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When Nawaz Sharif Completed A National Security Project In Record Time

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The article was originally written in Urdu by Wing Commander (r) Zafar Iqbal and has been translated into English by Janet Wherrich for Naya Daur Media.

In 1989, I was appointed as Staff Operations Officer (SOO) at Sargodha Airbase. This base has always been the spine of PAF. It draws interest from foes and friends alike for invading or protecting it respectively, which keeps the forces intensely occupied. After my posting, the first 4-5 months passed with a routine of working all weekdays in the office, studying war plans critically, and brainstorming to come up with new ways to improve them. In 1990, the neighboring country that always keeps us on our toes made a military mobilization that posed a threat of an invasion of our country. The base commander reviewed the war plans and assessed them as effective. However, the commander called me to his office all of a sudden the next day. He told me that Chief of PAF, Air Chief Marshal Hakimullah Khan Durrani, had drawn our attention to a possible combat strategy, which if adopted by the enemy air force, we would have no adequate response to. F-16 may not be used to their full capability in such a scenario, therefore he asked me to find a solution within twenty four hours. The problem was that the solution would have to be actionable from outside the base. I took the assistant garrison engineer with me, picked the maps of the surrounding area, and rushed off our feet for eight hours straight in the adjacent areas of the base.

I reported back to Base Commander in the evening when I returned. I told him that the solution that the Air Chief Marshal had on his mind was not feasible. The solution actually would involve tonnes of civil work in the surroundings of our base costing millions. It made him more worried. He asked, “How will it be done, and especially that rapidly?” I told him I had found a solution to this. Since I was responsible for the entire civil protocol, I had an excellent working relationship with the civil administration. Major Shahnawaz Badar was serving as the ADC-G there at that time, who had also worked as a staff officer to the then Chief Minister (CM) of Punjab, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. I discussed the matter with him. He told me that it was an extremely critical issue that needed immediate attention. He suggested that I called on the CM of Punjab, Nawaz Sharif and promised to make an appointment with the CM.

A couple of days later, Base Commander Air Commodore Najib and I flew in a training aircraft early in the morning to land at Lahore Airport around 7 AM. At half-past seven we were in the civil secretariat. G.M. Mr. Sikander promptly received us. He informed us that we would have to wait for about an hour. We were called at 8: 30 AM in the conference room. There were 5-6 people in the room including Lt Gen (Retd) Abdul Majeed Malik and Shaikh Rasheed Ahmad. Nawaz Sharif got up from his chair and approached us to shake hands with us. He apologised for not being able to see us at 8 o’ clock sharp because he had to attend to some extremely urgent matters. As soon as we all sat in the chairs, he asked what had brought us in. Base Commander AC Najib presented in detail the border situation, the possibility of a specific war tactic by the enemy, and its proposed solution. CM Nawaz Sharif immediately asked 10-12 very analytical and critical questions. “Have you guys taken into account other possibilities? What if the enemy does this? What if the enemy carries out that? Have you considered your response if our enemy comes up with this tactic?”

He further questioned the procedural correctness. “Who has asked you to contact me? Why wouldn’t the Ministry of Defense do it? Why wouldn’t the Pakistan Air Force do it? What does the Government of Punjab have to do with national defense affairs? We had heard from others that Mian Nawaz Sharif was quite naive in these matters, but his torrent of intrusive questions bamboozled us both. His level of knowledge of national defense affairs, as evident from his queries, impressed us. Then suddenly, he reclined in his chair looking at the ceiling and went into deep thought. The base commander said, “Sir if it’s not possible to do it in one step, let us complete it in various stages”. Nawaz Sharif looked at him with surprise and said, “It is a matter of national defense, it will be done in one go, that’s it. I am just thinking about the timing. We are in May. That means the last month of the fiscal year. So where to divert the funds from to carry out this project at this point?” He then called G.M. Sikander over and dictated his formal written order that he had approved the project. The base commander would select the contractor for it.

He added: “And advise the selected contractor that no mistakes or negligence will be tolerated in this national security issue”. And lastly, he instructed that the report that the project was underway must return to his table latest by the seventh day. Then he rose from his chair quickly and asked courteously, “Anything else I can help with, Commander?”

As soon as we exited the office, the Base Commander said: “Zafar, this fellow is a fighter pilot, man, a fighter pilot. Such quick thinking and fast decision-making!”

“Way better than a fighter pilot, sir”, I responded.

The same evening, we had a meeting in the Commissioner’s office. Senior Engineer WAPDA, Senior Engineer Highways, Deputy Commissioner all were present. To my utter surprise, work on the project got underway at full swing, even before the seventh day and every hurdle was removed for a smooth and swift completion. Fast forward several days, I came to know that the project work had been stalled because of nonpayment to the contractor. I immediately took my training plane and arrived at the office of Chairman P&D’s Mr Arif at 7:30 AM. The office was still closed so I sat on the stairs outside. Arif Sahib came sharp at 8 o’clock. This was my first meeting with him. He hugged me warmly and told me that although it was the first time he had met me, it seemed that he knew me well.

He said, “Let me tell you something. Every Thursday, the Chief Minister calls up to get an update on your project and monitors its progress”. He picked up the phone and called the Secretary Works on his direct line. Without any formalities he said, “You know Wing Commander Zafar Iqbal, right? He is here in uniform & does not care for even a cup of tea until the due payment for the project is approved and funding was released. Either you sign and stamp your approval immediately or I will send him to Mian Sahib (CM Mian Nawaz Sharif) directly. After listening to the response, he hung up and laughed amusingly for a while and finally said, “Let us enjoy tea now. The secretary is now on his feet waiting for you. Let him stand for a tad bit.”

I had a quick cup of tea with him and dashed to the Secretary Works’ office. He promptly signed all the required documents. Next, I had to take the documents to four more levels. To my pleasant surprise and contrary to the typical bureaucratic red tape, I found the officer at each stage eagerly waiting for me to sign their approval. Finally, I reached the finance department. The Deputy Director, Finance assured me of quick action and asked me to go back home.

Keeping in view the phenomenal efficiency that day thus far, I said that I would be grateful if he could finish it the same day. He chuckled and told me that this type of work would have taken two months in a normal routine. He further said, “Only for your sake we will get it done in a 2-day period which is required because a lot of paperwork has to be prepared.” He continued, “you don’t know us but everyone in this department knows you by name, that is, Wing Commander Zafar Iqbal.” He explained that they knew I was an upright project director who kept an eye on every single penny spent on the project and that not even a rupee would end up in my pocket.  He further added with a pleasant smile, “We appreciated and value you and your project very much.”

In all honesty, I must admit that in my entire military life, I have never seen a project getting underway in such a short period. It was a manifestation of Nawaz Sharif’s strong will and proper use of his competent authority. The project was completed at a tremendous pace and the new plan of the Pakistan Air Force became operational in record time. The “impending” war did not take place, but our preparations were done in no time, Alhamdulillah and thanks to Mr Nawaz Sharif.

Nawaz Sharif’s incredibly quick thinking, resolve, and patriotism left a lasting impression on my mind.

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