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As its youngest and first ever Pakistani Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) to head the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) from 1957 to 1965, Air Marshal Asghar Khan is eulogized not only for his professional acumen but also for the national significance he achieved. His vision and honesty, integrity and commitment to his mission were just a few of his attributes. Conducting himself both in military and civil life in the highest traditions of an officer and a leader, he was a source of national inspiration. A man of honour with conviction in his beliefs and a seeker of truth, this outspoken and blunt Pakistani tried many times in his political life to being light into the darkness that Pakistan has been shrouded in through most of its existence. He was only one of three senior military persons who opposed a military solution in East Pakistan in 1971, the others being Lt Gen Sahibzada Yaqub Khan and Col SG Mehdi. Maj Gen Ghulam Umar, than National Security Advisor to Gen Yahya, did suggest a conciliatory approach in Gen Yahya’s inner circle, this sane voice was drained out by the hawks.  Unfortunately when Ashgar Khan died on Jan 8 this year, the country moral compass was in far worse shape than when he entered politics almost 50 years ago.

Listening to Quaid-e-Azam’s advice speaking to a unit of the (than) Royal Pakistan Air Force in April 1948,“….Pakistan must build up her Air Force as quickly as possible. It must be an efficient Air Force second to none and must take its right place with the Army and the Navy in securing Pakistan’s defense…….. But aircraft and personnel in any numbers are of little use, unless there is a team spirit within the Air Force and a strict sense of discipline prevails. I charge you to remember that only with discipline and self-reliance can the Royal Pakistan Air Force be worthy of Pakistan,” From the fledgling unit flying mostly WWII aircraft, Asghar Khan molded the PAF into tremendous fighting entity. The professional and disciplined force the Quaid envisaged proved its mettle when tested in 1965, getting the better of an enemy having many more sophisticated aircraft and weaponry.  Numbered among the world’s very best air forces, PAF is renowned for its fighting capabilities and professional competence. The Quaid would have been proud that at least one of his aspirations of the country he created seven decades earlier come true.

A straight shooting person of rare qualities, Asghar Khan persevered with the criteria of merit and qualification in matters of promotion or posting in the PAF, and later in PIA, to quote Wikipedia, “ensuring that the best qualified officers needed to fill the key appointments, particularly in the combat units.” While he ruffled feathers he never wavered from the high principles and values he held himself to.

Never taking undue privilege of his rank and status, this officer and gentleman from the old school diligently followed rules and etiquette that are no longer fashionable, almost a rarity today. He retired on July 23, 1965 because even though he was the PAF Chief, he (and the Naval Chief) were kept in the dark about the impending launch of the disastrous “Operation Gibraltar”. Another capable and outstanding aviator Air Marshal Nur Khan succeeded him, under his leadership the lean, mean fighting machine that Asghar Khan built drastically changed the balance of the 1965 war with India into our favour.

As Chief Executive Officer (CEO) PIA after retirement, Asghar Khan transformed it into a highly profitable organization. Inducting new fleets of modern jets he opened up new air routes, giving a new look uniform to cabin crews.  Boasting the lowest accident rates, PIA earned the highest net profit and became one of the most competitive airlines in the world. Along with Nur Khan’s tenure later as Chairman this was a golden era for PIA, the airline literally living up to its slogan, “Great People to Fly With!” Thereafter the national airline went to the dogs, becoming associated with nepotism, corruption and inefficiency. PIA now exists solely for the benefit of whoever happens to be running the govt, oblivious to the losses incurred worth billions year after year. It provides gainful employment to scores of supremely incompetent and uneducated political sycophants who are at best leeches.

A strong opponent of military rule and a believer in fair play. Entering the political arena in 1968 Asghar Khan led many anti-Ayub campaigns in both the wings of Pakistan. Opposing Gen Yahya Khan’s subsequent Martial Law, he returned the national awards bestowed upon him in protest. Forming the Tehreek-i-Istiqlal (TI) in 1970, he contested the 1970 general elections but failed to secure any seats in Parliament. During ZA Bhutto’s rule, he was a major figure in the Opposition, allying his party with the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA). Called ‘a prisoner of conscience’ by Amnesty International (AI) after being incarcerated under house arrest from 1979 to 1984 for opposition to Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s iron rule, his political career did not lead him to the corridors of power.

To quote the late Ardeshir Cowasjee in July 2002, “As an old-time officer and a gentleman to his fingertips, as an honest man of moderate means, and as a man who genuinely wished to do good by the poverty-stricken, uneducated of this country, there was no way, no way at all, that Air Marshal Asghar Khan could succeed as a politician of Pakistan, given the environment, the atmosphere that prevails and the mindset of the majority”, unquote. Having served with distinction, sincerity and integrity he paid quite a stiff price for his beliefs and views. Asghar Khan will remain a prime example of why it does not pay to preach and practice morality in politics in Pakistan.

Purchasing the Defence Journal (DJ) from Brig A R Siddiqui on the advice of Brig Tafazzul Siddiqui, one felt it needed having a respected ex-serviceman of some stature as CHIEF PATRON.  While among those servicemen that I looked upto as my role models were, other than my platoon commander in PMA Lt Gen Imtiaz Ullah Warraich, Lt Gen Lehrasab Khan, Lt Gen Ali Kuli Khan, Maj Gen Hedayatullah Khan Niazi, Brig Muhammad Taj SJ & Bar and Col SG Mehdi, for me the only option was the Air Marshal.  After a thorough consultation with Col SG Mehdi, the Air Marshal Asghar Khan agreed to come on to the Defence Journal’s masthead as its CHIEF PATRON.  Even in death he will remain alive in DJ.


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