follow. And for me, he was an icon, mentor and a friend whose memory will remain indelible. ( The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board. The Express Tribune)