Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Who killed Gen Zia?

Pak One blew up with him, US Ambassador Raphel and eight Pakistani Generals
Who killed Gen Zia?
General Zia-ul-Haq, military dictator of Pakistan, patron of Khalistani terrorists and a 'staunch ally' of the US who collaborated with the CIA in the American funded and armed jihad against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, had hoped to win the Nobel peace prize in 1988 for halting the spread of Communism. At least that was what he had been led to believe by the Americans.
Instead, Gen Zia died in an air crash on August 17, 1988. The US-supplied Hercules C-130 aircraft, a sturdy turboprop transport plane with multiple, fail-proof back-up systems, in which he was travelling, did loops in the sky and then nose-dived to the ground, its tail doing a 'whiplash' before it turned into a huge, roaring ball of fire. Along with Gen Zia, US Ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel, head of the American military aid mission Gen Herbert M Wassom, chairman of Pakistan's chiefs of staff committee Gen Akhtar Abdur Rehman, and eight other Pakistani generals and the crew, were incinerated in that blaze.
Pak One could not have gone down in so dramatic a manner within four minutes of taking off from Bahawalpur, a dusty outpost in Punjab province where Gen Zia and the Army top brass had gathered for the field trial of Abrams M-1 battle tanks which the US was trying to sell to Pakistan.
The plane had been double security checked and had done a dummy mission the previous day to ensure all systems were working fine. 'Code Red', the highest security alert, had been in force for some time in Islamabad and nobody could have had access to the aircraft, barring those whom Gen Zia trusted. And there weren't many in this rarest of rare category of military officers in Pakistan.
Foul play was suspected and Gen Zia's grieving widow openly declared that "his own" had killed him. With Gen Zia no longer scowling at them menacingly, Pakistani journalists had a field day speculating on what could have happened. The Reagan Administration was remarkably calm in its response; the Pakistani establishment, now headed by a new Army chief, reacted with astonishing haste.
No autopsy or forensic tests were performed on the bits and pieces of human bodies, charred bones, disfigured heads, scorched torsos and boots with severed feet recovered from the crash site. Families of the victims were "strictly instructed" not to open the coffins containing their remains and to bury them immediately. Arnold Raphel and Gen Herbert M Wassom were buried with military honours at Arlington Cemetery.
For all the speculation that followed the crash and the exit of a particularly vicious dictator who ordered men and women to be flogged in public and adulterers to be stoned to death as part of his 'Islamisation' programme, nothing definitive ever came out of the joint US-Pakistan inquiry. The Pakistanis insisted the plane had been "sabotaged"; the Americans vaguely suggested "mechanical failure".
The real story remains an abiding mystery 20 years after the event. If it was, indeed, an assassination then Gen Zia is the only assassinated South Asian Head of State whose assassins remain unidentified. His fiery exit cannot but haunt others, especially Gen Pervez Musharraf, who is believed to have been sufficiently alarmed on reading recent media reports that a military aircraft was on standby for him to leave the country if push came to shove, to issue a formal denial and get the US State Department to issue one, too. The objective situation that prevails in Pakistan -- a President under siege, a dysfunctional Government, widespread disquiet and Americans desperate to retain control -- is similar to that which prevailed during the last months of Gen Zia's 11-year-reign.
Seen in the context of the political turmoil, the uncertain future that stares Gen Musharraf in the face, the Army buying peace with Al Qaeda elements and the US waging a reverse jihad against the very jihadis it had once nourished to fight the Soviet troops, Mohammed Hanif's spectacular book, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, published by Random House this week, acquires a certain importance. Hanif describes his book as an "alleged novel", but its characters, barring the person telling the story and a few others, are far from fictitious.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a painstaking recreation of the weeks leading to Gen Zia's plane crash. Laced with dark humour, it tells the story of a man doomed to die the way he did, his death foretold by a sura of the Quran which he chances upon. The book also reopens chapters that had been presumably closed, reviving all the conspiracy theories that had gradually disappeared from Army mess gossip and Pakistani newspapers over the past two decades.
Hanif has effectively revived the big question: Who killed Gen Zia? He dismisses the crafty assertion of the Americans that the plane went down because of "mechanical fault" by not even touching on it. Instead, his book unfolds the various possible plots and unmasks the potential assassins and conspirators, pitilessly exposing the underbelly of the Pakistani establishment, dominated by the Army and the ISI, and the nexus between Pakistan and the US, which is frighteningly destructive for the former and cynically self-serving for the latter.
What A Case of Exploding Mangoes does is to present the various conspiracy theories in their specific context and then integrates them into a big picture where the central purpose of each conspirator is to get rid of Gen Zia for reasons that range from self-aggrandisement to liberating Pakistan from a man who made a mockery of Islam while pretending to be a fanatical believer, from national security to international geo-politics. Hanif forays into uncharted territory armed with slivers of the truth behind the crash of 1988, and paints a fascinating picture of low intrigue in high places, including those in Islamabad and Washington. So who did it?
Theory One: The CIA did it. Arnold Raphel was the American ambassador co-ordinating the US-funded jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. But was he really in the loop? Hanif's account has it that William (Bill) Casey, then CIA director, had a direct hotline with Gen Zia and, along with his friend Prince Naif of Saudi Arabia, would drop in for a hearty Punjabi meal at Army House without bothering to inform Raphel of his arrival in and departure from Pakistan.
On a day-to-day basis, Chuck Coogan was running the show for the CIA in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There were many others representing various US agencies.
Raphel would often wonder whether he was in command, a point highlighted during the Kabul-Texas barbeque he hosted for his 'friends' where 'OBL' -- Osama bin Laden -- strolled in and was warmly welcomed by Coogan. Later that evening, Gen Akhtar, yet to be stripped of his job as ISI chief, got the feeling that the CIA was done with Gen Zia and had little use for the man with shining white teeth and a dancing moustache now that Moscow was pulling out its troops from Afghanistan.
But why would the CIA also kill Raphel and Gen Wassom? Here the theory splits into two possibilities. First, the CIA carries out its missions on the basis that there could be collateral damage. Second, Raphel and Gen Wasson were supposed to travel by their own aircraft, parked at Bahawalpur, after attending the field trial of the Abrams tanks. Gen Zia insisted they travel with him on the C-130 at the last minute, virtually forcing them to join him on the journey.
The CIA had enough contacts in the Army to have ensured a "mechanical fault" in Pak One while it was parked at Bahawalpur. The US State Department and the Pentagon were prompt in denying permission to the FBI to investigate the crash although American officials had died in the disaster. Congressional hearings were short-circuited and a 250-page file, stamped "Top Secret", remains classified in the vaults of the US National Archives. What has fuelled this theory is the stunningly meek response of the US Administration, then headed by President Ronald Reagan, to the crash and the calm manner in which a National Security Council member, Robert Oakley, was despatched to take over the American mission.
Theory Two: The ISI did it. This is where Hanif's book comes alive. Gen Akhtar was unceremoniously removed by Gen Zia from his job as ISI chief after it was discovered that he had bugged Army House and was not only recording the dictator's telephone conversations but also filming him with a spy camera embedded in the monocled eye of Mohammed Ali Jinnah in a portrait of the Quaid-e-Azam. The job went to Gen Aslam Beg, an ambitious soldier who was then vice-chief of Army staff.
Slighted, humiliated and stripped of all power, Gen Akhtar plotted Gen Zia's assassination with the help of his factotum, Major Kiyani, and other loyalists. They placed a can of lavender air freshener, laced with VX gas -- which knocks people out in two minutes and kills them during the third minute -- in the air-conditioning duct of Pak One. The can would be activated during Gen Zia's return journey.
Gen Akhtar was not supposed to accompany Gen Zia to Bahawalpur, but was summoned to join the delegation on the morning of the visit. He tried to break off after the Abrams field trial, but was buttonholed by Gen Zia into accompanying him. Before the flight took off, Hanif tells us, a panic-struck Gen Akhtar told the crew not to switch on the air-conditioning system as Gen Zia was 'unwell'. As luck would have it, the pilot tried to duck a crow and the sudden loss of altitude switched on the system, releasing the deadly VX gas.
Hanif's account mentions radio transmission being picked up by Gen Beg's aircraft, following Pak One, according to which the pilot and the crew in the cockpit were dead within three minutes of the air-conditioning system being switched on. With nobody in control, the C-130 crashed to the ground, nose first, and then blew up, four minutes after taking off. So, if the ISI did it, its plan was botched by Gen Zia's insistence that the plotters fly with him.
Theory Three: The Army did it. Despite Gen Zia's zealotry, the majority of the officers in the Pakistani Army was appalled by the dictator's insistence on injecting Islam into every sphere of Pakistani life and converting soldiers into mullahs. Gen Beg is depicted as a cold, calm and calculating officer of the old school, who is not easily charmed by Gen Zia or forced into doing anything against his better judgement. He could have decided to deliver the Army from Gen Zia's vicious grip.
Gen Zia tried to convince him also into accompanying him on the return journey from Bahawalpur, but the wily General managed to steer clear of the doomed delegation and insisted on travelling in his own Cessna. He saw Pak One going down but did not return to Bahawalpur. Instead, he proceeded to Islamabad to take charge as Army chief and preside over Pakistan's return to democracy.
As ISI chief, he may have come to know of the plot hatched by Gen Akhtar and decided to ignore it. This would also indicate why he steadfastly refused to board Pak One even at the risk of offending Gen Zia. After the crash, the Army showed little interest in getting to the truth.
A sub-plot of the Army being behind the crash has it that a disgruntled cadet -- Ali Shigri in Hanif's book -- decided to avenge his father's murder by those running the American jihad. The cadet dips the tip of his sword in a phial of krait's venom and nicks Gen Zia while he is inspecting a drill at Bahawalpur. But the theory is flawed because Gen Zia's death by itself would not have caused Pak One to go down, unless it coincided with the CIA and ISI theories.
Theory Four: A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Gen Zia was gifted crates of Bahawalpuri mangoes which prompted him to have a 'mango party' on board Pak One. He dragged Gen Akhtar, Raphel and Gen Wassom along with him on the return journey for the 'mango party'. One of two things could have happened subsequently. Bombs hidden in the crates of mangoes may have exploded, bringing the aircraft down. Or, they may have been laced with poison, killing those who consumed them. But since the flight had not yet stabilised, it is unlikely the mango party had begun. And according to eyewitness accounts, there was no mid-air explosion; the plane blew up only after hitting the ground.
Members of the Pakistani-American investigation team who rummaged through the crashed aircraft are believed to have found traces of phosphorous, potassium and other chemicals on burnt mangoes that can be used for making an explosive device. What if the plane did explode midair and then crashed?
After all, the eyewitness accounts may not be as truthful as they have been made out to be. Frankly, nobody saw Pak One going down, except Gen Beg, and he would have good reasons to steer clear of giving an honest version of what he saw.
So who was behind the exploding mangoes? It could have been the Mago Growers Association, a Communist organisation miffed with Gen Zia for being a "staunch ally" of the Americans. It could have been the Afghan secret service getting back at the man who helped destabilise that country in so awful a manner. It could have been the CIA. It could have been the Army. Or, it could have been 'OBL' testing his skills at blowing up planes in preparation of 9/11.
Cover story, Foray / Sunday Pioneer / June 9, 2008
(c) CMYK Printech Ltd

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