The smoldering ruins of a destroyed airplane and its dead human cargo in the bleak Pakistani desert are the final snapshots of a mysterious accident that took the life of a world leader a quarter century ago.
General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq seized power in Pakistan in 1977 in a bloodless coup that deposed Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and within a couple of years he transformed a relatively secular nation into a fundamentalist Islamic dictatorship that had, ironically, strong ties to the United States.
In the late summer of 1988, Zia, most of his top military command and an American diplomat were killed when the Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft they were traveling in crashed soon after takeoff from an airstrip in Bahawalpur, about 330 miles south of Islamabad, the capital. Zia and his entourage, which included the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel, and Brig. Gen. Herbert M. Wassom, the head of the U.S. military aid mission to Pakistan, had just observed a test of the U.S.-made Abrams M-1/A-1 battle tank at a remote desert location.
Zia’s death continues to reverberate in Pakistan many years later because his influence in the country is still strongly felt. Despite efforts by current President Benazir Bhutto to repeal much of the harshest Sharia laws backed by Zia -- including such punishments as death for rapists and armed robbers; death by stoning for adulterers; amputation for thieves; and up to 80 lashes for people consuming alcohol -- these modernization efforts have failed to take hold in parts of the country, particularly in conservative rural areas.
Zia’s so-called Hudood laws (Hudood loosely means restrictions in Arabic) have been instrumental in locking up thousands of women for adultery after they accused men of raping them without producing four Muslim witnesses as required under strict Shariah law. Similarly, religious minorities like Hindus and Christians have been imprisoned (even handed the death sentence) for “insulting Islam” under the “blasphemy” laws that were hardened under Zia’s rule.
Indeed, Zia’s directives are still passionately fought over in every major election in Pakistan -- there’s one coming up next month -- particularly since Islamic parties like the powerful Jamaat-e-Islami openly endorse the continuation of Hudood.
“In Pakistan, religious minorities and women have suffered tremendously because of … the Hudood Laws [all promulgated by] General Zia-ul-Haq,” said Naeem Shakir, Advocate, Lahore High Court in Pakistan.
But beyond Zia’s enduring impact on Pakistan, the plane crash that killed the former Pakistani strongman also remains a topic of unending conversation in the country and the region, due to the raft of conspiracy theories, possible culprits and unanswered questions that still swirl around it.
Immediately after the crash, Pakistani and U.S. Air Force officials investigated the accident but came to drastically different conclusions. The Washington investigators determined the crash was the result of mechanical malfunction, noting that a number of C-130s had experienced similar problems, especially with hydraulics in the craft’s tail assembly. Then-U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz ordered the FBI not to probe the crash, even though two Americans had died.
The Pakistanis released a separate report that pointed out that the plane suspiciously had snapped cables and problems with the elevator boosters, among other things. Given the chaotic and violent history of Pakistan’s politics, it is understandable that the Pakistani investigators would suspect sabotage and assassination.
Excluding the real possibility that the Americans were right in blaming the crash on mechanical malfunction, the list of potential culprits comprise an impressive gallery of international suspects who had good reasons to want Zia dead: the Indians, the Russians, the Bhutto family, Pakistani Islamists, Pakistani secularists, the Iranians and -- perhaps most intriguingly -- the Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence agency.
The Russians were the most obvious suspects. In the middle of the Cold War, Zia had allied himself with the U.S. against the U.S.S.R., which had invaded Afghanistan -- and his government was providing Afghan rebels with protection, money and weapons. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was shipping arms to India, Pakistan’s enemy in the region, to help India maintain a lead in the South Asian arms race.
Stoking the suspicion that the Russians were involved in the plane crash, one of the fatalities was General Akhtar Abdur Rehman, the Chairman of the Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and former head of the nation’s spy agency, Inter Service Intelligence (ISI); Rehman was a leader of the Afghan mujahedeen’s war against the Soviets.
Zia’s death could also have been the result of a plot to seize power from within his own military establishment. In fact, one of Zia’s senior staff members, General Mirza Aslam Beg, who later rose to the position of Chief of Army Staff, refused to take the doomed flight despite orders to go aboard the plane. Zia's son Ijaz-ul-Haq later accused Beg of involvement in the conspiracy to kill his father; however, Beg made no moves to engineer a post-Zia coup.
Of course, the Bhutto family itself had a powerful motive to kill Zia. In 1975, then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had chosen Zia to become his army chief; two years later, Zia ousted Bhutto from office. Two years after that, Bhutto was convicted of ordering the murder of a political opponent in what many considered a show trial. The ex-Prime Minister was hanged like a common criminal.
Bhutto’s eldest daughter, Benazir, gained the most politically from Zia’s death; she was elected Prime Minister only three months after the C-130 crash. If the Bhutto family (or their allies) had something to do with the accident, a group led by Mir Murtaza Bhutto, the brother of Benazir, was likely involved.
Murtaza had formed an armed terrorist group called Al-Zulfikar ("the sword") whose stated mission was the destruction of Zia’s regime through hijackings, sabotage and assassination. (Ironically, Murtaza would in later years fall afoul of his sister Benazir and himself die under mysterious circumstances in a 1996 shoot-out with police in Karachi).
For the record, Benazir characterized Zia’s plane crash as an “act of God.”
Zia also alienated Pakistan’s liberals and secularists by imposing Sharia and martial law while periodically promising to hold democratic elections that never took place.
In addition, Zia’s attachment to Washington -- the U.S. armed Pakistan’s military with state-of-the-art weaponry, including F-16 fighter planes and AWACS reconnaissance aircraft -- not only upset anti-American factions within Pakistan but created a wider rift with India, which feared the growing militarization of its unfriendly neighbor. Most ominously to Delhi, Zia was committed to developing nuclear bombs.
As a counterweight, India’s coziness with the U.S.S.R. and its support of the Moscow-based puppet-regime in Kabul only added to the tension in the region. Threats were a daily occurrence, including Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s pointed demand that Zia stop sending arms -- including AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-launchers -- to Sikh separatists who were agitating to form an independent nation in the Indian state of Punjab. Sikhs had murdered Rajiv’s mother, Indira, when she was Prime Minister.
Pakistan’s western neighbor, Iran, is also a possible suspect. As a Shia theocracy, Iran felt threatened by Zia’s ongoing transformation of Pakistan into a religious Sunni state. Iran also grew wary of his close relations to Sunni powerhouse (and Teheran’s enemy) Saudi Arabia.
Even the Americans have been dragged into discussions about who killed Zia. A theory proposed by General Hameed Gul -- the head of Pakistan’s ISI agency at the time -- and endorsed by some conspiracy theorists in Pakistan holds that the Central Intelligence Agency wiped out Zia because he was lagging in efforts to set up a democracy in Pakistan and was getting too close to the Afghan mujahedeen -- particularly the fearsome fundamentalist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
In other words, Zia had outlived his usefulness to the Americans, who may have viewed the photogenic, Western-educated Benazir as a more suitable ally in Pakistan.
But perhaps the most compelling conspiracy theory about Zia’s death was spun by then-U.S. Ambassador to India John Gunther Dean, who pointed the finger at the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.
Dean proposed that Israel feared Zia’s developing a nuclear bomb and the possibility that he would share it with other Muslim nations or enemies of Israel. Indeed, Zia called his nuclear project an “Islamic bomb.”
Israel had already said that it would stop any Islamic state from developing a bomb,and in June 1981, Israeli warplanes destroyed an alleged atomic facility at Osirak in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Dean posited this theory to State Department higher-ups and was soon after declared “mentally incompetent” by the agency and was forced to resign from the diplomatic corps.
After keeping silent for almost two decades, in 2005, Dean once again raised the specter of Israeli involvement in Zia’s death when he told the World Policy Journal, a publication of New York’s New School For Social Research, that if Israel plotted to kill Zia, it likely did not act alone. Given the logistical challenges and the 2000-plus miles between Jerusalem and Islamabad, Israel probably colluded with partners, perhaps India, he believes.
When Dean first offered his suggestion that Israel was behind Zia’s death, he already had a reputation for claiming that Israel was an insidious back bencher on the global stage. A Jew himself who fled the Nazis as a child, Dean had accused the Israelis in 1980 of trying to assassinate him when he was U.S. envoy to Lebanon by bombing his three-car convoy in Beirut. This was supposedly in retaliation for Dean’s perceived support for the Palestinians.
By 1986, when Dean was posted to New Delhi, he said that both U.S. and Israeli officials pressured him to convince Indian leaders of how dangerous Zia was (despite the fact that Washington was arming Zia, and New Delhi already had grave reservations about the Pakistani general).
It’s fair to question why Israel would bring down an aircraft carrying two senior U.S. government officials and the Pakistanis. However, as journalist Edward Jay Epstein noted in an article in Vanity Fair in September 1989, Ambassador Raphel and General Wassom were not scheduled to board Zia's plane; they were last -minute additions.
Moreover, Dean is far from the only individual who suspects Israel and its intelligence apparatus of killing foreign or domestic elements it deemed a danger to its security. While Israelis will never admit to any such targeted assassinations, Israeli intelligence and/or security agents are believed to have murdered dozens of people going as far back as 1956, including such prominent people as Heinz Krug, a German rocket scientist working for Egypt’s missile program in Munich in 1962; Abdel Wael Zwaiter, a member of the Black September terror group, in Rome in 1972; and Abu Jihad, Yasser Arafat’s second-in command, in Tunis in 1988.
And there is some history to Israeli/Indian behind-the-scenes cooperation, even though they publicly were enemies until only recently. As long ago as 1968, when Indira Gandhi was India’s Prime Minister, she advised Rameshwar Nath Kao, the founder of the research and analysis wing of India’s foreign intelligence agency, to establish links with Mossad in order to counter Pakistan’s deepening ties with China.
However, despite the circumstantial evidence, many experts are skeptical about Israel’s participation in a plot against Zia.
“Israel gave up antagonizing Pakistan in the early 1980s when it realized it could not affect outcomes [in South Asia], and would simply provoke becoming targeted [itself],” said Julian Schofield, a specialist in South and Southeast Asia strategic studies at Concordia University in Montreal.
One thing is certain, though, Israel was a beneficiary of Zia’s death. Since then, Pakistan has been less of a threat to Israel. Its nuclear program didn’t produce a weapon until ten years after the plane crash, and it is still a fledgling member of the nuclear club. And rather than focusing on Israel’s existence, Pakistan has for decades been involved in a myriad of conflicts with India and unending battles against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan itself.
So whether Dean was right or wrong about Israel, whoever killed Zia -- God, the USSR, secularists, the U.S., India, and on and on -- did Israel a favor.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.