Wednesday November 29, 2023

Remembering Fasih Bokhari

November 29, 2020

If they still made men like that, one would certainly want to see more like the later Admiral (r) Fasih Bokhari. The former naval chief lost his battle against cancer on November 24, 2020 – a disease he fought as stoically as his enemies at war.

Apart from his stellar career in the Pakistan Navy as a submariner, which he then went to command in 1997 until his resignation in 1999, there are many who will remember Admiral Bokhari for his gentle demeanor, and the kindness and respect he showed others. There is certainly not a moment that he didn’t amaze me for the fact that, despite being one of the four four-star commanders of the armed forces, he never exhibited arrogance of power. He could be challenged, was eager to learn, engage with others, and show respect to women that you may not find amongst many of the men of his background. Indeed, he had the posture of an educated and sophisticated man.

Mariners always claim that they are different from other military men. Having observed Admiral Bokhari since 1998, when I went to work at the naval headquarters on his request, I understood the notion more. Of course, individual personality has a decisive bearing but the miles of endless sea – with its vastness, darkness and grandeur – gives naval personnel a different perspective of space and time. Perhaps it was because of this mariner’s lens that he could think more strategically about his organization, the enemy, and both war and peace.

Admiral Bokhari and I didn’t know each other before 1997, which was the first time we met – at a passing out banquet at the Naval War College in Lahore where I had lectured a few times. He asked me if I would come and work for the navy. I had just returned from the UK with a PhD in War Studies. Admiral Bokhari wanted to use my knowledge and ability to think critically to turn his service around. He trusted his men but was conscious that to bring changes in the service to make it cost-effective and efficient he needed a non-bureaucratic lens.

He had inherited the navy from Admiral Mansoor-ul-Haq, whose involvement with the French Agosta-90B submarine kickback deal had left the service tainted. It was essential to pull the Pakistan Navy out from under those dark shadows. Indeed, Admiral Bokhari sat down with a team of management experts and about 50 of his men from various ranks to redefine the mission statement, bring clarity as to who was the navy’s key clientele, and right-size the organization.

I was asked to rewrite the standard-operating-procedures (SOP) for naval weapons procurement. But he also understood that a military institution is grounded in traditions, which would make it an uphill task to anchor change – he was not only a bridge for my ideas but also the one who translated the thoughts institutionally. His idea was that since you can’t have a new team, one has to work with whatever human resources are available. The naval chief’s office was fun. He had brought a naval historian, (late) Commander Najeeb Anjum to work as his secretary.

Admiral Bokhari’s journey to change, however, was cut short in 1999 due to the Kargil conflict. Besides that, the naval chief and air chief, Air marshal P Q Mehdi were taken by utter surprise by General Pervez Musharraf’s Kargil adventure; Bokhari in fact had little sympathy for the plan, and even other developments during that period. He told British journalist Owen Bennett-Jones in an on-record interview after retirement that he was not in favor of testing nuclear weapons in 1998. This was not to compromise Pakistan’s security but a different measure of the gains that Pakistan could make by having the capability and yet not testing. Later, the navy was struck by financial troubles caused due to the American arms embargo that did not bode well for fulfillment of the Agosta-90B procurement project.

The Kargil operation put the army and the civilian government on a collision course. The conflict resulted in Bokhari resigning in protest as the government gave Pervez Musharraf the additional assignment of chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC) that violated the unwritten norm of the position circulating amongst the three services. Indeed, it was the navy’s turn then. Although it is a matter of conjecture as to how effective the former naval chief would have been in the position of a four-star general meant to represent operational interests and plans of all three services, he certainly had a different view about things.

Notwithstanding that India-Pakistan peace looks impossible now, Admiral Bokhari believed that rapprochement between the two neighbors was in their strategic interest, especially Pakistan’s. He had that conversation with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and wanted to take the lead in reaching out to the navy on the other side to come together and solve the Sir Creek dispute that had a bearing on the issue of the absence of maritime boundary. He continued to pursue the idea even after retirement as part of a track-II group.

I got another chance to work with him when he was appointed in 2010 as chairman of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Despite the fact that he sought this position, this is not where his strength was nor where his heart lay. He was at his best as a naval and military strategic thinker. Indeed, for me every visit to his home in Chak Shehzad was a treat to hear him speak about history, politics and strategy. There were times when I listened and others when I argued passionately, arguments he would hear out with the same kindness he showed to his two daughters. We understood that each wanted the betterment of Pakistan in our different ways and that we were each willing to dialogue.

Now that he is gone, I will miss him even more for the conversations that spread across the globe and opened my mind to the universe of a mariner’s outlook. There is many a sane soul in Islamabad who will also miss his presence. They say that before he died, he was worried about where the country was drifting.

The writer is author of ‘Military Inc’, and served as former director of naval research.

Twitter: @iamthedrifter