17 Aug 2008
On 17th August 1988 — exactly twenty years ago — at a little past 3.45 in the afternoon, Pak One, the official carrier of the President of Pakistan, took off from the military air base of Bahawalpur, in Pakistan's southeastern Punjab province. Among those on board the C 130 B Hercules transport plane that day were arguably the most powerful men in Pakistan. Besides General Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's military ruler, the other passengers included the U.S Ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold L Raphael as well as the former chief of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), General Akhtar Abdur Rehman, considered by many to be the second most powerful man in Pakistan after Zia.
For Zia and his co-passengers, the morning had been a somewhat dismal one. They had come to Bahawalpur to witness the demonstration of an American built Abrams M1 battle tank. The demonstration turned out to be a fiasco, since the much talked about tank did not manage to hit its target even a single time. The President and his party nevertheless enjoyed a sumptuous lunch at the officer's mess, in which Zia was reportedly seen in a jovial mood, joking with his top generals. After lunch, accompanied by his American guests as well as a posse of his top commanders, he boarded Pak One on its return journey to Islamabad.
The journey back was expected to take almost an hour. However, within a few minutes of take-off, the C 130 B Hercules — considered one of the sturdiest aircrafts in the world — was seen lurching dangerously up and down in the sky, as if the pilot had lost control. Those seeing it from below saw the plane take a final loop, before plunging at top speed and exploding in a massive ball of fire. The explosion was so great that it ripped apart the aircraft, showering the desert where it fell with mangled masses of burning flesh intertwined with searing hot pieces of steel.
It was an explosion that redefined Pakistan's politics. In one swift move, the country's military dictator along with most of the top brass of the army were eliminated. Yet, twenty years later, there are still no convincing answers on how the explosion happened or who was behind it. Over the years, there have been no dearth of conspiracy theories. Or of possible conspirators — since Zia was a man not exactly loved by many. As author Edward Jay Epstein, who investigated the causes of the crash, pointed out in an article in Vanity Fair magazine, "It was not unlike Agatha Christie's thriller Murder on the Orient Express, in which, if one looked hard enough, everybody aboard the train had a motive for the murder."
So, who killed Zia? A number of people had the motive, says Epstein. For instance, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, the brother of Zia's arch rival Benazir Bhutto had headed a guerrilla group since the past nine years, called Al Zulfikar whose proclaimed mission was to bring down the Zia regime. Murtaza had admitted that he had attempted to assassinate Zia on five previous occasions, even claiming credit for the Pak One explosion, in a call to the BBC soon after the crash — a claim which he eventually retracted after it became known that the U.S. Ambassador was also on board. In any event, with his sister in a position to win elections if Zia could be removed, says Epstein, Murtaza had a definite reason to pursue his mission.
Then, there were the intelligence agencies. According to a report on the technical causes of the crash prepared by the Pakistan Government's Board of Inquiry, explosives found in the wreckage indicated "involvement of a specialist organization well versed with carrying out such tasks and possessing the means and abilities for its execution." Citing this report, journalist and author Robert D Kaplan wrote in The New York Times a year after the crash, that only three organizations active in Pakistan at the time against the Government fitted that description — the KGB, the KGB -created Afghan intelligence group WAD, and the research and analysis wing of Indian intelligence.
However, he pointed out that India's involvement in the air crash seemed less likely. "Zia was certainly not India's friend, but his actions as an adversary were relatively predictable," he wrote. As for KGB and WAD, says Epstein, they certainly had the means to carry out the threat, but what might have deterred them on this occasion was the presence of the U.S. Ambassador on the plane. "The Soviets would not have jeopardized Glasnost by assassinating an American of this rank," he says. However, the Ambassador was not scheduled to return with Zia and the perpetrators might not have necessarily known of this change in his plans.
Another suspect was the CIA which, according to Epstein had become concerned with Zia's attempts to make the first Islamic nuclear bomb and his clandestine efforts to smuggle the components for it out of the U.S. Also, the CIA suspected that he was diverting a large share of the weapons that they were supplying to him, to an anti-U.S. fundamentalist Mujahideen group.
Most people within Pakistan, however, have continued to believe that the crash was an inside job. It's also a premise on which journalist author Mohammed Hanif has based his recent debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, although he hastens to add that the only fact in the book is the plane crash — the rest all, he says is the product of his imagination. According to Epstein however, there is something to be said for the inside job theory. "Any foreign intelligence service or even Murtaza might have had the motive and even the means to bring down Pak One but they would not have had the ability to stop planned autopsies at a military hospital in Pakistan, stifle interrogations or, for that matter, keep the FBI out of the picture. Nor would they have much of a reason for making the whole thing seem like an accident rather than an assassination. Only elements inside Pakistan would have an obvious motive for making the death of Zia, Rehman and 28 others look like something more legitimate than a coup d' etat."
In any case, many Pakistanis feel Zia's ghost continues to cast a long and deadly shadow even now. "Two decades later, Pakistan is still trying to survive the many evil spirits that he had set loose," says political commentator Irfan Husain. "The policies pursued by Zia continue to detonate like landmines. For instance, he gave total freedom and vast resources to the ISI, because of which it is today in a position to create mayhem from Kabul to New Delhi," he says.
But, there's still no answer to the question: who killed Zia? Maybe the most convenient explanation was given by Benazir Bhutto, who hailed Zia's death as an act of 'divine intervention'. However, considering the plethora of suspects, conspiracy theories and alleged cover-ups, one wonders if God also knows who actually did it.
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi