The Death of Zia-ul-Haq

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Khalid Ahmed[1]


(General Zia-ul-Haq’s death in an air-crash on 17 August 1988 has remained a mystery. Since then various theories have been advanced. Three depositions were made to the inquiry commission headed by the former Supreme Court judge, Justice Shaifqur Rehman, by citizens accusing: (i) the Ahmadis; (ii) the Americans, and; (iii) the Shias. All were rejected by the commission. This did not deter fanciful speculation including a connection between Pakistan’s nuclear programme and alleged sale of nuclear technology. None of these were proved and remained theories. Editor )

General Zia-ul-Haq came to power in 1977 and was killed in an air-crash in 1988 at the peak of Shia killings in Pakistan. It was widely believed in Pakistan that his death was engineered by the Shia community in revenge. Zia began Islamising the country under the tutelage of Saudi Arabia. By 1980 the first Islamic laws of the sharia he enforced were backed by Saudi Arabia who sent special advisers at the time of framing them. In 1979, Iran went through its Islamic Revolution. Around the Gulf, the Arab states feared this development because most of them had Shia minorities they were not treating well. Saudi Arabia experienced the first uprising among the Shia of its oil-bearing Eastern Province in 1979, immediately after the Islamic Revolution. Every occasion of hajj began to be used by the Iranian pilgrims to stage protests. In 1981, Bahrain was nearly taken over by 72 Shia terrorists trained in Iran. In 1984, Iran sent its largest number of pilgrims, 154,000, to Mecca with a plan to stage a big protest, which led to rioting and Shia deaths. The same year Kuwait, where the Shia may number 25 to 35 percent of the population, experienced terrorism which was traced to Iran.

In 1980, General Zia had to face Shia resistance to his enforcement of zakat on Pakistan’s nearly 22 million Shia. In 1982, the Gulf States including Saudi Arabia set up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to face up to the threat of Iran. General Zia stayed away from providing it with military teeth, but he was clearly more under the influence of the Arabs than the Iranians by reason of a large expatriate Pakistani community working in the Gulf region and sending back nearly 70 percent of the foreign exchange remittances coming in from all over the world. But in 1985, the anti-Shia organisation, Sipah Sahaba, had already been formed. In 1986, an Indian Muslim scholar, funded by Saudi Arabia, asked the big seminaries in Pakistan to say whether the Shia were Muslims. Maulana Manzur Numani had earlier written a book against Iran and mentioned in it the “near takeover” of Mecca by Iranian pilgrims in 1984. The seminaries in Pakistan sent to him fatwas saying that the Shia were not Muslims. The compilation of these apostatising fatwas later led to many Shia deaths in Pakistan.

Also in 1986, while the apostatising fatwas were being compiled, General Zia allowed the Sunni mujahideen fighting against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan to attack Parachinar, the capital city of the Shia-majority Tribal Agency of Kurram near the Afghan border amid reports that the Shia were leaving for Iran “by the truckload” for military training. Three years earlier, in 1983, the Shia of Pakistan had begun to be led by Allama Ariful Hussaini, who was a companion of Imam Khomeini during the latter’s exile in Iraq. “Parachinar had no tradition of organised violence until Pakistan’s interventionist policies in Afghanistan resulted in the influx of Afghan Islamist extremists and a flourishing trade in drugs and arms. Afghan fighters were brought into this area to attack Turi Shias because the Zia government did not want any Shia pockets on the weapon supply route from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Since then, sectarian conflict has been endemic and bloody.”1

The Kurram massacre of the Shia was still sending out waves of unrest in Pakistan when General Zia allegedly allowed another massacre of the Shia in Gilgit in the Northern Areas of Pakistan in April 1988. On 5 August the same year the Shia leader, Allama Ariful Hussaini was murdered in Peshawar. Greatly offended, Iran sent a special high-level delegation to condole his death and take part in his funeral. Allama Hussaini’s credentials were much strengthened as a scholar because of his association with Imam Khomeini during the latter’s exile in Najaf in Iraq before the Saddam government ordered Hussaini out of Iraq.2 Iran’s special delegation was led by Ayatollah Jannati.3 Then on 17 August 1988, General Zia was killed in an air-crash in Bahawalpur in the south of Punjab while inspecting new American tanks that he wanted to buy, but his junior officers, including the local corps commanders, did not. The governor of the NWFP, whom the Shia community openly accused of being involved in the killing of their leader in Peshawar in 1988, was killed by unknown gunmen in 1991.

Zia’s own aide de camp (ADC) Majid Raza Gillani was suspected of being involved in the killing of the Shia leader: “The state appeal against the acquittal of those charged with the murder of Ariful Hussaini still continues to this day. The judge has delayed the appeal on March 9, 2005 on conflict of interest matters with one of the members of the judiciary. The accused are former government officials in the Zia regime, including ADC to the president Majid Raza Gillani, whose apparent motive for such a crime would have been to counter Iranian influence in Pakistani domestic policy.”4 Azmat Abbas wrote: “Shia outfit Pasban-e-Islam has been involved in several high profile murders, including the unsolved disappearance of Captain (Retired) Majid Raza Gillani who served as General Zia’s ADC. In a verdict that was never accepted by many Shia organisations, Gillani was acquitted in the 1988 murder trial of the Tehreek Jafariya leader Allama Ariful Hussaini. Gillani was shot, injured and abducted from outside his house shortly after his acquittal by a young man in a jeep and was never heard from again.”5 Hassan Abbas connects him to the conspiracy of Zia’s crash through the murder of Hussaini: “Intriguingly, Majid Raza Gillani who, according to an ISI insider, was a tool used in this sabotage, was in fact charged with the murder of Ariful Hussaini but was acquitted in 1993 by the district court in Peshawar. He also remained in ISI custody for some time after the August 17 crash but was later freed and thrown out of the Pakistan army.”6 The Shia went in appeal later on and, in 2005, Gillani was still under trial in Peshawar.

Justice Shafiur Rehman Commission Report

Nobody can say for certain who killed General Zia. In 1992, prime minister Nawaz Sharif was forced by accusations of foul play from various quarters, to set up a commission of inquiry into the Bahawalpur crash. (He was forced above all by a member of his cabinet, Zia’s son Ijazul Haq, who constantly accused the army chief Aslam Beg, retired in 1991, of having killed his father). The Commission was headed by the Supreme Court judge Justice Shafiur Rehman but it submitted a report of non-performance by clearly accusing the Pakistan army of obstructing its work. A summary of its report to the prime minister was published in an Urdu newspaper in Lahore and the report too may have been a public document but at the time of writing it has been sealed as secret and confidential by the Law Ministry.

The Shafiur Rehman Commission entertained three depositions made from the citizens: (i) the Ahmedis killed General Zia; (ii) the Americans did it; (iii) the Shias did it. No deposition said that the Pakistan army had done it. The conclusion, which accuses the army of putting hurdles in the way of the Commission’s work, was reached by the Commission on its own. The theory that the Ahmedis did it, propounded in the deposition made by Manzur Elahi Malik, leader of Tehrik-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwwat, Kharian, was dismissed as absurd because it had named president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, General Aslam Beg, General Ahmad Kamal, General Durrani, Admiral Sirohi, and IG Punjab Nisar Cheema, as secret Ahmedis who killed Zia to avenge the anti-Ahmedi laws he had promulgated. The Commission ruled that killing Zia could not have rescinded the anti-Qadiani ordinance and, therefore, there was no logic in the theory.

The Commission also rejected the theory that the Shias did it. This theory was based on the “fact” that Flight-Lieutenant Sajid, co-pilot in the ill-fated C-130, was a newly converted Shia, who had told his mother before his departure that he was going on “a great mission,” indicating the passion for shahadat (martyrdom) of the newly converted. Hassan Abbas has an inside track on what the ISI thought: “At this stage, the planners of Zia’s murder convinced Flight Lieutenant Sajid, a Shia who was co-pilot of the ill-fated C-130,  that Zia was anti-Shia and had ordered the killing of Ariful Hussaini. So Sajid, according to the ISI report, was motivated to take revenge and crash Zia’s plane.”7 However, the Commission ruled out this version and any Iranian involvement, holding that the chemical which caused the crash could not have been taken into the plane by co-pilot Sajid without the help of Sunni officers.

The Commission examined the accusation that the Americans had killed General Zia and called up the records of the inquest held by the US Congress. It was revealed that ambassador Robert Oakley and General George B Crist of CENTCOM had decided on their own not to involve the FBI in the investigation of the Bahawalpur crash in which the American ambassador Arnold L Raphel and Brigadier General Herbert M Wassom had been killed. They had instead got the Pentagon and the State Department to hold an inter-departmental inquiry. The Commission discovered that both Oakley and Crist had later apologised to Congress for having made this mistake. The Commission ruled that the there was no evidence that the Americans were involved. It, in fact,  praised the US Congress for holding a proper inquiry, something that Pakistan had failed to do.

The Commission however called its work inconclusive because it was not allowed by the army to investigate the Bahawalpur crash fully. It was convinced that the air-crash was an act of sabotage. It noted that the evidence was destroyed by the quick removal of debris and by an equally quick burial of the dead bodies without post mortem. The army refused to hand over the door with a hole in it, caused by the explosion in the cargo section where a device was placed by loaders. (This door was noted in the photographs that were appended to an earlier Air Force inquiry). The Commission complained bitterly about the fact that army loaders, who had placed some special cargo in the cockpit, were allowed to appear before it after great resistance, and that during their appearance in the court they were accompanied by army officers as “minders” who obstructed testimony by their presence. The act of sabotage that killed 30 senior Pakistani army officers and two important Americans in 1988 will probably never be investigated properly.

Apart from the tense anti-Shia environment in Pakistan, the details of the crash still tended to point to a possible Shia conspiracy. Two pilots flying President Zia’s C-130 plane were either reported to be Shia or their names recalled Shia identity. The pilot, Mashood Hassan, had a Shia-sounding name while his co-pilot, Sajid, was known to be a Shia. Epstein who investigated the incident immediately after it had happened dismisses the Shia conspiracy theory:

“For its part, Pakistani military authorities attempted to foist an explanation that Shi’ite fanatics were responsible for the crash. The only basis for this theory was that the co-pilot of Pak One, Wing Commander (sic!) Sajid, happened to have been a Shi’ite (as are more than ten per cent of Pakistan’s Moslems). The pilot of the back-up C-130, who also was a Shi’ite, was then arrested by the military and kept in custody for more than two months while military interrogators tried to make him confess that he had persuaded Sajid to crash Pak One in a suicide mission. Even under torture, he denied this charge and insisted that, as far as he knew, Sajid was a loyal pilot who would not commit suicide. Finally, the army abandoned this effort. The Air Force demonstrated that it would have been physically impossible for the co-pilot alone to have caused a C-130 to crash in the way it did. And if he had attempted to overpower the rest of the flight crew, the struggle certainly would have been heard over the radio. But why had the military attempted to cook up this Shi’ite red herring?8

There is a consensus among all those who have cared to look into the mystery of General Zia’s death that it was no accident, that it was carried out by a group of people from within Pakistan, and that the Pakistan army consistently obstructed all efforts at finding out who had actually been a party to the conspiracy to kill Zia.9 The “Shia angle” was partially raised again in a long report that appeared in an Urdu weekly magazine, Takbeer, in 1992.10 The “suspected” army chief Aslam Beg had been replaced by General Asif Nawaz who was intensely disliked by the Islamist officers close to the ruling prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The contents of this unusual 32 page long report seem to have come from within the army when he was in office. The magazine published photos of the pages of an earlier air force inquiry into the crash and clearly tried to own a critical commentary on this report. Who from the army leaked this “report on the report” to Takbeer? The army chief, General Asif Nawaz, was to die of natural causes – contested by his family – while in office in the middle of a dangerous row with the prime minister and his supporters among the serving and retired army officers.

The Takbeer report discusses the person of Flight Lieutenant Sajid in some detail. It contradicts Epstein’s claim that he was security-cleared. Sajid and senior technician Abdul Aziz, both from Bahawalpur, were not security-cleared. It says that both left the Bahawalpur airport for some time to meet their friends in the city. Sajid had also violated a rule. He had flown a plane to the dangerous mountainous region of Gilgit in the Northern Areas (a Shia majority region) a day earlier, on 16 August, and could not have flown again within 24 hours under the air force rules. Witnesses had told the investigative team that Sajid was tired when he reached Bahawalpur as a co-pilot of the president’s plane. He was taken on board in a hurry and was not security-cleared. The magazine then discloses details that have not been noted so far: “According to the ISI investigation, Sajid was first a follower of the Ahle Hadith school of Muslims and had converted to Shiism only three months earlier.”11 It was Sajid’s voice that one witness, Wing Commander Munawwar Alam Siddiqi, claimed to have heard over the radio while flying another plane in the vicinity. Sajid was calling out to Mashood, the senior pilot, before the plane went down.

The magazine disclosed that General Zia had stopped travelling by air after the assassination of the Shia leader Ariful Hussaini but was persuaded by senior officers 12 days after Hussaini’s death to fly to Bahawalpur despite the fact that he was constantly hearing of conspiracies to kill him. While the drift of the report was to focus on the senior officers, especially Corps Commander Bahawalpur General Shafiq, on whose orders the investigations were obstructed, it was hinted that the Shia officers could have been made to participate on the basis of religion. Although once military secretary to Zia, Shafiq was imprisoned in the Major General Tajammul Case of a plot against Zia after a conspirator’s letter contained a reference to him. He was freed on the request of General Musa, the Shia former commander-in-chief, and was posted abroad. Later prime minister Junejo was instrumental in getting General Zia to promote him to lieutenant general. Similarly corps commander Multan, General Shamim Alam Khan, could not have been greatly pleased with Zia as he too was rescued from relegation by Junejo who pressured Zia to promote him to the rank of lieutenant general after being told that Zia was not promoting him despite his good record.12

An interesting testimony about General Shafiq’s attitude comes from the then corps commander Karachi, General Asif Nawaz Janjua, who was to succeed Aslam Beg as army chief in 1991. General Asif Nawaz, upon hearing of the air-crash, rang General Shafiq in Bahawalpur to ask what steps was the army immediately taking and what orders had been issued in the wake of General Zia’s death. To his astonishment, General Shafiq replied that Zia had met his end and there was no need to do anything about it, clearly indicating Shafiq’s intent to block all investigation into the incident.13

Zia and Saudi Arabia; Aslam Beg and Iran

The sectarian scene cannot be studied without the role played in it by Iran and the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) led by Saudi Arabia. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 took place when General Zia had just embarked on his campaign to Islamise Pakistan with the help of Saudi Arabia. His first Islamic sharia laws were promulgated after being framed by an Arab scholar sent by King Faisal who had already given Zia “seed-money” for his Zakat Fund. Zia knew that he could not enforce the law of compulsory payment of zakat on the Shias, but he tried any way in 1979, thus arousing the Shia to stage their first protest in 1980. The Quranic hudood laws based on a very strict literalist interpretation were actually first framed in Arabic by King Faisal’s adviser (who also headed the World Muslim Council) and adopted in contravention of the recommendations by the constitutional advisory body, Council of Islamic Ideology.14 The full extent of Saudi “help” is not known in this very delicate period for Zia who had referred in public to the “empty coffers” left behind by the socialist government of prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – the popular Shia politician he hanged in 1979.

Saudi Arabia experienced its first Shia revolt in a long time in 1979 just after the Iranian revolution. Alarmed by Iran’s revolutionary clout in the region, the Gulf states, in the tutelage of Saudi Arabia, set up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). There was serious consideration given to GCC having a military defensive aspect to it. Pakistan was the most natural ally from outside the region: it had a large expatriate population working in the GCC states and had a tradition of sending military advisers to them. Zia was close to the Arabs on many counts, having served as a military attaché in the region, but also had sense of a tradition of good Pakistan-Iran relations even though the pivotal role played by the Shah in them was at an end. While clearly an ally of Saudi Arabia, he was inclined to be neutral in the developing Iran-Arab confrontation. There were rumours in Pakistan in 1982 that the GCC states had threatened to expel all Pakistani workers if Pakistan refused to “lend military teeth” to the GCC. There is very little on record because of the extreme caution exercised by the rulers of the UAE. Most books on the Gulf States discuss the GCC as a harmless organisation, but a clearer indication of what was at stake is indicated by Christopher M Davidson. According to him the plan for an anti-Iran axis existed up until 2001: “Until September 11, 2001, many of the strongly anti-Iranian emirates had favoured a ‘Sunni axis’ comprising the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Afghan Taliban, in an effort to curb potential Shia expansion.” The author footnoted that his information had come from “personal interviews, undisclosed locations, 2003.”15

Zia had already had a bad meeting with Imam Khomeini. He had tried to play neutral in the Iran-Iraq war which had begun in 1980, but he could not please the Imam who had asked him to pardon a Shia Bhutto under death sentence, only to be politely rebuffed by him. One meeting particularly went bad, as described by Vali Nasr when Zia asked the Imam not to provoke the “superpower” United States.16 After that, quite illogically, he believed Khomeini when he accused the United States of backing a Saudi fanatic who tried to start a revolt in Mecca in 1979 after declaring himself Imam Mahdi. (The Mahdi was actually a Wahhabi named Qahtani put up by a rebel preacher Juhaima who harangued the hajj congregation about the arrival of the Muslim messiah which he significantly said was to come from the line of Ali17). Zia repeated Khomeini’s accusation on TV, which led to the destruction of the US embassy in Islamabad by mobs from a religious party included in his government. He later had to indemnify Washington for the destruction of its embassy. Discussing Zia’s meetings with Imam Khomeini, Nasr says: “Humiliated, Zia decided to take no chances by allowing Iranian influence in Pakistan and so had his Sunni fundamentalist allies reining in the Shias.”18 Pakistani ex-ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Shahid Amin, records that Zia still played his cards carefully although his intimacy with the Arabs was a basic fact: “During the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 Pakistan secretly tilted towards Iran while maintaining an overtly neutral attitude. Not surprisingly, Pakistan’s help to Iran could not remain unknown for a long period of time. This brought complaints from the Gulf states with which Pakistan had always maintained very close relations and where hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis were gainfully employed.”19

While the GCC was mulling the Iranian threat Hojatul Islam Modaressi’s terrorists struck again in 1983, this time in Kuwait, against the US embassy through an explosive-laden truck driven by a Shia suicide bomber. The plot was uncovered through the impression taken from the thumb of the suicide-bomber which had remained intact. The trail led once again to Iran as the arrested men confessed. The following year, in 1984, Iran sent an unprecedented number of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia – over 154,000 – with the intent of staging a demonstration in Mecca. Scuffles followed and the Saudi police ended up killing a number of them.20

Yet, while General Zia was clearly leaning in favour of the Arabs in the gathering Arab-Iran conflict, Pakistan was in the process of discussing a possible sale of nuclear technology to Iran!

Gordon Corera says Pakistan’s nuclear scientist and head of the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) Dr AQ Khan was using Dubai as a base for meeting his suppliers. It is here in 1987 that he made a sale of crucial drawings and designs of a tested nuclear plant and received three million dollars in Swiss francs from the Iranian party.21 Was this deal with Iran concluded with the consent of General Zia who was in the process of “reining in the Shias” in Pakistan? After the massacre of the Shia in Parachinar he was to allow a lashkar (army) of Pushtun Deobandi fanatics to stage another massacre of the Shia in Gilgit, the Shia-majority capital of the Northern Areas, in April 1988. If he had given AQ Khan the go-ahead, did he realise that Saudi Arabia might get wind of it and retaliate against him? Zia was to die in an air-crash that year. Is it possible that the nuclear sale was made without his approval, that he came to know of it or was about to know it and might have acted against AQ Khan and his allies in the military establishment? And that he died because he had got close to the information in August 1988 about who had made the deal?

General Beg and Dr AQ Khan

Is there enough circumstantial evidence to support the speculation that Zia died because of a secret pro-Iran nuclear policy followed from within the army which its supporters did not want ended? Or that Zia first allowed and then decided to end the deal with Iran and was killed by those who did not want the deal cancelled? Two streams of evidence seem to converge: that Zia’s chief of staff or second-in-command, Lieutenant General Aslam Beg, was very keen about the nuclear programme and worked closely with AQ Khan; and that after the death of his boss was accused by Zia’s son Ijazul Haq of engineering his death. After taking over as army chief, Aslam Beg began talking about “selling” nuclear technology as a part of his “strategy of defiance” of the United States. He knew that such a nuclear cooperation with Iran was popular and that, within an increasingly anti-American army, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs were less popular as American clients in the region. The speed with which he declared the new nuclear policy leads one to speculate whether he simply wanted the “obstacle” of General Zia to disappear from the scene. Zia was close to the Arabs, especially to Saudi Arabia, that had built a grand multi-million dollar mosque in Islamabad, the Faisal Mosque, where he was appropriately buried after his death.

Corera too wonders if the deal with Iran was “official” or done without the knowledge of the “government” – which was General Zia in 1987, prime minister Junejo being more or less a puppet by reason of the 8th Amendment in the Constitution passed by parliament which allowed Zia to dismiss him at his discretion. He records the official Iranian delegations – there was one led by president Ali Khamenei who was very keen to build the Iranian bomb – which must have clearly asked Zia for “cooperation.” But the “deal” in 1987 was concluded by a relative of AQ Khan in Dubai. This might point to Zia’s reluctance to give the Iranians what they wanted in full public view, especially the Arabs,’ who had already reacted with alarm to the nuclear ambition of a friendly Shah in the 1970s. Corera makes the following interesting observation: “But would Pakistan really want to see a neighbour with nuclear weapons? A few individuals might but not the whole government over an extended period. In essence, it appears that Khan could have received tacit approval and support from a small number of senior individuals but may have continued and deepened the relationship on his – or his network’s – initiative.”22

Then he provides a pen-sketch of General Aslam Beg: “During the mid to late 1980s, when Pakistan and Iran were moving closer together and nuclear dealings began, General Mirza Aslam Beg was first vice chief from 1987 and then from 1988 to 1991, chief of the army staff…As soon as he became vice chief he was ‘made privy’ to the nuclear programme for the first time. He supported a more overt nuclear policy and greater distancing from the United States and the West. According to his own writings, Beg thought in terms of “democratising” the global nuclear non-proliferation order and moving to a multipolar world, which he believed would be safer than either a bipolar Cold War world or a unipolar world of American power…Beg and AQ Khan were close friends and political allies and shared many of the same views.”23

In 2000, when General Pervez Musharraf ordered his National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to inquire into the affairs of Dr AQ Khan, NAB relied on an earlier investigation carried out under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by the ISI in 1998-1999 to confirm that Khan was “buying too much material for Pakistan’s own programme” and that “he had given a house to General Beg and was paying off numerous Pakistani journalists and even funding a newspaper.”24 The NAB report was kept without a number and the chief of the NAB left office concluding that Khan was too big a fish to tackle. General Musharraf later told The New York Times (17 April 2006) that once when he asked for details of his forthcoming trip to border city of Iran, Zahidan, Khan declined to tell him, claiming secrecy.

In 1987, the ISI sought to “showcase” Pakistan’s nuclear capability by arranging an interview between AQ Khan and Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar with the help of Pakistani journalist Mushahid Hussain then employed with the Islamabad-based daily, The Muslim, with known links to Iran.25 Mushahid Hussain was an advocate of an “overt” nuclear policy and was probably in contact with vice chief General Aslam Beg when he set up a meeting between Khan and Nayar. Later when Aslam Beg set up his FRIENDS (Foundation for Research on Regional Defence and Security26), Mushahid Hussain joined it.

Following Zia’s death, Aslam Beg became Pakistan’s army chief and had his famous spat with American ambassador in Islamabad, Robert Oakley, over his “strategic defiance” thesis which he was free to parade after the US-imposed nuclear-related sanctions on Pakistan in 1990 had come into force. He also misinterpreted the 1991 American participation in the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after it occupied Kuwait. While prime minister Nawaz Sharif was visiting Saudi Arabia and ordering his troops to defend the sacred sites of Mecca and Madina, Aslam Beg was making trips to Iran and predicting that the Americans would be defeated by Saddam Hussein after which Egypt and Saudi Arabia “would be discredited” for being allies of the United States.27

Later, there were reports that Aslam Beg had gone to Tehran without informing prime minister Nawaz Sharif and had signed a secret agreement for “military to military transfers” with Iran. Corera writes: “Former Pakistani diplomats claim that Beg and the ISI chief General Asad Durrani approached President Ghulam Ishaq Khan with a proposal to sell nuclear technology in order to finance ISI operations that were ongoing in Afghanistan (but now without US financial support) and were just starting up in Kashmir. Sensing the potential political danger, the president, however, passed the issue on to prime minister Nawaz Sharif who declined the proposal.”28 Journalist Zahid Hussain in his book also refers to Nawaz Sharif’s finance minister Ishaq Dar disclosing that “Beg came back from Tehran with an offer of $5 billion in return for nuclear know-how, but Sharif rejected the offer.”29

Is it reasonable to assume that General Zia had not finally decided whether to give Iran the nuclear data it wanted while others around him were keen – anti-American feelings were building up in anticipation of the 1990 sanctions – to make a final break and join a regional phalanx of “defiance” together with Iran? Was General Zia’s death caused by this cleavage of opinion? Zia was actually fighting a sectarian war with Iran while secret contacts were being made by the nuclear scientists of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) with their Iranian counterparts in Switzerland. Dr A.Q. Khan of KRL had also visited the Bushehr plant in Iran in 1987, but did Zia know that he had made a sale the same year at Dubai? Corera records that in 1989, ISI chief General Hamid Gul had let President Ghulam Ishaq Khan know that “there was evidence that A.Q. Khan was meeting with suspicious characters in Dubai.”30 If the ISI gets to know about the Dubai contact in 1989, it is obvious that it could not have informed Zia about it in 1987. This strengthens the view that Zia was not informed about the deal with Iran. Was Zia thinking of “cooperating” with the Iranians but was dissuaded from doing so for three possible reasons: his sectarian war against the Shia, his fear of Saudi and Arab wrath, and his fear of American sanctions which might include parallel retaliatory action by the Gulf States?

The Bahawalpur crash may have been engineered by collating a number of categories of elements willing to eliminate Pakistan’s military ruler and yet a majority of the military personnel present on the occasion may not have known about the plot. Two facts about public opinion have stood the test of time: that Zia was killed by someone and that the army did not want his death properly investigated; and that his successor, Aslam Beg, had acted most strangely during the whole incident. Zia’s son kept the pressure on Aslam Beg for some years till he got tired of it and became vague about who could have done the deed.

The Takbeer report of 1992, which reads like a “leak” from the post-Aslam Beg military leadership, repeats some of the inconsistencies in Aslam Beg’s statements that most Pakistanis have noted. When Zia asked Beg to return to Islamabad with him in his C-130, Beg said he had to go to Lahore on some other mission. This statement he gave on 19 August 1988. But on 25 August he told some officers that he actually had to go to Multan and, therefore, had declined to go with Zia. But the log book of his plane mentioned no planned trips to either Multan or Lahore on the page-entry for 17 August. On 18 August 1988, in the presence of some American officials, Beg stated that Zia had been killed by Russian KGB, Indian RAW and Afghan Khad working in tandem. After a few days, meeting the dead chief’s family, he accused the Americans of having killed him!

The “nuclear sale” story is the additional strand in the “theory” of General Zia’s death. The Shia “strand” of it is present in this story through the newspaper The Muslim and its actively pro-Iran Shia chief editor and editor, and the Pakistani “tilt” in favour of Iran by defying the pro-Arab trend set by General Zia. The “theory” posits Aslam Beg as the central figure who is seen bringing together the various elements interested in killing General Zia. In the absence of any direct evidence or a confession, it remains a theory.

1 International Crisis Group Asia Report No 95 – 18 April 2005. The State of Sectarianism in Pakistan, p.4.

2 Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Sectarianism in Pakistan: The Radicalisation of Shi’i and Sunni Identities, p.695, in Modern Asian Studies 32, 3 (1998) Cambridge University Press. He makes reference to the fact that Hussaini had to quit Iraq after receiving orders of expulsion by the Saddam government, forcing him to return to Pakistan in 1978 after six years in the Najaf seminary. The writer of this book also learnt from Pakistan’s scholar Qurayshpur on TV that Hussaini’s death was commemorated in Iran with a postage stamp.

3 Mushahid Hussain, Among the Believers, The Herald, Karachi, September 1992. p.39.

4 Saleem H Ali, Islamic Education and Conflict: Understanding the Madrassahs of Pakistan, (submitted to the OUP, August 2005). Footnote 60.

5 The Herald, November 2004, p.38.

6 Hassan Abbas, Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror, ME Sharpe, NY, 2005. p.132.

7 Ibid. p.126.

8 Edward Epstein, Who killed Zia? Vanity Fair, September 1989.

9 Barbara Crossette, Who Killed Zia? World Policy Journal, Fall 2005. Investigating US ambassador Dean’s charge that the Israelis had got rid of Zia (and dismissing it), she writes: “Given prolonged American involvement with Pakistan, isn’t it time to look back with greater diligence and seriousness at this mystery? The longer the tragedy goes unexamined in any rigorous, if not conclusive, way, the more internally contradictory and bizarre this story becomes”.

10 Takbeer, Karachi, 20 August 1992. Saaniha Bahawalpur main chand A’la Fauji Afsar Mulawwis hein (Some High-ranking Army Officers are involved in the Bahawalpur Tragedy).

11 Ibid. p.21.

12 Hassan Abbas, Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terrorism, ME Sharpe, NY, 2005. p.121.

13 Interview with Shuja Nawaz, late General Asif Nawaz’s brother, who was present when his brother rang Shafiq. Shuja Nawaz, after his career in the World Bank, lives in Washington DC, and is writing his book on the Pakistan Army.

14 Syed Afzal Haider, Islami Nazriati Konsal: Irtaqai Safar aur Karkardagi (Council of Islamic Ideology: Evolution and Activity), Dost Publications Islamabad (2006). The book records that Dr Maroof Dualibi visited the offices of the Council’ (p.961). However, Council’s own report to the government in December 1981, observed that Hudood laws were discussed by the Council and the Law Ministry ‘under the guidance of Dr Maroof Dualibi who was specially detailed by the Government of Saudi Arabia for this purpose’. It seems as if Dr Dualibi sat in on discussions merely as a senior jurist and perhaps did not actually frame the laws. Just the opposite in fact happened. The CII report actually says that the recommendations on Hudood laws made by it were set aside ‘at the government level’ before their promulgation as an Ordinance on 10 February 1979.

15 Christopher M Davidson, The United Arab Emirates: A Study in Survival, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder London, 2005, p.206 and p.244.

16 Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future, Norton, 2006, p.162.

17 Dilip Hiro, War without End: The Rise of Islamist Terrorism and Global Response, Routledge 2002, p.139.

18 Vali Nasr, Ibid, p.161.

19 Shahid M Amin, Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: An Appraisal, Oxford University Press, 2004, p.141.

20 This was the “Iranian takeover” as per the Shia prediction of Imam Mahdi’s final takeover of Mecca mentioned in the prefatory article written by Manzur Numani to his collection of fatwas against the Shia. The fatwas were issued by Pakistan’s major seminaries, many of them handsomely funded by Saudi Arabia, in 1986. But immediately after the Mecca agitation, it was Sipah Sahaba, the anti-Shia religious party, that made its sudden appearance in Pakistan in 1985.

21 Gordon Corera, Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Security and the Rise and Fall of the AQ Khan Network, Oxford University Press, 2006, p.59-60.

22 Ibid. p.73.

23 Ibid.p.74.

24 Ibid.p.146.

25 The owner of The Muslim, Agha Murtaza Pooya, was a Shia and a votary of the Islamic Revolution with contacts in Tehran. Editor The Muslim Mushahid Hussain was Pakistan’s ranking journalist after his coverage of the 1983 military operation in Sindh. An admirer of Imam Khomeini, he was present in Mecca when the 1984 Shia pilgrims’ protest there led to violence. He returned and wrote an eye-witness account of it for his paper.

26 Aslam Beg changed the “defence” in FRIENDS to “development”.

27 Gordon Corera, Ibid, p.75.

28 Ibid, p.76: Corera refers to Peter Lavoy and Feroz Hassan Khan, Rogue or Responsible Nuclear Power, Making Sense of Pakistan’s Nuclear Practices, Strategic insights, Vol III, Issue 2, February 2004.

29 Zahid Hussain, Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam, Columbia University Press, New York, 2007, p.166.

30 Gordon Corera, Ibid. p.96.

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The author is consulting editor of the Friday Times, Lahore.