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A lastair Campbell, former spin doctor for the Labour Party and Tony Blair, is in the news again, this time with his diaries. His latest revelation is that a Pakistani general told him that Pakistan could nuke India in eight seconds. Predictably, the “story” has been picked up by various newspapers here and elsewhere without any critical appreciation of this claim. Did an unnamed general actually say this to Campbell?

The question is important because Campbell is not exactly a man to be trusted given his glorious past. From the 45-minute falsehood of the September Dossier (2002) on Iraq’s WMD capability to the dodgy briefing document given to journalists in February 2003, Campbell was an important player in Tony Blair’s Iraq misadventure and the tapestry of lies woven by the Blair government.

Mendacity, then, is not a trait unknown to and unpractised by Campbell. In this case, too, he begins inaccurately: “At dinner I was between two five-star generals…”. The Pakistan Army doesn’t have five-star generals, counting out the self-promotion to the rank of Field Marshal by Ayub Khan. Since Campbell is talking not one but two, the safe guess is he was squeezed between two three-star generals. Given that and despite his journalistic career, Campbell doesn’t come across as someone who is finicky about ‘facts’, especially when partaking of a hearty dinner or landing a government job.

So much so, in fact, that were we to accept the eight seconds bit in the story, there is no record of his expressing scepticism at this statement, not even a mild “Really, General?” Now it should be obvious to anyone, even one as uninitiated in the conduct of nuclear strategy as Campbell, that eight seconds is a bit of a stretch in the reverse. One can’t even load and cock a pistol in eight seconds if it has been de-mated from its clip and the two components are lying apart at a distance.

In eight seconds, one can’t do it even if the warhead is mated with the delivery vehicle and is on hair-trigger alert in a silo. To think that Pakistan, which doesn’t have deployed weapons, could do something in eight seconds is to stretch credulity. But if one reads closely the statement, “It takes us eight seconds to get the missiles over”, it would seem the unnamed general is talking about the flight time. Campbell, or for that matter anyone, would have to be a sucker to fall for that.

Yet, either he did or he is making it up. One needs to be sceptical about his claim but putting it in the larger scheme of things, I’d hazard that Campbell might be telling the truth even as he gets the rank and the time wrong. The unnamed general probably said eight minutes — flight time — which Campbell who seems to get a thrill from speeding — 45 days for Iraq and 1.47 clocked on Top Gear — turned into eight seconds.

We do know that this information was passed on to Blair and by Campbell’s own account, so concerned did Britain become that Sir David Manning wrote in a paper that Pakistan was prepared to “go nuclear”.

Could it then be that the unnamed Pakistani general played Campbell for signalling? I’d say, yes. The dinner happened before the US campaign in Afghanistan opened and more than two months before the December 13, 2001 attack on the Indian parliament which led New Delhi to order mobilisation that lasted for 10 months. But before those two events, and after the 9/11 attacks, India had not only offered the US all help but tried to isolate Pakistan by raising the issue of terrorism to take advantage of the situation.

It would make sense for Pakistan to signal, informally but credibly, that while Pakistan had chosen to side with the coalition in Afghanistan, the coalition had to ensure that its eastern front remained secure. The signal, if we accept the veracity of the occurrence, was meant for the coalition, in this case through the United Kingdom, not for India directly. By Campbell’s own account then, the unnamed Pakistani general played him and Campbell got played!

It seems that verifying facts, like getting the rank right, is important after all.

This article was originally published at: The Express Tribune

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.