ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — It is the nuclear-armed adversary of next-door India and a mistrusted anti-terrorism partner of the United States. It sucks up huge chunks of the national budget, while millions of children receive next to no education or health care.
But nobody puts on a parade like Pakistan’s military. Friday morning’s extravaganza before a cheering, carefully screened crowd of 70,000 at a pristine field in the capital was no exception.
The occasion was Pakistan Day — recalling March 23, 1940, an obscure but decisive date when Muslims across the subcontinent formally resolved to fight for a separate Muslim homeland. Seven tumultuous and bloody years later, Pakistan was born.
The tightly scripted event Friday evoked the sweep of martial history, with garlanded camels padding in formation and swordsmen in tunics slashing the air. It also showcased the technology and might of Pakistan’s modern arsenal — tanks, artillery, drones, a Shaheen ballistic missile on a massive truck and commando paratroops sailing soundlessly down from the sky.
At a time of increasing international tension and isolation for Pakistan, the central message was one of defiant military readiness and pride, reinforced by stirring music, drumbeats and a stream of live, amplified commentary.
“No power on Earth can undo Pakistan!” cried the announcer, while thousands of necks craned to see the paratroops gently circling down, releasing trails of red, green and white smoke. As each weapons system or marching unit passed the reviewing stand, it was described in detail, with rolling gusto and snatches of patriotic poetry.
Yet the nationalistic theme mingled somewhat jarringly with numerous evocations of peace and international friendship, including a float covered with birds, flowers and children. Walls surrounding the parade ground were covered with the slogan “Pakistan Is the Land of Peace.”
“We are the nation that has sacrificed the most in the war on terror,” a female announcer declared. There were no direct references made to current tensions with Washington, which recently suspended military aid after saying Pakistan had failed to deny safe haven to Taliban insurgents.
The parade was held under extraordinarily tight security. No cellphones or cameras were allowed, and all cellular phone signals were cut off throughout the capital until it was over. Car trunks were searched. All roads to the area were blocked, and sniffing dogs checked each vehicle at check posts several miles away.
There were equal amounts of pomp and protocol. Each invitation included instructions for when to stand and salute, what to wear, and how to place medals on civilian suits (“above the left chest pocket,” with the lower edges in line with the “upper seam of the pocket”).
For the first time, Pakistan invited diplomats from India to the event, and several sat in the reviewing stand, where they watched missiles built with the potential to annihilate their cities and listened to Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain deliver a speech condemning India for cross-border military attacks and abuses of Muslims in the contested Himalayan border region of Kashmir.
The mood in the bleachers — actually carpeted steps with padded chairs and gift bags, underneath a vast canopy — was one of giddy, flag-waving excitement. Many military officers and civilian government employees had brought their children, who squealed with delight at the camels and the color guardsmen on horseback.
But the biggest crowd-pleaser by far was the air show, a phrase far too mundane to capture the jaw-dropping feats performed by a succession of military pilots. Tight successive clusters of fighter jet squadrons looped in formation and then banked off in different directions.
Then came the JF-17 Thunders, jazzy white jets with colorful streaks that were built in Pakistan with technical and financial assistance from China. They performed an elaborate acrobatic repertoire, prompting gasps and applause as they made dashes and loops, trailed smoke, released flares, changed speeds, and crisscrossed each other in the sky at 400 mph.
Despite this potent symbol of China’s fast-growing strategic alliance with Pakistan as relations between Islamabad and Washington have deteriorated, the final piloting feat of the day left no doubt that Pakistan’s love affair with the U.S.-made F-16 fighter jet is not over.
Planned sales of eight F-16s to Pakistan were halted by Congress two years ago over concerns about Islamabad’s support for anti-Afghan militants, but on Friday, with air force Wing Commander Yasir Shafiq Malik in the cockpit, the “fighting falcon” was all Pakistan’s.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I present the ferocious, the mighty — F-16!” the announcer boomed. From nowhere, the sleek, dark plane raced by the parade ground with an earsplitting roar. Minutes later it reappeared. Malik flew it straight up into the sky, rolled it over from the nose and dived back toward Earth, releasing multicolored flares. The crowd went wild.