In 2001, just weeks before the 9/11 attacks on the US, one of the greatest squash players in history announced his retirement from the professional game. During his career, Jansher Khan had won 99 squash titles including eight World Open and six British Open championships.
Along with his fellow squash champion and compatriot Jahangir Khan, Jansher was a national hero of Pakistan, not least in the eyes of the President, Pervez Musharraf, himself a keen squash player. Musharraf was a four-star General in the Pakistani Army who, since 1999, had led a military government following a bloodless coup against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
But now, on the eve of the War on Terror, Jansher was unaware that his international success was about to be celebrated in a way, and in a place, that would create another link between the game of squash and the unfolding events of global geo-politics. That celebration was to be centred on a city located 150 kilometres north of the nation’s capital, Islamabad, and 200 kilometres east of Jansher’s birthplace, Peshawar.
The city of Abbottabad.
Squash and the Generals
Abbottabad was named after the British Army General Sir James Abbott, who settled the town and district in 1848 after the annexation of the Punjab. Abbott (seen here in a portrait dressed as an Indian noble) founded the town in 1853 and even wrote a poem about it before he returned to Britain. Due to its strategic location and pleasant climate, Abbottabad subsequently became, and still is, an important military cantonment and sanatorium, being the headquarters of a brigade in the Second Division of Pakistan’s Northern Army Corps. The Kakul district of the city also became the home of Pakistan’s Military Academy whose sports facilities still include squash courts.
It was here in 1961 that Pervez Musharraf began his military training and acquired his love of squash. In Pakistan, squash is the glue that binds the British-influenced officer class together. During his dramatic coup of October 12th 1999, Musharraf knew that he could count on his army colleagues to neutralise the incumbent prime minister and president. As he later wrote in his 2006 memoir ‘In the Line of Fire’, this was because “apart from being their chief, I played squash with the two commanding officers, Shahid Ali and Javed Sultan” of the elite Triple One Brigade. In fact, Ali and Sultan were playing squash when the coup happened, and interrupted their match to lead the Triple One into Islamabad to secure the civilian rulers’ homes so that Musharraf could seize power.
But less that two years after the coup, Musharraf was to find himself, and Pakistan, at the centre of the world’s attention for a very different reason. President George W. Bush had announced the US’s War on Terror and was looking for allies.
Squash and Abbottabad
Weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Musharraf allied Pakistan with the US against the Taliban government in Afghanistan in far from congenial circumstances. Five years later, on September 24th 2006, Musharraf was to reveal exactly what had happened during a US television interview. Richard Armitage, then US Deputy Secretary of State, had called Musharraf and threatened military action if Pakistan didn’t support the war on terror. According to Musharraf, Armitage warned him to “be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age.” Furthermore, during an interview with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show two days later, Musharraf said that US Secretary of State Colin Powell had also contacted him early in 2002 with a similar message: “You are with us or against us.”
But whatever the challenges he was facing both as President and as Head of the Army, Musharraf was still able to find time for his pet project: re-kindling the glory that was Pakistani squash. In 2003, he had become so concerned about the state of the game in Pakistan that he offered a 10 million rupee ($140,000) award for any Pakistani who achieved the World No. 1 ranking in squash. He also offered 5 million rupees to any Pakistani who won gold in the Asian Games or at the British Open. Musharraf pledged the money during the Chief of the Army Staff International Squash Tournament in Islamabad, won by two Egyptians – from the British-influenced squash-playing officer class typified by fellow President, Army General and squash player Hosni Mubarak.
By 2004, another investment in the government-sponsored revival of Pakistani squash finally took form when the Jansher Khan Squash Complex was opened in Abbottabad. The Complex was located within jogging distance of Pakistan’s Military Academy and, by 2005, was being used to stage national and international squash trials and tournaments. But the Complex was also located within similar jogging distance of a non-descript high-security compound in the well-tended Abbottabad suburb of Bilal Town. A compound which, from early 2006 and known only to a few, was to be occupied by the most wanted man in the US War on Terror.
Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, had taken up residency in Abbottabad.
The Death of Osama Bin Laden
On August 18th, 2008 Pervez Musharraf resigned as President of Pakistan and went into self-imposed exile in London. Following his departure, Pakistan continued to play a vital role in the War on Terror and by early 2011 had captured or killed more than 700 members of Al Qaeda whilst losing over three thousand of its own soldiers. But despite all these efforts, Pakistan was regularly blamed by its partners for not doing enough, not least for its lack of success in finding Osama bin Laden.
The Al Qaeda leader was widely believed to be hiding in the tribal homelands of West Pakistan following his escape from Bora Bora in Afghanistan. But, in the early hours of May 2nd 2011, 24 US Navy SEAL commandoes arrived by helicopter in Abbottabad, breached the wall of bin Laden’s compound using explosives, and entered the main building. Encounters between the SEALs and the residents took place in the building during which bin Laden was killed.
When informed of the raid, Pervez Musharraf described how, when he was in military training, he used to go running right by the spot where the world’s most wanted terrorist was found. “It surprises me it was next to the Pakistan Military Academy,” he told Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “The location is next to the place where I used to run nine miles, en route, maybe passing in front of the house. That is surprising.” he added.
In an unlikely way, Pakistani squash and the War on Terror were both back in the headlines.
Thanks to Alex Beam for his 2008 Vanity Fair article on Pervez Musharraf, ‘Big Man on the Court.’