What an Indian saw inside the Pakistan Army headquarters

Behind the scenes.
Behind the scenes.
Image: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood
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One would expect a liberal dose of subservience and docility when army soldiers meet their senior officers. But the interaction between the lowly soldier and the colonel sitting by my side in the army vehicle left me both puzzled and amazed.

The tall, bearded, well-built Pathan guard, wearing a bulletproof vest, with what looked like an AK-47 slung across his broad chest looked unfriendly and cold when he stiffly saluted the colonel.

Assalamualaikum,” he said in a coarse, surly voice. The colonel was in his khaki uniform, with the insignia on it stating loud and clear that he was a mid-level officer of the Pakistan Army. The guard couldn’t have missed that, but the presence of a colonel made no difference to the man guarding gate number 1 of the Pakistan Army’s GHQ in Rawalpindi.

The Pathan guard went up to a cabin to make a call from the landline. I could see him through the cabin glass—not once did he relax as he made the phone call. Tall, well-built guards stood facing the street, observing the passing vehicles. They were as still as statues, and the only sign of movement could be found in their eyes, which surveyed the street surrounding the GHQ.

They had to be on the watch and be ruthlessly professional, not only because they were guarding the sanctum sanctorum of Pakistan’s most revered institution, but also because of the threat perception. In October 2009, ten Tehrik-i-Taliban gunmen dressed in military uniform attacked the GHQ, killing nine soldiers and two civilians, and infiltrated the complex, holding many more hostage.

The Pakistan Army’s logo shone bright and proud right in the middle of the gate, displaying two crossed swords, the crescent and star, in bottle green. The entrance, the guards, the buildings inside, and the general feel of the place conveyed a sense of imperiousness, professionalism, and power, perhaps indicating the place GHQ enjoyed in the Pakistani sociopolitical imagination. The Pakistan Army has always enjoyed pride of place in the minds of the Pakistani civilians.

Inside the GHQ

The GHQ is within the Rawalpindi garrison complex. There is nothing extraordinary about Rawalpindi, an old run-down city adjacent to the rather new and modern city of Islamabad, Pakistan’s flashy capital.

We had passed through the giant gate, but the well-secured GHQ complex had several more layers of security, with automatic roadblocks and spike barriers.

I always imagined the top generals of the Pakistan Army as belonging to some kind of exclusive society—bound by oath, blood, and honour, and mired in secrecy. The power they wield is legendary.

“That’s not quite right,” Tariq Ghazi once told me, “it’s like any other organisation with its own differences, internal politics, people trying to get ahead of each other. But once a decision is taken, we carry out those decisions in a professional manner.”

I took a deep breath as I walked into the office of general Akbar. Known to be a no-nonsense officer, his reputation preceded him.

The CGS (chief of general staff) is uniquely placed in the Pakistan Army, and wields a great deal of power. The Pakistan Army chief commands the army, but the CGS runs it—so they say in the army circles. While the chief is selected by the prime minister, the selection of the CGS is entirely the chief’s prerogative, which he does also on the basis of who among the lieutenant generals of the army he has an excellent chemistry with.

The chief General Bajwa’s office is hardly 25 metres from the office of the CGS. Put differently, power in Pakistan flowed from 25 metres from where I was standing.

We entered the CGS’s office through the main door, which led to a room with a huge table. On one side was a seating area and on the other side was the dining area. There were several doors which housed the offices of his deputies and officers. It looked like a living apartment—but it was not.

In the main hall, to the left, there was a large table which looked like the CGS’s workstation. There were crossed swords on the wall and miniature weapon systems placed on the table. The office looked magisterial, imperial, and awe-inspiring. On the right-hand side of the room, there was a small table which could be used as a meeting table or a dining table.

There were a few waiters standing around with trays of coloured drinks. There were a few adjacent rooms from where the uniformed waiters emerged with their trays and headgear.

General Akbar looked at me intently for a few seconds before uttering, “Welcome to Pakistan, and the GHQ.” He bears a strong-willed handshake and a miserly smile, and speaks thoughtfully. “Hope you had a good trip to the LoC (Line of Control).”

The awkwardness in the air was still refusing to go away.

“I must confess,” he said after a few more awkward seconds, “I was expecting to meet an older professor from India.”

“I will come again after a few years when I am older, general saab,” I responded with a smile.

He laughed loudly, as did his deputy and the young major, though not the waiters. Some of the awkwardness helpfully vanished. We got down to business.

“I have read your work, but you don’t seem to give much importance to the political factors behind ceasefire violations (CFVs). Since the arrival of the Modi government in new Delhi, CFVs are mostly caused by political triggers. Modi wants to show that he is a strong prime minister and hence the violence on the LoC. Rest assured, we will retaliate as and when we are fired at,” he said, beginning the conversation on an accusatory note.

I wasn’t too keen on getting into an argument with him.

“What about the question of terror? Is that not the most significant issue between India and Pakistan, including causing CFVs?” I asked him. He stressed two aspects relating to terrorism: one, how the Pakistan Army has been able to defeat terrorism in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and two, how what happens in Kashmir is spontaneous and locally driven.

“We only give diplomatic support,” he told me, sticking to the Pakistan Army’s official line on the matter. I didn’t want to be pushing my line beyond a point…I wasn’t there for a scoop. It was more of an intellectual pilgrimage.

“I will take your leave now,” Akbar said as he shook my hand. “I hope to see you again, here in Pakistan. Good luck with your work.” Mehmood saw me off at the door. “If you need anything while you are still here, please call me. Take my number from the major.”

I had learnt to recognise the significance of pleasantries and not to push their symbolic limits. I neither asked for the number nor was it given to me. The guards were once again still, the major saluted the general and took charge of me from him.

While we walked towards the major’s office, General Akbar’s cavalcade went past us. Everything had gone as per the major’s plans. In another 10 minutes, our car drove past the gate. I looked back for one last glimpse of the Pathan guard who stood still and tall at the gate, uninterested.

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House India from The Line of Control by Happymon Jacob. We welcome your comments at