Father of air force, Air Marshal Asghar Khan was the first Commander in Chief of Pakistan Air Force. Born in Tawi in Jammu and Kashmir in 1921 to a family of soldiers, his career in the Air Force was a dedicated period, helped built a legacy of advanced and improved squadrons, training institutes and airbases throughout Pakistan. The credit for a battle-ready air force during the 1965 war is also attributed to his hard work.
Khan was only 35 when he took the command of the national air force.
The career of Khan has been nothing short of “iconic,” as remembered by his ilk in the armed forces. His own education from Dheradun, training from Indian Air Force Academy and a chance to serve as a World War II veteran fighter pilot in the British Indian Army had made Khan a perfect contender for the leadership position.
After retiring from PAF, Asghar Khan served at the Ministry of Defence, where he was made chairman of civil aviation, tourism and managing director of PIA, the national carrier. To get hands on knowledge of PIA himself with the working of civil airline he formally acquired a commercial flying license. His time with PIA is remembered as its golden period owing to its lowest aircraft accident rate and highest net profit of Pakistan, becoming a formidable competitor internationally.
In 1965 Asghar Khan appeared on the national stage as a politician and formed Tehreek-i-Istiqlal. Aptly dubbed as, “Mr Clean,” his reputation for honesty and steadfastness won him a great respect from the people of Pakistan. Asghar Khan is known for his fierce critique of the alleged faults in the political and armed leadersghip in the wars of 1965 and 1971. In 1969 he renounced the prestigious Hilal-i-Pakistan and Hilal-i-Quaid-i-Azam awards in protest against the government’s restrictive policies.
During General Ayub’s regime Aghar Khan decided to formally join the opposition and campaigned to free Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) from Jail and ensure press freedom and civil liberties. Salman Taseer saw him and Bhutto as “champions of anti-Ayub struggle.” In 1969, while the popularity of Asghar Khan (a centrist) was close to Bhutto’s (a socialist) and Iskander Mirza foresaw an alliance the turn of events turned the two into bitter rivals. Khan refused the offer of presidency of Pakistan People’s Party, calling it corrupt.
He joined Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) to oppose Bhutto in 1977 elections. Days before the elections Khan foretold in a press conference that the elections would be rigged and said that there was no point in sitting in the assembly if the government rigs the elections. He was imprisoned at Kot Lakhpat and Sahiwal prisons from March to June 1977.
Asghar Khan also became controversial for his letter to the armed forces, beseeching them to save Pakistan and pull out support for Bhutto’s illegal regime. Historical analysts view this letter as instrumental in inviting military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq in Pakistan. Later, however, Khan refuted the intent of the letter.
Asghar Khan wanted to contest elections as promised by Zia in 1979 but the elections were postponed indefinitely and Khan found himself under house arrest in Abbottabad, named prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, for over five years. Asghar Khan also refused a cabinet position offered by General Ziaul Haq and left PNA after a split widened between some parties. In 1983 he announced joining the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), spearheaded by Benazir Bhutto and pulled out his support three years later. The decision cost his party as many of the party leaders left the Tehreek.
Known for his peace activism, Asghar Khan may have rubbed some hardliners the wrong way in his life for calling for amicable relationship with rival country India. He blamed Pakistan for initiating wars against its neighbour. Khan also criticised Nawaz Sharif for the nuclear tests is also known for his criticism of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). In 1996 he filed a human rights petition in Pakistan’s Supreme Court accusing the ISI of doling out money to a group of chosen politicians in the 1990s.
Of his five children, Omar Asghar Khan, a dedicated politician, died in mysterious circumstances. Asghar Khan bore the loss with dignity.