|Asghar Khan (January 17, 1921) is a Pakistani veteran aviation historian, peace activist, and retired military figure— a three star rank air marshal— who served as the first native Chief of Air Staff of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) from 1957 until resigning in 1965 prior to the start of the air operations of the PAF during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.
Initially commissioned in the Indian Army, Asghar Khan was drafted into Royal Air Force in 1940, seeing actions in Burma Campaign and later acceded to United Kingdom where he graduated from RAF Staff College at Bracknell, completing his collegiate courses from Joint Service Defence College, and completed his post-graduate studies from Imperial Defence College. Upon return to British Indian Empire, Asghar Khan resumed his active duty with the Royal Air Force and opted for Pakistan following the Indian partition in 1947, and settled in West-Pakistan. Asghar Khan became first commandant of Pakistan Air Force Academy in 1947 and was also the first to head the Directorate-General for Air Operations (DGAO) in 1950. Finally in 1957, Asghar Khan became the youngest to-date and the first native Air Force Commander-in-Chief of Pakistan Air Force. His tenure as air commander saw the extensive modernization of PAF, in terms of both technical and military equipment, but controversially he was not taken in confidence prior to launch of Operation Gibraltar by the president which led to his resignation. After retiring from air force, Asghar Khan became president of civilian national flag carrier, the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) which he led until 1968.
In 1970, Asghar Khan founded the secular party, the Independence Movement, but performed poorly in 1970 parliamentary elections. However in 1977, the party significant gained momentum and participated with full force in 1977 parliamentary elections, although the party failed to grasp any support in the public as compared to democratic socialist, the Pakistan Peoples Party. He was designated a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, and conferred with the Gold Medal by the Human Rights Commission, and Jinnah Award Award by the Jinnah Society for the cause of democracy. After years of founding the Independence Movement, Asghar Khan merged his Independence Movement with Pakistan Movement for Justice led by cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan in 2011.
Early life and world war II
Mohammad Asghar Khan was born in Jammu, British-held Kashmir in British Indian Empire to an Urdu-speaking Pashtun family on 17 January 1921. His father, Brigadier Thakur Rahmatullah Khan, was a senior officer and colonel-commandant of the posted Brigade combat team of the British Army headquartered in Kashmir. Most of Asghar Khan’s family members which had left Tirah Valley in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to settle in Kashmir, again migrated at the time of partition to Abbottabad in the North-West Frontier Province and settled there. This included his parents and his ten siblings. He and all his brothers, except one, then joined the armed forces of Pakistan.
After attending a military school, his family directed him at the Prince of Wales’s Royal Indian Military College 1933, and joined the Indian Military Academy in 1939. Initially, Asghar Khan was an Indian Army officer, a Second Lieutenant in the Indian Army, starting his active duty from the Royal Deccan Horse in December 1940. However this was short-lived, the Ministry of Defence drafted Asghar Khan in the newly established Royal Indian Air Force in 1940, joining the No. 9 Squadron of the Indian Air Force. In 1944, Asghar Khan assumed the command his unit and commanded the aerial missions of No. 9 Squadron in Burma. He took active participation in Burma Campaign 1944–1945, directing and commanding aerial operations against the Imperial Japan on behest of the Great Britain.
After the World war II, the British government called Asghar Khan to United Kingdom where he joined the RAF Staff College at Bracknell, where he completed a staff course from there. Later, Asghar Khan joined the Joint Service Defence College where he gained B.Sc. in military ethics after submitting his thesis on actions involving the Joint Services. He conducted his post-graduate research and studies from Imperial Defence College where Asghar Khan was awarded M.Sc. in Military administration by the college faculty.
Upon his return, Asghar Khan was most-senior officer in the Indian Air Force, although his career with Indian Air Force is not completely known, but it is well understood that Asghar Khan commanded the No. 9 Squadron of the Indian Air Force, in 1945. Asghar Khan was also the first Indian Air Force officer to fly a jet fighter aircraft—a Gloster Meteor— whilst doing a fighter leader’s course in UK in 1946.
Moving to Pakistan
Career with Pakistan Air Force
On 7 June 1949, Asghar Khan joined the sub-committee led by RAF Air Vice Marshal Allan Perry-Keene to distribute the defence assets of undivided India between the proposed State of Pakistan. On 14 August 1947, Asghar Khan moved to newly established country, Pakistan in 1947 and after the partition of India in 1947, Prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan appointed Asghar Khan to the rank of Wing-Commander and became the first commandant of the Pakistan Air Force Academy at Risalpur. He was among the one of the most senior officers of the Pakistan Air Force and in 1949, Asghar Khan became the first Officer commanding of the No. 1 Stryker Group based in Peshawar Air Force Base. In 1948, Asghar Khan greeted founder of Pakistan and Governor-General Muhammad Ali Jinnah when Jinnah visited the air force academy.
In 1950, Asghar Khan assumed the directorship of the Directorate-General of the Air Operations (DGAO). In 1955, Asghar Khan was appointed as the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff in the Air Headquarters, directing the air administration and personnel department at the Air Headquarters. As Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, Asghar Khan established the major units and infrastructure including the Fighter Leaders School (now Combat Commander’s School), the Air Staff College and the College of Aeronautical Engineering at the Pakistan Air Force Academy. As assistant chief of the air staff, Asghar Khan also instituted the Inspectorate directorate for the air force and initiated the tradition of regular air staff presentations. Two of his brothers, Squadran Leader Khalid Khan and Pilot Officer Asif Khan were killed during service with the Pakistan Air Force.
After the retirement of Air vice-marshal Arthur McDonald, Prime minister Huseyn Suhravardy approved the appointment of Asghar Khan as the commander-in-chief of Pakistan Air Force. In 23 July 1957, Prime minister Suhrawardy upgraded AVM Asghar Khan to three-star rank air marshal, making him the first native Air Force Commander-in-chief, yet at the age of 36, also the youngest to-date.
After assuming the command of air force, Asghar Khan’s commanded the air force for next eight years where he took initiatives to modernize and expand the air force facilities, installments, military equipments, and fighter jets acquired from the United States. Asghar Khan also launched the fighter training programmes and combat course at the PAF to train fighter pilots in modern air warfare. His style of leading the air force often comes with criticisms by his junior officers, first alleging that air marshal Asghar Khan was inclined to be autocratic in his decision makings. His juniors noted that the air marshal would went out of his way to elicit a whole range of opinions before taking a decision, but once that decision was made by the air marshal, the air marshal would not tolerate any ifs and buts about its implementations. As for approving the appointments and selections process, Asghar Khan made no secret of his willingness to superseding the senior officers if that became unavoidable in ensuring that the best qualified officers needed to fill the key appointments, particularly in the combat units. During his long tenure, Air Marshal Asghar Khan gave commissioned to established air force bases, in Samungli, Sargodha, and the Peshawar.
The time he was appointed as the commander-in-chief, Asghar Khan negotiated with the United States to provide the military equipments, fighter jets, on an indefinite basis. The combat units and fighter squadrons quickly were raised of which majority of the squadrons were equipped with the state-of-the-art F-86 Sabres, and others with F-104 Starfighter, B-57 Canberra, C-130 Hercules, T-33 and the T-37 Tweet aircraft.
Subsequent conflicts and resignation
Although Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s political power rested with the air force, he began serious problems with democratic socialist and then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. At various meetings Asghar Khan was reported to be hostile towards Bhutto, however Asghar Khan was convinced with Bhutto’s rational that the war with India was inevitable. Therefore, Asghar Khan traveled to Indonesia and China. He held talks with Indonesian Navy’s admiral RE Martadinata, getting assurance the Indonesian support for Pakistan. After meeting with Indonesian president Sukarno, the president assured that: “India’s attack on Pakistan was like an attack on Indonesia and [I]ndonesians are bound to duty to give Pakistan all assistance”. However Indonesia remained refrain as the Pakistan Navy tracks Russian submarines wandered near Karachi.
Prior to the start of the war, Asghar Khan contacted with Indian Air Force’s Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh at the start of the skirmishes at the Rann of Kutch. Both agreed to keep the air force out of the conflict. The message was traced by the PAF Air Intelligence and defected to the President and the Foreign minister immediately. The new meeting was held which all the officers and chiefs of Naval and Army were called to attend the meeting, leaving Asghar Khan keeping out of the loop. The PAF’s commandeer-in-chief was not informed and did not take in confidence, nor consulted with the nature of the meeting. Without his knowledge, the preparations was launched with the executive authorization of the Operation Gibraltar by the President Ayub Khan. When the news reached to Asghar Khan, the frustrated and furiated Asghar Khan sent his resignation to the President which was accepted on immediate period. On 23 July 1965, six weeks before the starting of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, Asghar Khan took the retirement from the air force and departed from affairs of Ministry of Defence, as he was succeeded by extremely influential officer, Lieutenant-General Nur Khan.
Presiding Pakistan International Airlines
After leaving air force, Asghar Khan was employed at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and was appointed as the president of the national flag carriers, the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). At there, Asghar Khan learned to fly the commercial airline and obtained a Commercial pilot licence after passing the exam from the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States. Asghar Khan introduced the new uniforms for the air hostess and stewards which earned words of admiration at domestic and international airports. During his tenure, the PIA achieved lowest aircraft accident rate and highest net profit of Pakistan, and was one of the formidable competitor in the world airline business. His tenure as president is often reminded as “gold age of PIA”. Despite urging of the government to extend his tenure, Asghar Khan took the retirement and left the MoD in order to start his political career in 1968.
Aster leaving the MoD, Asghar Khan gave vehement criticism and blamed President Ayub Khan and Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto for the causes of the 1965 war with India, and later turn his criticism pointing straight towards General Yahya Khan for the 1971 war failure, which resulted in the breakup of Pakistan when Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League, which had won the election, was not allowed to form a government. In protest, Asghar Khan relinquished awards of ‘Hilal-i-Pakistan’ and ‘Hilal-i-Quaid-i-Azam’ as a protest against repressive policies of Field Marshal Ayub Khan in January 1969. In 1970, Asghar Khan founded the Independence Movement, initially a centrist secular party. Asghar Khan criticized Bhutto on numerous occasions, holding responsible for tyranny during the elections held in 1970. However, Asghar Khan and his party failed to score any big hits during the 1970 parliamentary elections, initially failed to secure any seats in the parliament.
During the Bangladesh Liberation War, Asghar Khan did supported the East-Pakistan morally alleging the West-Pakistan under Bhutto, depriving Eastt from their political and economical right. He also demanded power to be handed over to the people of East Pakistan. In 1972, after Bhutto was made president, Asghar Khan accused Bhutto for the break-up, later noting that: “We are living virtually under one party state…. The outstanding feature is suppression.
Activism in national politics
During Bhutto’s rule from 1971 to 1977, Air Marshal Asghar Khan played a major role in opposition to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. During the 1977 elections, Asghar Khan allied his party, the Tehreek-i-Istiqlal with the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) against the People’s Party. It was during this period he and his party faced frequent attacks by Pakistan Peoples Party supporters and from the brutal paramilitary Federal Security Force. He was imprisoned in Kot Lakhpat and Sahiwal prisons from March to June 1977.
He contested two seats, one from Karachi and the other from Abbotabad, despite alleged rigging by the ppp, Asghar Khan was elected by a huge margin from both seats. The PNA rejected the election results as rigged and launched a Nationwide agitation against the results. Asghar Khan resigned from both National Assembly seats as a mark of protest against massive rigging in the elections.
Supporting the Martial law
While imprisoned, Asghar Khan wrote a much criticized letter to the leadership of Defence Forces, asking them to renounce their support for the “Illegal regime of Bhutto”, and asked the military leadership “differentiate between a “lawful and an unlawful” command… and save Pakistan.”. This letter is considered by the historians as instrumental in encouraging the advent of the far-right Zia regime. However in television show, Asghar Khan strongly defended his letter as according to him “nowhere in the letter had he asked for the military to take over”, and he had written it in response to a news story that he had read in which a Major had shot a civilian showing him the “V sign”. After the overthrow of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government by the Army in the summer of 1978, Asghar Khan was offered a cabinet post by General Zia-ul-Haq, Asghar Khan refused to join the cabinet and also withdrew from the PNA after a growing split between the various parties.
Calling for Bhutto’s death sentence
Asghar Khan remained a vital player against the democratic government of prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Asghar Khan is also thought to be the main actors behind the mass movement which culminated in the hanging of Pakistan Peoples Party founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Asghar Khan was one of the top leader and leading advocate calling for Bhutto’s death sentence. He is also accused of writing a letter to the leadership of Pakistan Armed Forces for staging the coup against Bhutto and urged the military leadership for announcing the death sentence of Bhutto.
After successfully calling for Bhutto’s “judicial murder”, Asghar Khan decided to take on the far-right regime of General Zia-ul-Haq who announced to hold the general elections in 1979. The Independence Movement became the most favorite party and benefited with large number of high profile civilian political figures including Navaz Sharif, Khurshid Kasur, Aitzaz Ahsan, Rashid Ahmad, Javed Hashmi, Akbar Bugti, Mushahid Hussain, Nadir Pervez, Gohar Ayub Khan, Zafar Ali Shah, Ahmed Raza Kasuri, Sher Afgan Niazi, Manzoor Wattoo, Syeda Abida Hussain, Syed Fakhar Imam and many others. All of these members left Asghar Khan under Navaz Sharif who founded the largest conservative party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N).
However, at the last moment, General Zia-ul-Haq indefinitely postponed the elections, ordering the arrests of Asghar Khan who remained under house arrest for more than five years. In 1983, Asghar Khan decided to join the left-wing alliance, the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) led by Benazir Bhutto but he was detained by the government. He was kept under house arrest at his Abbotabad residence from 16 October 1979 to 2 October 1984 and was named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
Public disapproval and declining
In 1986, Asghar Khan left the MRD, as a result of which many of the Tehrik’s members resigned in protest. Asghar Khan boycotted the non-partisan elections held in 1985. However, Asghar Khan and his party took full participation in 1988 parliamentary elections. But during this time, the true nature of his personality was exposed by Pakistan Peoples Party charging him with calling for Bhutto’s death sentence and the martial law, which Asghar Khan himself failed to justify his actions. His party members disintegrated and allied witn conservative Nawaz Sharif in 1988 elections, a major set back for his career. Asghar Khan public rating plummeted and faced a complete annihilation and defeat in 1988 elections. He conceded his defeat but again contested in 1990 parliamentary elections from Lahore, Asghar Khan once again faced defeat. Briefly retiring from active politics in the late 1990s his party faced another one of its many splits. Since 1990, Asghar Khan has not held a significant position in politics.
Collapse and merging with Pakistan Movement for Justice
As he grew older, he then handed over small party to his equally capable son Omar Asghar Khan, who for a while joined the military government of General Pervaiz Musharraf, and became minister of Ministry of Environment (MoE). After his son’s resignation from the cabinet, his son took over Independence Movement and subsequently merged it with assorted other Non-governmental organization and formed a new party called National Democratic Party, an event which caused another split in the party. Both Independence Movement and National Democratic Party suffered major shock and setback when Omar Asghar Khan was murdered in Karachi on 25 June 2001 prior to the elections. An inquiry into his death was ordered by the Sindh High Court and in spite of repeated requests, it was never started.
In a historic press conference on 12 December, Asghar Khan announced his full support to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Imran Khan. He praised Imran Khan for his struggle and endorsed him as the only hope left for the survival of Pakistan. This endorsement came at a crucial time for Imran Khan, when many tainted politicians were joining his party. After announcing his party’s support for PTI, Asghar Khan resigned as President of Tehreek-e-Istiqlal and left the future of his party in the hands of his workers. Contrary to many media reports, Asghar Khan never joined PTI.
Besides political activism, Asghar Khan has been engaged in peace activism. On various occasion, Asghar Khan called for normalization of Indo-Pakistan relations. Asghar Khan also renounced the nuclear tests operations conducted by Pakistan, targeting Prime minister Nawaz Sharif move for making that move. In 2011 Asghar Khan maintained that:
In the last over 60 years, India has never attacked Pakistan, as it cannot afford it. Indians know well, if Pakistan is destroyed, they will be the next target… It was made our problem that one day India would invade us. But we did so four times and the first attack was on Kashmir, where Maharaja was not prepared to accede to India for he wanted to join Pakistan and waited for this for 21 days. Indian forces came to East-Pakistan when people were being slaughtered there. Moreover, again at Kargil, Indian never mounted an assault…
Asghar Khan also blamed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for Balochistan conflict and the East-Pakistan war, terming it “inflexible attitude” of Bhutto. Commenting of his politicla collapse, Asghar Khan accused the civil society for his failure, and marked that: ” the majority in Pakistan voted for the (corrupt) politicians, as they also wanted their job done by “hook or by crook”.