This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
Prime Minister Aslina of Pakistan was awoken at close to midnight.
A light sleeper, the knock roused her instantly. She switched on the reading lamp and reached for her glasses. Her aide was already inside the bedroom when her feet touched the floor. Behind the aid, she could see armed men in the corridor.
“I’m awake.” She said quietly, and the aide nodded and retreated without a word. Aslina turned to the man asleep beside her.
Everyone in Pakistan knew of her husband; there was no native who did know the story of General Hassan, a true Hero of the Nation. Seven months ago, the discovery of oilfields in Pakistan had forced it into a limited military misadventure against Afghanistan. Afghan troops had invaded, seizing exploratory platforms and killing dozens of oilmen. Pakistani forces had launched a counter-offensive. Aslina’s husband had led the strike personally, routing the Afghans and freeing the hostages with few casualties. Afghanistan sued for peace within hours, citing unstable elements in the corridors of power. But the peace had been restored at a terrible personal price to Hassan: a bullet to the spine, shattering it. Military surgeons had worked against the odds but their best efforts failed. Hassan left the army in a wheelchair, having famously spurned all offers of surgical aid in western hospitals. The public made him a hero, and into this fragile political environment, Hassan’s wife was cast. With the army hero at her side as she campaigned, her victory was a foregone conclusion, and within months she was catapulted to the top civilian post in Pakistan.
She looked down at her husband, and sighed softly. She hoped destiny would be kind to her.
Five minutes later, she was seated at a table with three other men.
“Forty minutes ago, ten gunmen walking into three of Mumbai’s top hotels and started shooting. We have reports of 40 to 50 civilians gunned down. Indian security forces have already started responding.”
Aslina removed her glasses. “Any indications that the men are from Pakistan?”
“It’s too early to say. For now, it’s just the first responders on the scene, evacuating casualties and the civilians. The finger-pointing will come later.”
Aslina nodded. Although she was Prime Minister, everyone knew where the reigns of power were held in her country. The Army ruled supreme, and even though she was immensely popular, just a few months in the job she was still out of the power structure. “Okay. Let’s open a line of communication with the Indian Prime Minister right away.”
The Prime Minister of India had been awake when he got the call. A security detail was standing by to rush him to the situation room. The Specials Situations Team had already been assembled when he strode into the room, breathing fire. More than half had been asleep when their phones had rung. “How many casualties?”
“They’ve pulled out eighty bodies so far, sir.” said the Interior Minister, lips dry. “About two hundred injured. The gunmen are armed with automatic weapons and grenades. They’ve been firing indiscriminately, taking no hostages. They are holed up in three hotels, returning fire. The NSG is winging to Mumbai as we speak.”
“Any input as to where these men are from?”
“Nothing right now, sir.” said the National Security Advisor. “We’re monitoring communications on all frequencies, but they’re maintaining strict radio silence.”
The PM turned to the left to the uniforms. “We should keep an open mind until we receive intel on who sent the gunmen, but I think we know what the answer is going to be. I want to ready to respond to this provocation. Gentlemen, I want all options on the table – now.”
Ten other men in uniforms sat around another table in a different capital, smoking. “This wasn’t us.” repeated the ISI chief. He looked around at the heads of the Army, Air force, Navy and Military Intelligence. “Those gunmen were not sent in by us.”
The Chief of Army Staff ground out his cigar. “Then who was it? Taliban? ISIS?”
The ISI czar shook his head. “Impossible for them to pull off an op of this caliber without us getting to learn about it. This didn’t originate in this part of the world, sir.”
The Navy chief frowned. “Could it be the Indians themselves? Fringe elements?”
The CAS nodded. “It is not beyond possibility.” He looked thoughtful. “Once the dust settles, the Indians will start looking at us, nothing will convince them otherwise. We need to make sure our forces are on the alert. Defensive posturing only.”
“But won’t that look suspicious? Like we knew what was going to happen beforehand…”
“Put Southern Command on high alert. And the Fifth Army at battle readiness and ready to move out within sixty hours. No displacement of battalions until otherwise notified. We wait and watch.”
The Indian Prime Minister returned to the Situation Room at six thirty five AM. He had ordered the Team to be bedded on the premises.
The Interior Minister looked a mite more confident than he had last night. “Six of the terrorists have been killed and two are holed up at the Hotel Paris.” He looked around, triumphant. “We got two of them alive.”
Hope flared on the faces at the table, and a wave of exultation swept across. But the Prime Minister’s face was granite. “Are they talking?”
The Interior Minister lowered his gaze. “It looks like Pakistan, sir. It will take us a while to build a fool-proof case, but-”
The PM slammed a fist on the table, silencing the Minister. He turned to his Chief of Staff. “We are going to reply in kind, General and we are not going to do it in a couple of weeks, or months. We are going to do it within the next twenty four hours.”
The General’s expression was grim. “What precisely do you need us to do, sir?”
The PM looked at the RAW Director. “Do we know where their training camps are located? Precise co-odinates? I don’t want collateral damage due to faulty intelligence.”
The RAW man nodded. “They have ten main camps. We have their strength at roughly between seven to nine thousand men. Knock these out and you’ll set them back a decade, maybe more; and that is if they recover.”
The General nodded again. “Within the time frame you have given us, sending in special forces teams to wipe them out is ruled out. We would need a lot of men, and a lot of heavy equipment. The only choice is using our high-altitude bomber squadrons.” He turned to the Air Force General.
The General leaned forward. “We have two squadrons for this sort of assignment. These are heavy bombers, loaded with bunker-busters. They could be at operational readiness inside twelve hours, and mission-ready in the next two.”
The NSA interjected. “Sir, we have to consider the repercussions of this kind of action. This isn’t Sri Lanka we’re going to be bombing. These lunatics have nukes.”
The PM looked at him coldly. “We’ve been at a state of war with those madmen for as long as I can remember. Somewhere along the line, we have to stop receiving and start responding. If you don’t have the stomach for military action, sir, then I would welcome your resignation effective immediately, because as long as I am in command, this nation will not bow down and crawl away like it has done in the past.”
An aide appeared at the PM’s side. “Sir, the Oval Office is on the line…”
Fifteen hours later the Pakistani High Command assembled at Army HQ. There was a sense of panic in the room. “How the hell did it happen?” demanded the CAS. He was sweating profusely.
The ISI chief was no less distressed. “Sir, intelligence inputs are sketchy. What we know is this: an hour ago, all ten training camps in our territory were wiped out in simultaneous explosions. The munitions used were enough to burn everything inside the entire compounds. Secondary munitions have gone off, making the areas inaccessible. We estimate losses in life as total.”
“How were they struck? Missiles? Tactical air force bombers? How?”
Air Force shrugged. “We have nothing. No launch sightings, no missile trails, no incursions on our air space. And our people were on high alert. If anything pinged our air space, we’d have known about it ASAP.”
The CAS was furious. “If we don’t know how it was done, then how the hell will we know who was responsible?”
“It’s the Indians. It has to be.”
“But they don’t have the sort of capability to launch a covert strike of such a magnitude. We’re talking ten different locations, twenty hours shy of the Mumbai attack. No way they could have responded that fast with special forces teams. Maybe the Americans could have, or the Israelis.”
“What about the Russians? They share beds with the Indians.”
The CAS raised his hand to quell the speculation. “We need to respond to this. We can’t sit by idle and twiddle our thumbs while our territory is being attacked. If this nation is being attacked then we have to be prepared to go to war.” He signaled an aide. “We need Prime Minister Aslina in on this.”
The ISI chief protested. “She’s a pacifist. And why do we need her?”
“She’s an immensely popular figure in Pakistan. If we can convince her that we need to go to war, the people will side with us. We need her help on this one.”
The aide looked nonplussed. “She’s at home and she’s fasting, sir. She won’t break the fast until tomorrow.”
The CAS fumed. “That might be too late. Tell her we’ll come to meet her at her official residence.” He rose. “We have no time to waste.”
The Indian Prime Minister clutched the phone tightly. “General what the hell do you mean do you didn’t carry out the air strikes?”
The Indian Armed Forces Chief of Staff swallowed. “Sir, when we gave the order to arm the bombers, four of my officers down the chain of command resigned on the spot, saying they would not give the order to take this country to war. I was in the process of personally proceeding towards the air base when I received the news.”
The Indian PM let out his breath, stunned. “So, if we didn’t bomb those training camps, then who did?”
The Pakistani Chief of Army Staff signaled to their bodyguards to wait outside, and he led the entourage into the official residence of Prime Minister Aslina. The ten men were escorted into the dining room, where Aslina was seating. She rose, gestured to them to sit. “Some refreshments.”
The CAS pursed his lips. This woman was incredible. Their country was on the brink of war, and she was thinking of being the perfect hostess. “Madam Prime Minister, I cannot stress the urgency of the situation we now find ourselves in.”
“All the more reason for a round of refreshments. We’ll all think better after we’ve had a bite and something to drink.”
The phone lines had not stopped ringing. But when the External Affairs Minister knocked on the Indian PM’s door, something about his expression told him that something was out of the ordinary. “The Prime Minister of Pakistan is flying down to Delhi on a matter of ‘the utmost urgency’. She has requested clearance to land at a military airbase and a veil of secrecy. She would like to meet with you personally.”
The Indian PM’s eyebrows went up. “Highly irregular. Why can’t she meet with us using regular channels? Why the secrecy?”
“She says there is no time for regular channels. And the secrecy is best for both our countries.”
“She seriously thinks I will agree to meet with her at an airport out in the open? What if there are commandos inside the aircraft waiting to kill me? Or maybe she’s not onboard, but a nuclear device is!”
“We’ve opened a satellite link with the airborne aircraft. We believe she is on board. And she has given her word she comes in peace.” The Minister lifted his shoulders. “And she had considered your reluctance, sir. She said also that if you refused to make the meeting citing security reasons, to send Ambassador Das instead. Aslina would convince Das.”
“Have you spoken to the NSA?”
“Sending Mrs. Das is a calculated risk. And we need some answers, sir. We still don’t know who took out the terrorist camps. It would help to know what the Pakistani government is thinking now.”
The PM nodded. “Make it happen.”
India’s ex-Ambassador to Pakistan Das embraced Aslina on the tarmac of the Indian air force base. “It’s been a long time.” said Mrs. Das warmly. “And you look wonderful, all things considered.” Her eyes narrowed. “And now you must tell me what this is all about.”
Aslina nodded and took her arm. “Come, let me show you why I need to talk urgently with your Prime Minister.”
Five minutes later, Ambassador Das was on the phone to the PMO.
The Indian Prime Minister arrived at the air-base in forty minutes, along with his security detail. Aslina put out her hand, but the Indian did not shake it. She smiled wanly. “Later, you may wish you did.” She led him to the back of the aircraft she had arrived in, to the cargo hold. Indian intelligence officers were already examining the bodies inside the ten coffins.
Aslina stared at the dead Pakistani Chief of Army Staff and his cronies without emotion. “Your people may be able to do the checks. You’ll find that these are the real McCoys, not imposters.”
“How did they die?”
“A poison served in some refreshments.” She led him away from the others, close to the engines, where the noise might have swamped out the pick-up of their voices on any possible listening devices. “Those ten men have directly controlled the destiny of Pakistan for the last thirty years. Two things have stopped any civilian government from taking the country down its rightful path: one is the army, represented by those corpses, and the other was the training camps inside Pakistan.
“The only way to wipe out the Army brass was to get them all together at a place of my choosing, on my terms, in circumstances where they could be quietly disposed off. It was not enough to kill one or two or even nine. All ten had to be killed in one stroke. And so we engineered a situation to make that happen, the circumstances of the past few days.”
The Indian frowned. “What are you saying?”
“It wasn’t the terrorists or the Pakistan Army that organized the Mumbai attack. It was me. To force the Army brass to come to me.”
“You’ve killed dozens of innocent Indians-”
Her voice was forceful. “Dozens sacrificed today so that thousands or maybe tens of thousands could be saved in future. The threat of war has always hung over the sub-continent. Every Indian and Pakistani Prime Minister coming into power knows that. That’s why I made a step to change that.”
“We were hours away from launching our bombers against your camps.”
“We had our spies watching your bomber air bases. We knew exactly what was happening. And when we knew the strike was imminent, we executed stage two of our plan: we blew up ten terrorist bases.”
“Impossible! You don’t have that kind of capability!”
“Mr. Prime Minister, it’s not the whole Armed Forces that are rotten. Many wish for change. Like us, they too want to see economic prosperity dawn upon Pakistan, and they realize that the way forward is through peace, not war. It was loyal Pakistani soldiers who volunteered for the Mumbai attacks. It was Pakistani soldiers who delivered secret cargos to each of the terrorist camps only hours before they went off. The chiefs of the camps were told only that they contained devices to be used against India. The containers were tamper-proof, and they lay inside the camps until we detonated them.”
The Indian was beside himself in disbelief. His eyes were actually bulging.
“In two strokes we have wiped out the rotten Army core, and the camps. Now I can make strides onto peace and prosperity.”
The Indian shook his head. “It’s not that easy. The Army won’t just follow you, even-”
“Not me, but perhaps my husband, General Hassan.”
“With due respect, madam, your husband is a cripple. He cannot move any of his limbs. The Army thinks he’s a hero but if you think a cripple will galvanise the nation…”
Aslina smiled. “A few hours ago, General Hassan miraculously recovered the use of all his limbs. Loyal military doctors are calling it a true miracle, saying it is a sign from the most high. The army will fall in behind him as the new Chief of Staff, and with me at his side as Prime Minister, we can take Pakistan forward as never before.”
The Indian was stunned. “His injuries were fake?”
“That’s why we could never accept foreign offers of medical aid.” She smiled. “It was part of the plan, and with your help, your understanding and the co-operation of the Indian government, we have a real chance to make it all work.”
The Indian PM shook his head slowly. “You cannot expect me to ignore the loss of Indian lives in this affair.”
“No. And that is why the first statement of our government will be on how Indian and Pakistani soldiers together mounted joint strikes to wipe out a common terror: the training camps.” She held out her hand. “It’s as good a place as any to start.”