I was walking towards the School of Physical Fitness (SPF) run by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), along with my uncle who coached the PAF hockey team there when I saw a tall man coming out of his car parked next to the SPF. The man was Air Marshal Asghar Khan, who, true to his famous punctuality, had arrived for a prize distribution ceremony where I also got to meet him. The air marshal had retired several years ago but according to my uncle, “he arrives a good 15 minutes before any event he is invited to”.
A few years later, Asghar Khan was to snap at the leaders of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) in a letter to the Jamat-e-Islami (JI) leader Professor Ghafoor Ahmed, chastising them for their tardiness and lamenting that he had to unnecessarily wait for them for hours for the PNA meetings to start.
The air marshal breathed his last on January 5. He was the Subcontinent’s first jet pilot and one of the last political stalwarts of Pakistan.
Asghar Khan belonged to the Malikdin clan of the Pashtun Afridi tribe from Tirah but was born in Jammu where his father, an army officer, was stationed. He later went to the Royal Indian Military College, Dehradun where he was in the Rawlinson House. Asghar Khan first got his commission in the British Indian Army but as soon as the Royal Indian Air Force (IAF) was formed he changed track and was commissioned as pilot officer in IAF, where he fought against the Japanese on the Burmese front and then had the unique distinction of soaring as the Subcontinent’s first jet flight in a Gloucester aircraft. When the Subcontinent was partitioned he was stationed at Ambala as the chief flight instructor. As fate would have it, his replacement, Indian Wing Commander Nair asked the PAF’s first chief Air Vice Marshal (AVM) Allan Perry-Keene to have Asghar Khan and his family evacuated to Pakistan in the air chief’s plane. AVM Perry-Keene obliged. Asghar Khan later said that the train he and his family were originally supposed to take to Pakistan from Ambala was attacked during the Partition riots and there were no survivors.
In Pakistan, Asghar Khan commanded the PAF training school Risalpur, where he was host to Quaid-e-Azam MA Jinnah the day the latter made his famous speech: “a nation without an air force is at the mercy of its enemies … PAF should be second to none”. Asghar Khan considered this to be his mandate. He became the first native air chief marshal of the PAF and, at age 37, the youngest ever to lead it. He was truly the architect of the modernisation of the PAF by not only acquiring the best and latest aircraft and ordnance from the US but by also emphasising the training and fitness of airmen and pilots alike. If one officer can be credited with success in a war he did not fight, it was Asghar Khan. His immediate successor Air Marshal Nur Khan used to say that while it may have fought the war under him in 1965, it truly was Asghar Khan’s air force. True to his gentlemanly character, Asghar Khan remained humble about his tremendous role in making the PAF a formidable war machine. He served two tenures as air chief and was retired months before the 1965 war. The PAF Academy Risalpur now bears his name. He later served as the chief of the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), from where he retired in 1968.
Asghar Khan formally threw his hat into the political ring in November 1968 when he openly declared his opposition to the military dictator Ayub Khan. He was immensely popular among the urban classes when he led the anti-Ayub Khan campaign and was considered a viable alternative first to Ayub Khan and later to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. When General Yahya Khan replaced Ayub Khan and imposed his own martial law, Asghar Khan opposed the military dictatorship again, this time returning his national awards in protest. Ironically, his nemesis and the ostensible democrat, ZA Bhutto served as a minister under both of those martial law regimes. In fact, Asghar Khan – a soldier to boot – had a unique distinction of opposing four martial regimes viz Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. He was one of the few West Pakistani politicians to travel to Dhaka to meet Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman to find a solution to the East Pakistan crisis. He formed his Justice Party in March 1969 which was later merged with several outfits to form the Pakistan Democratic Party but the merger did not work out due to the shenanigans of Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan.
The air marshal later founded the Tehreek-e-Istaqlal (TI) but contested the 1970 elections as an independent and lost from Rawalpindi. An honorable man, he wholeheartedly conceded his defeat. However, when Bhutto’s PPP government rigged the 1977 elections, Asghar Khan protested along with other PNA leaders like Maulana Mufti Mehmud, Sardar Sherbaz Khan Mazari and Begum Nasim Wali Khan, and became Bhutto’s worst nightmare. The Bhutto regime targeted Asghar Khan, his family and his party viciously. In addition to several arrests, his Abbottabad residence was mysteriously burnt to the ground during those days.
Asghar Khan was wrongly maligned for welcoming Ziaul Haq’s martial law. The fact is that it was ZA Bhutto himself who brought Gen Ziaul Haq to one of the final meetings with the PNA to dissuade them from asking for the army’s withdrawal from Balochistan, and disbanding of the infamous Hyderabad tribunal under which he had incarcerated the nationalist Baloch and Pashtun leaders of the National Awami Party. ZA Bhutto relied on the then ISI chief, General Ghulam Jilani Khan, and used to call the corps commanders directly and frequently to lobby them. While several of the PNA parties joined Ziaul Haq’s civilian cabinet, Asghar Khan’s Tehreek-e-Istaqlal kept away from the regime.
After Gen Ziaul toppled Bhutto, he threatened Asghar Khan that he would try him for sedition over a letter that the retired air marshal had written to the Pakistan’s armed forces asking them to disobey any illegal orders of the junta and the Bhutto regime. It was the same letter that is maliciously cited as his ostensible support to military. Asghar Khan’s TI was one of the founding parties of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) launched against Zia’s iron rule. At the height of Zia’s power, Asghar Khan defied him and traveled to Kabul to meet Dr Mohammed Najibullah. Upon his return, he wrote a series of articles lambasting the so-called jihad that Zia had unleashed and warned against its blowback for Pakistan. The famous Asghar Khan case against the former COAS Mirza Aslam Beg for interfering with the 1990 elections through distributing money illegally to favourite politicians was yet another battle in his constant fight against the role of military in politics.
I had last met the great man at a 2007 rally against the Musharraf regime in Islamabad, where I got to share the stage with him. In his usual firm tone, terse tenor and husky voice, the air marshal chastised other politicians that if they really wanted to do something against Musharraf they should be crisscrossing the country instead of all congregating in Islamabad. He was a fluent speaker but certainly not verbose. He believed in sticking to his political ideals even if an electoral victory remained elusive. His only election win came in the 1977 elections but he remained a towering figure throughout his time in the air force, and his political career, inspiring many with his upright stance and unblemished character. Rest in peace Sir, you will be fondly remembered for being a stellar officer and a gentleman politician.
The writer is a Pakistani-American columnist. Twitter: mazdaki