“Of all the violent political deaths in the twentieth century, none with such great interest to the U.S. has been more clouded than the mysterious air crash that killed president, and Army Chief General, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan in August 1988, a tragedy that also claimed the life of the serving American ambassador and most of General Zia’s top commanders.”

Barbara Crossette – Bureau chief of The New York Times in South Asia from 1988 to 1991

 Today, George Bush announced that he has chosen Dan Quayle as his running mate. Before answering questions at a news conference at Bush headquarters in New Orleans, the vice president commented on the tragic death of Pakistan President Zia.


Both Zia and US Ambassador, Arnie Raphel, died this morning in the crash of a transport plane of the Pakistan Air Force.

“The first thing I want to do is just say how horrible I feel about that tragedy in Pakistan this morning. As most of you know, the Government of Pakistan announced the death of President Zia. He was a friend of mine and Barbara’s and been extraordinarily hospitable to us on more than one occasion,” Bush said.

“The Government of Pakistan has formed an advisory council to oversee the transition, following President Zia’s death. An Acting President has been appointed. Pakistan and the United States have a very special relationship and the loss of General Zia is a great tragedy. Our Ambassador, Arnie Raphel, an outstanding Ambassador – I knew him well and Barbara and I express our most sincere regrets to the families,” Bush added.

A Friend of Mine…

General Zia-ul-Haq was appointed Chief of Army Staff in 1976. Zia came to power after he overthrew democratically elected Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a military coup d’état on July 5 1977.

On April 4 1979, the former Bhutto was hanged. Lawyers and jurists across Pakistan denounced the execution. The hanging was widely condemned by the international community.

Very Special Relationship

On Dec. 17 1987, President Reagan certified to Congress that ”Pakistan does not possess a nuclear explosive device.” The President is required to do so each year to justify US aid to Pakistan. But the statement was highly misleading. In fact, Administration officials have told Congress that Pakistan has all the components, as well as the technical ability, to assemble nuclear weapons quickly.

The Solarz amendment requires that aid be cut off from any nation caught trying to export restricted American equipment for a nuclear weapons program. In 1987, a Pakistani operative was caught in such act of smuggling. But Reagan granted a waiver to Pakistan and US aid was continued on the basis of the National Interest of the United States. Yet Reagan began to criticize Pakistan for tilting towards Iran.

“Pakistan’s criticism of the United States military buildup in the Persian Gulf without condemnation of Iranian attacks on shipping,” a US official commented. There were far more serious events going on than mere criticism.

Nuclear Background

In 1987, Iran began receiving assistance from Pakistan for its nuclear program after a first meeting between Iranian officials and members of the A. Q. Khan network in Dubai.

According to the IAEA, Khan offered the delivery of: “a disassembled sample machine (including drawings, descriptions, and specifications for production); drawings, specifications and calculations for a “complete plant”; and materials for 2000 centrifuge machines. The document also reflects an offer to provide auxiliary vacuum and electric drive equipment and uranium re-conversion and casting capabilities.”

Was Zia Assassinated?

In March 2004, Benazir Bhutto alleged that Zia had offered to help Iran nuclear program. This is very unlikely given Zia’s pro-Sunni and anti-Shi’a credentials.

On the other hand, the opening to Iran coincides with the elevation of Mirza Aslam Beg to the position of Vice Chief of Army Staff in March of 1987. Beg will go on to serve as Army chief from 1988 to 1991. Beg held the belief that a Pakistani-Afghan- Iranian, and possibly Turkish alliance was needed to act in “strategic defiance” of the West.

In January 1990, Beg presented Henry Rowen, the then U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, with a very clear threat: “if Pakistan was cut off [from U.S. military assistance] it might be forced to share nuclear technology with Iran.”

According to a former Ambassador to Pakistan, Beg “opened discussions in Tehran with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard about the possibility of Pakistani nuclear cooperation with Iran. Beg discussed a deal in which Pakistan would trade its bomb-making expertise for Iranian oil.”

There have been numerous rumors that in August 1988, Zia discovered that Beg had secretly begun to help the Iranian nuclear program. If true, Beg must surely have known what to expect. And he may have decided not to wait passively.Zia’s son Ijaz-ul-Haq has accused Beg of being behind the murders.

The death of General Zia-ul-Haq remains a mystery. But many observers have not failed to notice that Beg was scheduled to fly with Zia, but changed his plans at the last minute. It is also reported that the US State Department blocked the FBI from investigating the crash. A year later, the Bureau finally investigated the mysterious deaths. But the FBI report was never made available to the public.

Back to the Present (2008)

Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Tripoli and a former president of the Society for Libyan Studies has an article in The Guardian on the implications of the US-Libyan compensation agreement.

“The most important compensation issue, Lockerbie, has been settled on the basis that Libya agreed to hand over two suspects for trial in the Scottish courts and to accept responsibility for their actions. One was acquitted, the other convicted, but his conviction has been called into question by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission. There is the possibility of a retrial, and it remains to be seen what effect that might have on the Libya/America soap opera,” Miles wrote


Mohammad Zia ul-Haq: Unbending Commander for Era of Atom and Islam

Briefing on the U.S-Libya Comprehensive Claims Settlement


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