Authors: Ben Coes
“Good morning, Omar,” said the voice in a soft whisper. “How are you today?”
“Stop calling me that,” said El-Khayab. “I’m your brother but I’m also the president of Pakistan. I’ve said this so many times I’m beginning to get angry.”
El-Khayab reached up and rubbed the scarred flesh around his eyes. Reaching beside the bed, he took a small wooden walking stick and used it to raise himself up.
“I’m sorry,” said Atta, who grabbed El-Khayab’s free arm and helped him up. “I seem to forget in the mornings. I see you and it reminds me of—”
“I don’t care what it reminds you of,” muttered El-Khayab. “Do I ask for much, Atta? I don’t think so.”
El-Khayab coughed as Atta led him across the small bedroom, a room that had previously served as a walk-in closet for former presidents, but El-Khayab insisted be made into his bedroom, so discomfited was he by the luxury, space, and sheer opulence of Pakistan’s presidential residence; opulence he couldn’t see but which he’d made Atta describe to him in minute detail upon moving in.
Atta led his brother to the bathroom, helped him clean his face and body, brush his teeth, comb and trim his beard, then get dressed in a clean, simple white bisht, its only decorative flair being a small strip of azure piping along the collar.
“They’re waiting for you in the cabinet room,” said Atta as they moved from the bathroom to the sitting room, the largest room within the president’s personal chambers in the palace. “The entire cabinet is there. General Karreff, other military chiefs. Everyone.”
El-Khayab scowled as he entered the sitting room. Though blind, he moved confidently across the large tan carpet. He knew the room well by now. Near the window that looked out on Constitution Avenue, El-Khayab found the simple wooden chair and sat down.
“They can wait a few minutes while the president has a cup of tea.”
“Yes, they can wait, Mr. President.”
Atta moved across the room and placed a small white cup down on the table in front of El-Khayab. He poured from a steaming teapot into the cup. “Be careful, it’s very hot.”
“What is the noise?” El-Khayab asked, suddenly aware of a low steady chant coming from outside.
“The crowds,” said Atta excitedly. “They began gathering last night after the attack on Skardu. There are more than fifty thousand people in the square right now. The police have shut down part of Constitution Avenue.”
” asked El-Khayab. “This is good. They are angry. Perhaps we should empty the schools and the offices. The anger of the Pakistani people will guide us in the days and weeks ahead. As Allah foretold to me, my first test would come when a year had passed. Now, a year has passed and I am to be tested by the Hindus.”
El-Khayab sipped from his teacup, listening to the low din of the crowds gathered outside. Every few moments, a hint of organized chorus, a chant, would reverberate.
Death to India! Death to India! Death to India!
A smile creased El-Khayab’s mouth. “Listen,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper. “What does it remind you of, Atta?”
“I don’t know.”
“Fridays. At dusk. It’s like the reverie.”
Atta took a seat on the sofa across from El-Khayab.
“Yes, I see. You’re right.”
“And I’m the one to answer their prayer.”
“But you want peace, brother,” whispered Atta, leaning forward. “Do you not remember? It was you they elected because they were tired of the military guiding Pakistan, tired of being led around like dogs by the Americans.”
“I was not elected to keep peace,” said El-Khayab, urgency in his voice, “nor to make war. I was elected to lead this country. What has happened, what is happening, is not of our choosing. What is of our choosing, of my choosing, is what to do next, how to respond.”
El-Khayab sat back, clutching the small cup in his hands.
“But surely a response must entail calming the situation down,” said Atta. “It does nobody any good to see destruction and death.”
“Unless it’s the death of the infidel,” said El-Khayab.
He stood and walked to the window that overlooked Constitution Avenue.
“The hardest lesson I had to teach my students at the madrasa was about the need for violent jihad,” said El-Khayab, staring at the window, despite his blindness. “That the violence was somehow necessary in order to create a world
violence. That Islam, the most beautiful and peaceful of religions, demanded that the blood of the infidel be spilled across the earth in order to wash away the filth of the past. The reason it was hard for me to teach this lesson was because I was hidden away, behind the stones and the ivy, the bricks and the windows and doors, within the comforting walls and sounds of the madrasa. It was the boys who had to go out in the world and sacrifice themselves. They were the ones who had to spill the blood on behalf of Allah.”
“Now, it’s my turn. I am the one to fight the next battle of Islam. It is my turn to step out from the protective walls and at long last thrust the spear with my own hands.” El-Khayab paused and took a sip from his teacup. “It’s all happening, just as Allah foretold.”
El-Khayab turned back to his brother. He smiled at him.
“You must listen to him,” said Atta, “but you must also listen to the men who you have appointed to your cabinet. Your generals and ministers.”
“Thank you for your counsel, brother,” said El-Khayab. “As usual, you suffer my insults and help to calm me. You always help to give me a compass when I most need it. Today, I woke up not knowing what to do. What does a cleric have to say about war strategy, yes? As always, it is he who provides the answers. It is my time to wage jihad on his behalf.”
“But that was not my counsel, Omar—”
“Be quiet now, Atta,” said El-Khayab. “Let us listen to the chant for a few more minutes.”
* * *
Ten minutes later, three floors below, El-Khayab walked quietly into the cabinet room. It was 6:38
El-Khayab’s war cabinet, a collection of ministers, military, and intelligence officials, arose as he entered.
“Good morning, everyone,” El-Khayab said as he walked in. “Please sit down. Is General Karreff here?”
“I’m here, Mr. President,” said Karreff, the chief of army staff of the Pakistan Army, the highest-ranking military officer in the country.
“And what do we hear from the war front, General?” asked El-Khayab. He walked to the end of the large conference table and found his seat at the end of the table.
“The situation is rapidly devolving,” said Karreff. “For both sides. The Line of Control from Kargil all the way to the Siachen Glacier is effectively in the hands of India. They’ve moved more than eighty thousand troops south of Skardu. The Indian Army is advancing by the hour toward Khaplu. They are raining down missiles at our troops to the west. The conflict began less than twenty-four hours ago but already we have nearly ten thousand casualties.”
Ten thousand dead Pakistani soldiers?
” asked El-Khayab incredulously. A look of rage streaked across his wrinkled brow. “My God.”
“It’s hell on earth, excuse me, sir,” continued Karreff. “Both sides are ramping up on an unprecedented scale. The LOC from the Indus River to the Shyok is running with blood.”
“And what are we doing about it, General Karreff?” asked El-Khayab.
“We have designed a two-prong counterattack,” said Karreff. “In Skardu and Ladakh, we have several brigades of North Light Infantry. They are supported by heavy air bombardment.
“Second, to the east of the principal battle theater, NLI has thrust into the Mushkoh Valley,” said Karreff. “I can report that we have control of land from Mushkoh to Kargil, between the LOC and the India National Highway. Field Marshal Bolin is using a similar attack framework as the 1999 invasion.”
“So we are, in effect, swapping territory?” asked El-Khayab.
“You could certainly look at it that way,” said Karreff. “The Mushkoh is an easier war for us to wage, sir. Easier to get troops in, less inhospitable terrain, though it is still certainly quite challenging. But unless India can re-induct troops away from Skardu, they will be forced to fight two wars. In Skardu, we will rely primarily on air support—bombing runs from Chaklala.”
“What of civilians?” asked Rami Mavilius, El-Khayab’s chief of staff.
“Potentially, there will be heavy losses in Skardu and Khaplu if the war continues,” said Karreff. “However, I do not believe India will eradicate civilian population simply for the sake of it. In the meantime, by thrusting south, we intend to provide you with effective options, Mr. President. At the very least, we would in theory be able to negotiate the reestablishment of the LOC back to where it was by possessing a highly important corridor to New Delhi. But we also could end up with the areas around Drass and Mushkoh. If the going remains good, Field Marshal Bolin will continue west along the India highway toward Srinagar. Of course the ultimate prize would be Srinagar.”
“Where is Bolin now?” asked Mavilius.
“Bolin and the war command are in Drass.”
“Why has it begun so violently?” asked Darius Mohan, Pakistan’s foreign minister. “Why was there not a more gradual buildup? I don’t think either side wanted to reach this point so soon. It’s like an argument that immediately goes to fists. There’s no control, no sense of proportion.”
“You’re right, Darius,” said Karreff. “The problem is, the Skardu theater is in a uniquely bad geography for war. It is so remote, so difficult to get to and support troop sets. Right now, it is essential that both sides establish secure supply chain right-of-way to the front. Without relatively safe transportation routes in, whatever is at the front will soon be killed off. Ammunition, men, food, fuel; if the lines are at risk you might as well retreat because whatever is in front of the line will soon perish. The Ladakh Range in and around the LOC is treacherous. There are severely restricted means of creating those supply chains. India and Pakistan are now feverishly trying to build, maintain and protect their own supply chains in these early hours while at the same time trying to decimate the approaching enemy. The result is high-volume, high-velocity death count and heavy destruction. We’ve fired more missiles in the past twenty-four hours than in the entire 1971 conflict.”
“How many troops have we sent to the front?” asked El-Khayab.
“More than two hundred thousand Pakistani soldiers are either in the battle theater in and around Skardu or are in the Drass and Mushkoh valleys,” said Karreff. “PAF is lighting up the advancing enemy lines from Chaklala. But the Indians have nearly completed a rough artery line up the western shores of the Shyok River, near Yagulung, where the original conflict arose. They’re shuttling soldiers in by transport chopper. Our successes thus far have come from aerial bombardment. Field Marshal Bolin believes we have already killed between six thousand and ten thousand Indian soldiers. But already PAF has lost more than a dozen planes. The bottom line is, both sides are being physically pummeled.”
“Darius, has there been any outreach from New Delhi?” asked Deputy Minister of Defense Khalid el-Jaqonda. “Russia, Switzerland, the French, America?”
“Nothing from New Delhi,” said Mohan. “Not a word. The Swiss have contacted me four times, the Americans half a dozen, as have the others you mention. Everyone is looking for words and apologies. But they are on a hunting expedition. They have nothing from New Delhi, not even a willingness to listen as of yet. There is no guarantee that if we were to reach out in some way the other side would even be willing to open their ears.”
“You also have an extremely volatile situation within India,” said el-Jaqonda. “President Ghandra is not in a strong political position. The incidents at Yagulung are on the front page of every newspaper in India, including those awful photos of the burning piles of bodies in the village square. It’s a front-page story in every newspaper in the free world. Ghandra cannot merely accept apologies or it will be his political future that is alight atop the funeral pyre.”
“I received a call from the Chinese ambassador,” said Mohan, Pakistan’s foreign minister. “It’s worth mentioning. I don’t know exactly how to interpret this.”
“Yes,” said El-Khayab. “Let the cat out of the bag, Darius. What did he say?”
“The Chinese are moving troops to Aksai Chin and along the Karakoram Pass,” said Mohan. “The Chinese have shut down the N-35. Ambassador Sun-Jong explains that China is ready and willing to protect its own interests as well as those of its ally by treaty.”
“That being Pakistan, of course,” said el-Jaqonda.
“Yes, yes,” said Mohan. “He reaffirmed China’s support for us. He also emphasized the importance of India not moving the Line of Control one inch beyond where it is today, or I suppose, where it was yesterday.”
“So why are you concerned?” asked El-Khayab.
“I am concerned any time the largest country in the world moves more than half a million men to my border,” said Mohan. “I am doubly concerned when they begin to refer to our military alliance with them.”
“I apologize for being so slow today,” said El-Khayab. “But why is that? The Chinese are standing behind us. Is that not something we want? Is that not why we signed the pact in the first place?”
“Of course, President El-Khayab,” said Mohan. He looked around the large conference room table. “But make no mistake, as I was speaking with Ambassador Sun-Jong, the exact same conversation was taking place between India’s foreign minister and the American secretary of state. There are not just two countries involved here, but four. All have a strategic interest in not losing this battle.”
“And all,” added el-Jaqonda, “have nuclear weapons.”
El-Khayab cleared his throat, and the room grew silent for a moment.
“I see,” he said.
El-Khayab stood up from his chair, then walked slowly around the outside of the large table. The assembled cabinet members, staff, and military officials all watched as the tall, bisht-clad, blind cleric ambled slowly behind the long conference table. El-Khayab came to the huge window that looked out on the large square in front of the presidential residence.