Epstein, a foreign correspondent, described the scene on the C-130 plane before it crashed on August 17, 1988 in the following words: Seated next to Gen Ziaul Haq for the flight back to Islamabad was his close friend Gen Akhtar Abdul Rahman, the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff and after Zia the second most powerful man in Pakistan. He had headed ISI, Pakistan’s equivalent of the CIA, for eight years and had been the chief architect of the support system that Zia had set up for the Afghan mujahidin, the Islamic opposition to the Communist government in Kabul.
Gen Akhtar Abdul Rahman was born on June 11, 1924. His father Dr Abdul Rahman died when Akhtar was only four-year old. After completing his high school education from Ajnala High School, the young Akhtar came to Amritsar and got admission to Islamia College Amritsar, and then moved to the Government College Lahore. Accounts of his college career show that he was a disciplined student. Akhtar did MA (Economics) in 1945.
Upon completing training, Akhtar received commission in 1946. As a young army officer during the partition days, Akhtar faced traumatic circumstances, which left a lasting impact on his thought and personality. After promotion to the rank of a captain, Akhtar was appointed an instructor at Artillery School Nowshera. He was selected for a training course in the UK.
After returning to Pakistan, he was promoted to the rank of a major. He served in East Pakistan from April 1954 to October 1954. Then he was transferred to GHQ, where he worked from April 1956 to February 1957. When the war with India broke out in 1965, Akhtar was sent to Lahore front, where he served as second-in-command. Akhtar was promoted to the rank of a lieutenant colonel and was later given promotion as a full colonel. He was transferred to Bagh in Kashmir as a brigade commander.
When Gen Ziaul Haq staged a military coup on July 5, 1977 and after assuming the power imposed martial law, Gen Akhtar was not associated with it. It is said that Gen Akhtar had in his private conversations opposed the imposition of martial law. However, six months later, when major changes were made in the army, Akhtar Abdul Rahman was appointed as adjutant general at GHQ. But during this period, Akhtar Abdul Rahman’s promotion was blocked for two years.
In the meantime, Akhtar Abdul Rahman faced dangerous conspiracy in the armed forces. Lt Gen Faiz Ali Chishti, who was counted among the close associates of Gen Ziaul Haq, secretly became rebellious and conspired to stage a military coup in the country. One morning Gen Akhtar received a call from Gen Chishti, who was a corps commander in Rawalpindi and had his office in Chaklala.
When Gen Akhtar visited him, he found to his great surprise that the top army commander in Rawalpindi was hatching a design to topple Gen Ziaul Haq and was seeking help from him.
Gen Chishti had assumed that since Gen Akhtar Abdul 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.
Gen Akhtar was stunned. This was a strange experience in his long and illustrious professional career. But being an honest person, he did everything within his means to contact Gen Ziaul Haq, who was on a visit to Peshawar at that time, and communicated to him what he had heard.
In June 1979, Gen Zia called Gen Akhtar to the Army House and offered him the coveted position of the Inter-Services of Intelligence (ISI) director general. It was after the assumption of its headship by Gen Akhtar that the ISI became one of the major organs of Pakistan’s fast expanding organisational machinery of military. He 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. President Zia promoted Gen Akhtar to a senior rank within matter of days after assumption of the headship of the ISI.
Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 27, 1979. The disappearance of Afghanistan as a buffer state increased Pakistan’s insecurity. Indeed, the United States was the only western state that showed any serious concern, but because of President Carter’s domestic difficulties resulting from the hostage crisis in Iran, he was not prepared to give any substantial aid. However, after one-and-a-half year when President Reagan came to White House, President Zia accepted his six-year $3.2 billion aid package. But fact remains that even before Reagan entered the White House, President Zia and Gen Akhtar had made their mind to resist the Soviet onslaught in every possible way available to them. Both the Generals were certain if Soviet Union ever threatened Pakistan’s frontiers through Afghanistan, it would meet the faith and determination of the people of Pakistan.
When Gen Akhtar, as head of the ISI, was given responsibility of organising military and material support for the Afghans, there was no concrete plans, no defined goals, no supplies and no organisational machinery to accomplish the mission. Gen Akhtar was entirely responsible for the planning and the policymaking of this gigantic military operation. In addition, he was in-charge of the implementation and constant monitoring of this policy. He built a powerful infrastructure almost from scratch, and laid the foundations for the effective and efficient training facilities.
At the same time, Gen Akhtar was also successful on the diplomatic and political fronts. He had to work closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Pakistan, and with the US State Department, especially the branch that interacted constantly with the CIA.
In March 1987, Gen Akhtar left the ISI, and became the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, the highest position that could be offered to any General in Pakistan. His new position brought him much closer to President Zia. Those who observed Gen Zia were fully aware that Gen Akhtar was his most trustworthy confidante. In the mind and thought of their enemies this friendship rankled like a thorn. Their enemies were of the view that nothing would change in the country unless Gen Zia and Gen Akhtar were removed from the scene at the same time. Critics of Gen Zia often called Gen Akhtar as the Ziaul Haq-2.
Record shows that Gen Akhtar had no intention of accompanying the team. He had on his schedule an important meeting in Rawalpindi, but at the last moment a senior military officer persuaded him to be with the president, who was going to make some important decisions in which Gen Akhtar’s advice would carry considerable weight with the president. It was obvious that those who conspired wanted to hit both the Generals at the same time, in the same way and at the same place.
Gen Akhtar was laid to rest on August 19, 1988. His army career ended with the martyrdom, the greatest honour for a soldier in Islam.