Later, when I was posted as Assistant Commissioner in charge of Mansehra, and Major Shabbir Sharif was an instructor at the Pakistan Military Academy, Abbottabad, he would often join my guests for Sunday lunch. Arriving dramatically on his huge noisy motorcycle, he was the centre of attraction. The guests and my family adored him and my mother never tired of hearing his tales of derring-do and the action for which he won his award. My mother simply referred to him as “dashing.” With his moustache, confident smile and bold manner, he undoubtedly cut the figure of a swashbuckling officer played by the likes of Errol Flynn and David Niven. If ever an officer was central casting material, it was my friend Shabbir Sharif. He would tell me, “You will see in the next war with India, I will win the Nishan-e-Haider.” That I knew was the highest military award and the equivalent of the Victoria Cross. I would say: “I hope you know that it is only given to soldiers who have died in battle.” He would smile enigmatically. Knowing its implications, my mother would be almost reduced to tears when Shabbir talked about the award. True to his promise, in the next war with India in 1971 he went down in a blaze of glory winning the coveted award and becoming a part of the folklore of Indian and Pakistani wars. As the war began, he commanded a company of the 6-Frontier Force. As the Indian forces launched an assault with tanks, heavy artillery and airstrikes to capture Lahore, Shabbir counter-attacked; leading his men to take a military objective on high ground. For several days, Shabbir and his men held off the Indian onslaught. He was involved in crossing a water canal under intense enemy fire, walking through a minefield, using captured anti-tank guns to fire on enemy tanks, fighting hand to hand combat and finally capturing his objective. Indian armoured units and air force kept up a relentless fire. Try as they might, they could not push Shabbir back and he was not prepared to retreat. Keep in mind that infantry soldiers are not meant to fight either armoured divisions or the Air Force. His action thwarted India’s plans, buying Pakistan precious time. My experience with the regiment underlined the critical importance of the army in the defence of the nation while it reconfirmed my firm belief in democracy. At one point, Indian soldiers while trying to retake the high bund came within shouting distance of Shabbir’s position and challenged him to hand-to-hand combat. Shabbir leapt out of his trench and battled Major Narain Singh, Company Commander of 4 Jat Regiment. After ferocious combat, Shabbir vanquished his opponent. All this was happening while the jawans on both sides watched wide-eyed. Senior army officers also followed the adventures of Shabbir as news of his actions filtered through. Finally, after several days of fighting, on December 6, after heavy shelling and airstrikes, a full blast from the guns of a tank aimed directly at Shabbir took his life. On the same day that Shabbir died, the Commanding Officer of 6 FF wrote a “Citation for the Nishan-e-Haider.” After giving the details of Shabbir’s actions over the last few days, he concluded: “Thus Pakistan Army lost one of its outstanding young officers who could be easily called ‘Superman.’ Extremely devoted, reliable, disciplined, dedicated, selfless worker, courageous and a gallant officer. He laid his life for the cause of Pakistan. For this action of valour, the officer is very strongly recommended for the posthumous award of the Nishan-e-Haider.” Shabbir was truly “dashing” to the end. He died, but he won the Nishan-e-Haider for valour. He was also given the title of shaheed or one who sacrifices his life for a noble cause. He is remembered as a hero in Pakistan with roads and public buildings named after him. Shabbir was the golden boy of the Pakistan army. At the Pakistan Military Academy, he won the sword of honour and then in the 1965 war, he won the SJ and was the only soldier in the army to win both the SJ and Pakistan’s highest award, the Nishan-e- Haider. Such was his mystique and charisma that an Indian film called 1971: Beyond Borders about the war between India and Pakistan portrayed him as a heroic soldier. Very rarely does this kind of chivalry happen as Pakistanis are usually depicted in Bollywood films as villainous caricatures. Shabbir Sharif’s story touched people across international borders. On a visit to Pakistan years later, I arrived on the day Shabbir’s younger brother, General Raheel Sharif, was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army. He must have been under incredible pressure for time, yet when I requested a call, he not only received me warmly in his office at GHQ but presented me an emblem of his office along with pictures of the visit. The General became one of the most popular officers of the Army and after retirement, he was appointed Commander of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition of 41 countries. The story of the regiment did not end with the long march for me. I was posted as Assistant Commissioner in Punjab, the Frontier Province and East Pakistan after my attachment and my office got used to being approached by the jawans from the 18th Punjab with miscellaneous requests, especially for gun licenses. I always welcomed them. They would recount the story of the long march and my part in it with obvious delight. I had come to respect the 18th Punjab regiment not only as one of the most decorated and outstanding fighting units of the Pakistan army but as soldiers, who had accepted me as a part of their regimental family. Here, I found the civilian-military divide had evaporated and both were united in their sense of brotherhood and love for the land. My experience with the regiment underlined the critical importance of the army in the defence of the nation while it reconfirmed my firm belief in democracy. Brigadier Shafqat Cheema was a junior officer when I was attached to the 18th. Since then, he commanded the regiment twice and after retirement, moved to the US. He recalled me, and when I asked him about the regiment he replied, “18th fought in East Pakistan and fought well. They faced repeated Indian attacks and repulsed them; capturing Indian tanks in one operation. It’s very unusual for infantry to be capturing tanks, but they did-both in the 65 War in Rajasthan and in 71 in East Pakistan. Yes, they got gallantry awards and are one of the most decorated, if not the most decorated units of Pakistan, with 12 Sitara-e-Jurat and have half a dozen Tamgha-e-Jurat and a number of other awards.” He concluded by stating that, “I have the honour of commanding 18 Punjab; twice. In 1980/81 and again in 1984/85.” Brigadier Tahir Mehmood also commanded the regiment. A poet and scholar-soldier, he was the very active editor of Hilal, the magazine of the Defence Services of Pakistan. As his regular contributor, the Brigadier responded to my queries with his typical warmth: “AOA, dear sir. Such a beautiful and spirited message. Thank you very much. 18 Punjab maintained her traditions and won seven Sitara-e-Jurat in the 1971 war. Our one encounter, Kushtia Battle was appreciated by Indian General also. I read that in a book by General Jacob. In this battle, our troops blocked their Brigade advance by destroying many tanks and holding the ground. Writing about the regiment will be truly a great honour for 18 Punjab. Even this thought excites me that a world-leading sage will write about his and our battalion. I will convey to the present CO (Commanding Officer). I got the honor to command the battalion in 2008 in Kashmir. Profound regards.” Brigadier Tahir has promised that we would visit the regiment together on my next trip to Pakistan. Then, once again, I will relive a remarkable episode in my life with the real heroes of Pakistan, unassuming, simple, and courageous beyond belief-the jawans of the 18th. Until then, let us pause to salute my friend Major Shabbir Sharif: 50 years ago, Shabbir Sharif happily gave his life in the defense of his nation and earned the title of shaheed. I would like to dedicate this article to the memory of that great soldier Major Shabbir Sharif and the long march with the 18th Punjab that brought us together. The writer is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University and author of The Flying Man: Philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam.