On August 17, 1988, the C-130 Hercules flying Pakistan’s military ruler, General Ziaul Haq, crashed shortly after takeoff. Also on the plane were several other senior generals of the Pakistan army, the US ambassador to Pakistan and his military attaché.
General Zia had witnessed a live fire demonstration of an American tank. It had not been a successful demonstration and to continue the conversation, Zia had invited the US ambassador and attaché to join him on the C-130 even though they had flown in on their own aircraft.
Zia’s deputy, also a four-star general, spoke to a gathering of senior army officers the next day at GHQ and assured them that he had nothing to do with it. He said the reason he was not on Zia’s plane but on a separate plane was that he had arrived at Bahawalpur ahead of Zia in order to greet him, consistent with army protocol. For the flight home, he said he had wanted to board Zia’s plane but Zia had directed him to his own plane.
Zia had been receiving death threats for months and had stopped flying. He was persuaded to fly by an army general who was from the armoured corps like Zia, and because the demonstration was about the armoured equipment.
Zia always had two C-130’s waiting for him, and would pick one at random to minimise the possibility of sabotage. He did that on his flight out. But it was not possible to do that on the flight home since the airport was very small and the other aircraft had flown to Multan.
Regardless of his dictatorial politics and his desire to inject religion into the polity, neither of which I supported, the mystery of his death continued to haunt me. After all, he had been at the helm of the country for 11 years and had been the face of Pakistan before the world as he confronted the Soviets in the Afghan War.
“The army says the air force did it and the air force says the army did it.” I asked, “Which army and which air force?” He said the Pakistani army and air force.
The New York Times reported the next day: “Phyllis E. Oakley, deputy to the State Department spokesman, said that the C-130 exploded 10 minutes after it took off from Bahawalpur, 60 miles west of the Indian border… She said the group was returning to Rawalpindi, headquarters for the Pakistani Army and President Zia’s base, after reviewing a field demonstration of the M-1 tank, which Pakistan was considering buying from the United States.
“A Pakistani military official said that the plane was flying at 4,000 feet and crashed three to five minutes after takeoff. He added that there was no evidence of distress signals from the pilot before the crash.”
In its next issue, The Economist magazine put him on the cover with a caption: ‘Lost Lynchpin’.
When asked about Zia’s death, the Indian Prime Minister said, “We did not do it.”
Some 12 years after his death, I asked a former army chief who was in the US at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC about the cause of Zia’s death. The four-star general who had been speaking loquaciously up to that point went quiet. After a couple of minutes, he said: “It was an accident.” It contradicted everything I had been reading for years. I was stunned. Then he walked me to the elevator.
A year later, after an hour-long discussion about various South Asian issues with one of America’s leading experts on South Asia, I asked him the same question. The venue was the same building at Brookings. He, too, went mum. He got up and began checking his book shelves and cabinets. I asked, “What are you doing?” He said, I am looking for an answer to your question. I said, “I don’t think you will find it in any published document.”
Then he sat down at his desk, looked at me intently, and said: “I know what you are thinking.” I said, “And what am I thinking?” He said, “Like all Pakistanis, you are thinking the US did it. Why would we kill our own ambassador and attaché?”
Then, after another long pause, he added: “The army says the air force did it and the air force says the army did it.” I asked, “Which army and which air force?” He said the Pakistani army and air force.
Wow! Was he saying that Zia had been killed in a coup?
This was also the conclusion that journalist Edward J. Epstein arrived at. He wrote a detailed investigative report in Vanity Fair which was published in June 1989. The article was also carried in The Times in London. It was based on extensive on-the-ground research. He noted that Zia’s C-130, with Pak One as the call sign, took off exactly on time at 3:46 pm. Within minutes, “at a river about nine miles away from the airport, villagers looking up saw a plane lurching in the sky, as if it were on an invisible roller coaster. After its third loop, it plunged directly toward the desert, burying itself in the soil. It exploded and, as its fuel burned, became a ball of fire. All thirty one people on board Pak One were dead. It was 3:51 pm.”
He cited the results of the official report into the crash: “Pakistan’s board of inquiry concluded that the cause of the crash of Pak One was a criminal act ‘leading to the loss of control of the aircraft.’ It suggested that the pilots must have been incapacitated, but this was as far as it could go, since there was no black box or cockpit recorder on Pak One and no autopsies had been done on the remains of the pilots.”
In 2014, he expanded upon this article in a book, The Annals of Unsolved Crime: “My assessment is that Zia and all thirty people aboard Pak One, were victims of sabotage. After going to Islamabad and Lahore to investigate in 1989, I was allowed to read the red-cover secret U.S. report on the accident by a U.S. Defense Department official, who asked to remain anonymous. This report reinforced my conclusion that the pilots and flight crew were incapacitated by a quick-acting nerve gas, such as “VX,” which is odorless, easily transportable in liquid form, and, when vaporized by a small explosion, would cause paralysis and loss of speech within thirty seconds. VX gas would leave precisely the residue of phosphorous that was found in the chemical analysis of debris from the cockpit. A soda-sized can of VX could have been planted in the air vent of the pilot’s compartment and triggered by a pressure sensor to activate on takeoff.
I talked to a number of people including academics and retired army officers. Most of them were dismissive, with one saying, “It’s a good thing he died. It doesn’t matter how he died.” Another said, “We will never know. It’s time to move on.” These comments seemed to suggest a desire to hide the real reasons for the crash.
“But who did it? All the suspected parties… had the capability of obtaining VX or a similar nerve gas, and any of them could have recruited an agent to plant a gas bomb on Pak One, since it had been grounded at the airstrip at Bahawalpur in violation of the prescribed procedure of flying it to the larger airport at Multan, where it could be properly guarded. During its four-hour grounding at Bahawalpur, workers reportedly entered Pak One without being searched in order to work on adjusting its cargo door. One of them could have planted a device. So all the suspects had the means to sabotage the plane. But only one of these parties, the Pakistan military, had the power to stop the planned autopsies, seize the telephone records of calls made to Zia and Rahman just prior to the crash, transfer the military personnel at Bahawalpur who might have witnessed the crime, stifle interrogations of police, and keep the FBI out of the picture. In short, only the Pakistan generals who assumed control that day had the power to create a cover-up that followed the crash. They also had a motive for making it look like something more legitimate than a coup d’état.
“In addition, the Pakistan military was the only agency capable of assuring that both President Zia and his second-in-command, General Rahman, were on the plane together. And unless both of these men could be eliminated simultaneously, no regime change could be certain. According to General Rahman’s family, whom I interviewed at length in Lahore, General Rahman had not wanted to go to the tank demonstration, but he was told that Zia needed his counsel on an ‘urgent matter.’ So, under pressure from a general on Beg’s staff, he changed his plans and flew with Zia. But that counsel turned out to be untrue. Not only was Zia surprised to see Rahman on the plane, but, as General Rahman related in a phone call from Bahawalpur to his son just before his death, Zia told him that there was no ‘urgent matter’ requiring his presence on the plane.
“Zia’s eldest son, Ijaz ul-Haq, also believed that his father had been manipulated by the military into going to the tank demonstration. He told me that his father was in the midst of making major changes in the military hierarchy and saw no point in going to this tank demonstration. He then received ‘continued calls’ from General Mahmud Durrani, who was on Beg’s staff, pressing him to be at the demonstration. The general said that the ‘Americans would consider it a slight’ if he missed this event. So, despite his misgivings, he agreed to go. But according to U.S. Ambassador Robert Bigger Oakley, who in August 1988 had been the assistant to the president for Pakistan on the National Security Council, neither the U.S. embassy nor the military mission had pressed for Zia’s attendance. He also told me that Ambassador Raphel, his predecessor, made a snap decision twenty-four hours beforehand to fly on Pak One when he learned, to his surprise, that Zia would be aboard the plane. If so, Zia, like Rahman, had been misled by his advisors.
“The level of orchestration necessary to bring about this regime change, both before the crash and in effecting the cover-up after the crash, persuades me that this was an inside job by a Pakistani military cabal. The journalistic lesson in the Zia case is that even when a government officially embargoes a subject, such as the Pakistan government did in this case, in a relatively porous country such as Pakistan, it is possible to get answers from low-level civil servants, such as air tower controllers, mortuary officers, and police officials.”
Epstein is a force to be reckoned with. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard and used to teach political science at MIT and UCLA before he became an investigative journalist. His conclusions about the cause of Zia’s death, while shocking beyond words, jibed with what the leading American scholar at Brookings had told me.
The years passed and I kept on researching the topic. I talked to a number of people including academics and retired army officers. Most of them were dismissive, with one saying, “It’s a good thing he died. It doesn’t matter how he died.” Another said, “We will never know. It’s time to move on.” These comments seemed to suggest a desire to hide the real reasons for the crash. They gave me an added impetus to pursue the matter.
I reached out to a friend who often hosted General Mirza Aslam Beg, Zia’s successor as army chief, at his place in Palo Alto. I asked him to put the question of Zia’s crash to General Beg the next time he was in town. He said, I have already asked him that question not once or twice but thrice. He evaded the topic twice and the third time, he said, “Please ask me any question that you want but not this one.”
About eight years ago, I had a chance to ask a retired colonel who had headed the battalion that was responsible for General Zia’s security. After discussing some other topics, I got to the point, and asked: “What were you doing on the 17thof August, 1988?”
The colonel, who had been chatting extensively up to that point, went quiet. His demeanour stiffened. He said: “I had left for vacation in London that morning and only got the news when my plane had landed.” I was stumped.
So why did the plane crash? He provided a couple of additional details beyond the narrative that was well known. When I asked, “Who killed him?” he said the army. When I asked him who within the army, he responded dismissively: “That is a childish question. Everyone knows.”
Then he stood up, thanked me for the coffee, apologised for the lack of time, shook hands, and was gone.
Will the truth ever come out? Or will it remain buried in the mud where Pak One crashed, forever consigned to oblivion? It looks like those who carried this out have sworn to take their secrets to the grave.
During a holiday trip I accidentally bumped into a retired Zia era ex-mossad operative who started bragging about team assignments that were done.
It was clearly described what the assignment was the purpose and how successful it was.
Enquire about the hatred in Afghanistan for Ziaul Haq and you may find Khad, the Afghan Security Service, had all the motivation and the means (Pathan servicemen) to execute the operation.