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Akhtar’s War: Afghanistan

By Brig (r) Mohammad Yousaf


Up to the date of his tragic death on August 17, 1988 in the plane crash that also killed President Zia, few people apart from his family, knew General Akhtar Abdur Rehman. Certainly, within Pakistan, his name was unknown to the public. Even within the military few appreciated his enormous contributions to the Afghan jihad. This was partially due to the secret nature of his job as Director General of ISI from 1979-1987 and partially due to his deliberate avoidance of publicity. But as the dust of war settled down, he emerged as the only general in history to take on the Soviet military might since the end of World War II — and win.
There is hardly any book of international repute on Soviet-Afghan war that does not pay glowing tributes to General Akhtar and his ISI for their role in the jihad. Below are some of the excerpts from a book - ‘AFGHANISTAN - A Military History From Alexander The Great To The Fall Of Taliban’ by Stephen Tanner. The author is a military historian and a freelance writer. His works include: From 1776 to the Evacuation of Saigon and Refuge from the Reich: American Airmen and Switzerland during WW II.
“General Akhtar Abdul Rehman Khan, head of Pakistan’s Intelligence Agency, Inter Services Intelligence (1S1), persuaded Zia that the Soviets could indeed be stalled in Afghanistan with all Pakistani assistance to the Mujahideen covertly funnelled through ISI while the government officially denied participation. The Afghans would fight while Pakistan quietly stood behind them providing arms and expertise. It was considered important that the ‘Soviets were not goaded into a direct confrontation, meaning the water not get too hot.’ The other risk run by Zia was that Pakistan would have to effectively cede sovereignty of its Northwest Frontier Province to Mujahideen fighters and base camp. It was not then known that millions of refugee would follow.
Zia himself had become something of an international pariah, having taken power in a military coup and hanging his predecessor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. He was disdained by the US, which had become aware of Pakistan’s secret nuclear programme, and the country itself was still wracked with poverty and politically unstable. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan thus presented a dual opportunity for Zia to become a hero simultaneously to Islam and the West, leading both jihad against infidels and the crusade against Communism.
Pakistan took a decisive stand against the Soviet invasion from the beginning. With a hostile India on one side, and a Soviet occupied Afghanistan on the other, Pakistan was in danger of isolation. In addition, after Afghanistan, Pakistan’s own barren Balochistan was the only remaining barrier between the Soviets and the Arabian Sea. If the Soviets met with feeble resistance in Afghanistan, it was thought that Pakistan might well be their next target.
Akhtar’s ISI, who had lobbied for the stingers, thought that fall of Zhawar tilted the balance. General Yousaf of ISI wrote, ‘that frightened everybody into forgetting the risk and giving us what we wanted.’ lSl, which trained the Mujahideen in their use, applied strict safeguards, refusing to re-supply fighters with the weapons unless they produced proof of firing, and only providing weapons to skilled, trustworthy commanders. As it turned out, some stingers did fall into the enemy hands. Spetsnaz commandos sprung ambush near Kandahar and captured three of the weapons. Another Mujahideen unit lost four firing tubes and sixteen missiles to Iran when they accidentally, it was presumed, wandered over the border.
The turning point of the war occurred on September 25, 1986, when a formation of eight Soviet Hind helicopter gunships flew into Jalalabad on a routine mission. On its approach to the landing zone the lead helicopter suddenly exploded in the sky. The following also burst into the flames. Rockets curved through the aircraft, barely missing while the pilots dropped their helicopters like stones, shaking them and causing injuries. On the way down still another helicopter exploded, spreading debris across the landscape.
The stingers were a gigantic success that had a ripple effect on the war. In the following year, 270 Soviet aircraft were knocked out of the skies, the Mujahideen claiming 75 percent killing rate. (American estimated an actual 30 to 40 percent rate, which was still excellent). Soviet aircraft especially the fearsome Hind gunships were forced to back off en mass from their previous close-quarter tactics. Bombing became less accurate as jet aircraft stayed at high altitude. According to the post war Soviet General Staff study ‘Beginning in January 1987, the Soviet forces for all practical purposes, ceased offensive combat and fought only when attacked by the Mujahideen’.In August 1988, President Zia, General Akhtar, who headed the 1S1 for most of the war US Ambassador and military attaché, and eight Pakistani generals, all died in a plane crash. In clear skies the aircraft was seen to dip precipitately, regain altitude for a few seconds and then nosedive into the ground. During the last moments the cockpit crew was silent on the radio, and analysts estimated that they had been gassed.
By 1989, the original architects of Pakistan’s covert war strategy, President Zia, and the ISI chief Akhtar had been assassinated. The writer who had been the head of the 1S1 branch that directed Mujahideen field operations, planned weapon supply and training had retired after being passed over for promotions.
Akhtar’s funeral was a fitting one for a soldier of his rank. The president of Pakistan, the chiefs of all three services, members of the Senate and National assembly, together with large detachments of soldiers, sailors and airmen, attended it. They, along with sorrowing representatives of his comrades-in-arms, the Mujahideen came to give their final salute to the Silent Soldier. Probably, it will be the Mujahideen who would remember General Akhtar with more admiration and affection than his own countrymen.


The writer is a Former Head of the Afghan Cell in 1S1and author of Silent Soldier & The Bear Trap

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