Who Killed Zia?


September 1989

by Edward Jay Epstein

On August 17 1988, Pak One, an American built Hercules C-130b transport plane, took off from the military air base outside of Bahawalpur, Pakistan at 3:46 p.m, precisely on schedule. The passengers in the air-conditioned VIP capsule, which included Mohammad Zia ul-haq, the Army Chief of Staff and President of Pakistan. were returning to the capital city of Islamabad after a hot, dusty tank demonstration.

This was General Zia's first trip on Pak One since May 29. He had reluctantly gone to Bahawalpur that morning to witness a demonstration of the new American Abrams tank. Although he himself saw little point in going at a time of national crises to see a lone tank fire off its cannon, the commander of the armored Corp, who had been his former military secretary, was extraordinarily insistent in his phone calls. He argued that the entire Army command would be there that day, implying that if Zia was absent it might be taken as a slight. As it had turned out, the tank demonstration was a fiasco. After helicopters flew him from the airport to the desert site, the much vaunted American tank missed its target ten out of ten times. So much for the tank. Zia went on to the lunch at the officers' mess, eating ice cream, and joking with his top generals. Back at the air strip, he prayed to Mecca, then, before reboarding the plane, he warmly embraced those of the generals that stayed.

Seated next to him on the flight back to Islamabad was his close friend, General Akhtar Abdur Rehman, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, after Zia, the second most powerful man in Pakistan. He had headed Inter Service intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA, for ten years. There he had been Zia's architect for the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets. It was his ISI that had organized the Muejadeen into combat units, trained them, distributed weapons to them, provided them with intelligence and even selected their targets. And now the Mujuedeen was on the verge of winning; the first time the Soviet Union had been defeated since the second world war.

Like Zia, Rehman had not wanted to come to this tank demonstration. He indeed had another appointment in Karachi. He decided to go only when a former deputy of his at the ISI advised him that Zia was on the verge of making major changes in his the army and intelligence high command and suggested that Zia needed his counsel. Rehman had been aware that ever since a huge arms depot for Afghan weapons had blown up in the suburbs of Islamabad that April, killing at least 93 people, Zia had become increasingly uneasy about what might be done to undermine his control in the closing days of the Afghan war. Zia blamed the Soviet trained Afghan intelligence service, WAD, for the blast, but Pakistan politicians criticized him and Rehman for locating the arms depot where it endangered civilians. Zia reacted by precipitously firing his own prime minister, dissolving the parliament and local government on May 29. He had expected changed to be made in the military. So, canceling his meeting in Karachi, he joined Zia on Pak One that morning. He reboarded the plane, wearing his familiar peaked general's hat, with General Mohamed Afzal, Zia's chief of the General Staff.

The remaining two seats in the capsule were given to Zia's American guests: Ambassador Arnold L. Raphel, an old Pakistan hand who had known Zia for twelve years and General Herbert M. Wassom, the head of U.S. Military aid mission to Pakistan. They had also witnessed the dismal tank demonstration, then, Ambassador Raphel found time to pay a condolence call at a convent in Bahawalpur where an American nun had been murdered the week before. Behind them, Eight other Pakistan generals packed the two benches in the rear section of the VIP capsule.

Lt. General Aslam Beg, the Army's vice chief of staff, waved goodbye from the runway, the only top general in the chain of command not aboard Pak One that day. He would fly back in the smaller Turbo Jet, waiting to take off as soon as Pak One was airborne.

A Cessna security plane completed the final check of the area-- a precaution taken ever since terrorists had unsuccessfully fired a missile at Pak One eight years earlier. Then, the control tower gave Pak One the signal to take off.

In the cockpit, which was separated from the VIP capsule by a door and three steps, was the four man flight crew. The pilot, Wing Commander Mashhood Hassan, had been personally selected by Zia. And the co-pilot, the navigator and the engineer had been cleared by Air Force security. Just the day before, they had flown Pak One back and forth on the exact route as a trial run so there would be no surprises. The trip was expected to take an hour.) After Pak One was airborne, the control tower at Bahawalpur routinely asked Mashood his position. He said "Pak One, stand bye" . But there was no response. The efforts to contact Mashood grew more desperate by the minute. Pak One was missing only minutes after it had taken off.

Meanwhile, at a river about 18 miles away from the airport, villagers, looking into the sky, saw Pak One lurching up and down in the sky, as if were on an invisible roller coaster. After its third loop, it plunged directly towards the desert, burying itself in the soil. Then, it exploded and, as the fuel burnt, became a ball of fire. All 30 persons on board were dead. It was 3:51 p.m.

General Beg's turbojet circled over the burning wreckage for a moment. Then the vice chief of stall, realizing what had happened, ordered his pilot to head for Islamabad. That evening, acting as if a coup might be underway, army units moved swiftly to cordon off official residences, government buildings, television stations, and other strategic locations in the capital.

The crash altered the face of politics in Pakistan in a way in which no simple coup d'etat could have done. Pakistan is the only country named after an acronym: "P" stands for Punjab, "A" for Afghanistan, and the "K" for Kashmir. It reflected a dream at best of an Islam state; only the "P" actually became part of Pakistan when it was carved out of British India in 1947 as a haven for Moslems. But it was a dream that Zia taken advantage of after he seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1977. Mindful that the Shah was unable to control his empire in Iran because he had underestimated the power of Islam, Zia moved almost immediately to placate the mullahs in his country by pursuing a policy of "islamization" and reinstalling the law of the Koran. Public flogging was made the penalty for drinking alcohol, amputation of a hand the penalty for robbery, and being stoned to death the penalty for adulatory. Women, if they were teachers, students or government employees, to cover their head with a chador. While he used thousand-year old Koran law to help maintain control over a population of over 99 million people in Pakistan, he strove to build an ultra-modern military machine, complete with state of the art F-16 fighters, Harpoon missiles, and nuclear arms, and to make Pakistan the leading ally of the United States in Asia. It had been an extraordinary balancing act.

Now, the sudden end of Zia and his top generals dead, with no civilian government in place, left a conspicuous void. There was of course still the Army, which General Beg had now assumed command of--which was and always had been the dominant power in Pakistan. There was also the opposition party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which no longer prevented by Zia from participating in the elections scheduled for that November, could back the candidacy of his arch enemy, Benazir Bhutto. This, in turn, made possible her election-- which was inconceivable if Zia had been in power.

But this still left opened the question of what had happened to make Pak One to fall from the sky at this opportune moment? Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto offered perhaps the most convenient explanation: divine intervention. In the epilogue to her book, Daughter of Destiny (which before Zia's death had been entitled more modestly "Daughter of the East"), Mrs. Bhutto notes "Zia's death must have been an act of god". Zia was, as far she was concerned, the incarnation of evil. When she first met him in January 1977, she saw him only as a " short, nervous, ineffectual-looking man whose pomaded hair was parted in the middle and lacquered to his head". She could not understand why her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then the prime minister of Pakistan, had passed over six more senior generals to pick him as head of the Army . Eighteen months later, Zia had usurped power from him and then committed "judicial murder," as she saw it, by allowing her father to be hanged like a common criminal on a trumped up charge. He also banned her father's political party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, imprisoned her and her mother (even though she was suffering from lung cancer) and had both her brothers in exile, Shah Nawaz and Mir Murtaza, tried and convicted of high crimes in absentia. When Shah Nawaz was killed by poison in France in 1986, she suspected it was done by Zia's agents. Zia had decimated her family. She took particular satisfaction that Zia's body was burnt beyond recognition in the plane fire, noting, "Zia had exploited the name of Islam to such an extent, people were saying that when he died, God didn't leave a trace of him."

But there also existed less divine sources of retribution. There was, for example, Mrs. Bhutto's own 34 year old brother, Mir Murtaza Bhutto. For the past nine years, he headed an anti-Zia guerrilla group, which shared offices with the PLO in Kabul, Afghanistan (and later operated out of Damascus, Syria) called Al Zulfikar or "the sword". Its proclaimed mission was to destroy the Zia regime, and the means it used included sabotage, highjackings and assassination in Pakistan. It had demonstrated that it had the capacity to carry out complex international terrorist operations when it hijacked a Pakistan International Airlines Boeing 727 with 100 passenger aboard in 1981, flew it first to Kabul, where it executed one passenger and refueled, and then to Damascus, where, with the assistance of the Syria government, it forced Zia to exchange 55 political prisoners for the passengers. It originally had taken credit for the destruction of Pak One in a phone call to the BBC although subsequently, after it was announced that the American Ambassador was aboard it, Mir Murtaza Bhutto retracted this claim. But Mir Murtaza admitted that he had attempted to assassinate Zia on five previous occasions. And one of these earlier Al-Zulfikar assassination attempts involved attempting to blow Pak One out of the sky with Zia aboard it by firing a Soviet-built SAM 7 missile at it. On that occasion, the missile missed, and when the terrorists who fired it were capture they admitted that they had been trained for the mission in Kabul by Mir Murtaza Bhutto and his advisers. Now, with his sister in a position to win the elections if Zia could be removed, Mir Murtaza had an added reason to pursue his mission. But he was not the only one with a motive.

Another suspect was the Soviet Union. Zia had offended Moscow to such a degree that it had declared publicly, only a week before the crash, that Zia's "obstructionist policy cannot be tolerated". In Washington, I was told by a top official in the Pentagon, who was directly responsible for assessing the political consequences of military activity, that his initial concern was that the Soviet Union might have been involved in bringing down Pak One. Earlier that month the Soviet had temporarily suspended its troop withdrawals from Afghanistan to protest Zia's violations of the Geneva Accords that had been signed in May. According to the Soviets, Zia not only was continuing to arm the Afghan Mujuedeen in blatant disregard of the agreement but was directing the sabotage campaign in Kabul that was adding to the Soviet humiliation. After protesting to the Pakistan Ambassador, the Soviet foreign ministry then took the extraordinary step of calling in the American Ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, and informing him that it intended "to teach Zia a lesson".

Soviet intelligence certainly had the means in place in Pakistan to carry out this threat. It had trained, subsidized and effectively ran the Afghan intelligence service, WAD, which had in its campaign of covert bombings in the past year killed and wounded over 1400 people in Pakistan, according to a State Department report released the week of the crash. It had also demonstrated that Spring it could recruit Pakistani accomplices inside military installations. Had Pak One been another of its targets?

After weighing this possibility, the relevant officials in the Pentagon and State Department rejected, according to the official I was interviewing. What persuaded them that the Soviet leadership would not permit such a move, he further elaborated, was the presence of the Ambassador on the plane. They simply did not believe that the Soviets would not have jeopardized Glastnost by assassinating an American of this rank. But later while we were having lunch in his office he mentioned that neither Ambassador Raphel or General Wassom were supposed to fly back on Zia's plane. Both men, at least the day before, had been scheduled to return from the tank exhibition on the U.S. military attache's jet (which General Wassom had flown down on). If so, the perpetrators might not have necessarily reckoned on the American presence aboard the plane.


Questions? Email me at edepstein@worldnet.att.net
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