General Akhtar Abdur Rahman Khan (Urdu: اختر عبد الرحمن; b. 11 June 1924 – 17 August 1988), was an influential statesman and a four-star rank general officer who tenured as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee from 1987–1988 and as Director-General Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from 1979-1987. As director of the ISI, Akhtar holds a world prestige for masterminding the resistance network against the Soviet Union in their war to protect the fragile regime, the Communist Afghanistan.
Close to General Zia-ul-Haq, Akhtar consolidated political power and was widely regarded as country’s most powerful statesman to have an influence on country’s covert and overt public policies. Being regarded as the consistent United States ally, he was a close friend of counterpart William Casey of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1988, he was killed in the mysterious plane crash among with President Zia and many other high-ranking officers of the Pakistan and United States Armed Forces, including United States ambassador Arnold Lewis Raphel. After his death, two of his sons Humayun Akhtar Khan and Haroon Akhtar Khan later entered politics in Pakistan.
Early life and education
Rehman was born was born on 11 June 1924 in Rampur, British Indian Empire to an educated family. His father, Dr. Abdul Rehman, was one of the few Muslim physician in the South Asian subcontinent at the time; his father died when he was of three years and a half. After passing the university entrance exam, Rehman enrolled in the Government College University (GCU) in Lahore in 1941, and subsequently earned Bachelor of Science in Statistics in 1945, followed by Master of Arts in Economics in 1947.
Akhtar joined the British Indian Army in 1946, before becoming Captain in Pakistan Army in 1949. After witnessing the traumatic events during the partition, Akhtar was appointed as an instructor at the Artillery School in Nowshera. Later, he was selected for an infantry training course with the British Army and was sent on deputation to complete a course in the United Kingdom. Upon returning to Pakistan, he secured the promotion as Major and posted as a military adviser to East-Pakistan Army from April 1954 to October 1954. He was later transferred back to General combatant headquarters (GHQ) as a staff officer which he hold from April 1956 to February 1957. He actively participated in the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 and appointed at IV Corps as an operational field officer. He fought well in Lahore sector that led to his promotion as lieutenant-colonel and remained second-in-command of the infantry regiment in Lahore. After the war, he was promoted as Colonel while being stationed with the IV Corps. Later, he was promoted as Brigadier and given transferred to northern parts of the country, and commanded an infantry brigadier as its brigader commander, in Azad Kashmir.
Director of Inter-Services Intelligence
In 1971, he was promoted to two-star rank, Major-General, and served as General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 12th Infantry Division stationed in Murree. Akhtar was generally close to Bhutto and personally greeted Bhutto when he visited to command office of the 12th Division. He did not took part in Operation Fair Play and privately opposed the martial law to remove Prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In mere six months, he was appointed as adjutant general at GHQ for next two years. During this time, Rahman became aware of the conspiracy in the armed forces that included senior lieutenant-general Faiz Ali Chishti of X Corps, who was counted among the close associates of General Zia-ul-Haq, secretly became rebellious and conspired to stage a military coup in the country. As early as of 1977, Akhtar received a call from General Chishti and had his office in Chaklala Military District (CMD). At this meeting, Rehman was revealed of counter-coup that was aimed to topple General Zia-ul-Haq and was seeking help from him. According to the News International‘s intelligence unit, Chisti was under the impression that since Rahman had not been promoted, he would accept this invitation; especially when he was promised that after the design worked out successfully, he would not only be promoted but would also become one of the pillars of the new regime. After coming back to GHQ, Rehman, as surprised he was, quickly contacted General Zia-ul-Haq and foiled the plot against Zia.
In June 1979 after the counter-coup had been foild, President General Zia-ul-Haq called Akhtar and awarded him a promotion while offering him the coveted position of the directorate of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). After being promoted to three-star rank, lieutenant-general, General Rehman directed the ISI’s operation that would make the ISI to became one of the major organs of Pakistan’s fast expanding organisational machinery of military. His influence on atomic weapons programme grew and worked tirelessly and collected around him colleagues who were equally dynamic and determined to make the ISI an organisation that would have great impact on the domestic and external policies of the country.
Chairman joint chiefs
During his eight-year tenure, the ISI became one of the world’s most powerful spy agencies. In 1987 at the pinnacle of his career, General Akhtar was elevated to the four-star rank and secured the appointment as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, the highest and most prestigious four-star assignment in the Pakistan Armed Forces. However, a year later, he died in a plane crash along with General Zia.
Role in the Soviet–Afghan War
When the Soviet Union deployed its 40th Army in Afghanistan, many of General Zia’s leading generals believed that Pakistan would be the Soviet Union’s next target. They felt that because of Pakistan’s strategic location and given the fact that it has warm water ports in the Arabian Sea, it was a prime target for future invasion. Since the top military brass believed that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan threatened Pakistan’s national security, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency the ISI headed by General Akhtar started providing financial, military, and strategic assistance to the Afghan mujahideen. The ISI received billions of dollars in military assistance from the CIA and Saudi Arabia to train and command the Afghan rebels in a bid to defeat the Soviets. This covert operation was known as Operation Cyclone, and was executed with the CIA provided the money and weapons, the ISI trained and commanded the Afghan Mujahideen groups, and the Mujahideen conducted Guerilla warfare, ultimately helping lead to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. General Akhtar is widely praised for his crucial role as Director General of the ISI during the war.
On August 17, 1988 General Akhtar Abdur Rahman died in a mysterious plane crash which also killed President General Zia-ul-Haq. General Akhtar and General Zia along with a number of other top Pakistani military personnel were earlier in Bahawalpur to witness a US M1 Abrams tank demonstration. After witnessing a failed demonstration in which the tank missed most of its targets, the Generals left Bahawalpur in a C-130 Hercules. Shortly after taking off, the control tower lost contact with the aircraft which began flying erratically and eventually nosedived and exploded on impact. There are a number of conspiracy theories behind the crash due to the fact that there was never a thorough investigation despite the fact that some of Pakistan’s most powerful military officials lost their lives.
Books mentioning General Akhtar
- Fateh by Haroon-ur-Rasheed
- Silent soldier by Mohammad Yousaf
- The Bear Trap by Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin
- Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile
- Ghost Wars by Steve Coll
- A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif