The Asghar Khan case still has lessons to teach Pakistan
In the last week of 2018, Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) recommended to the Supreme Court that its verdict in the infamous 25-year-old Asghar Khan Case should be set aside because the probing body could not “gather evidence required to launch criminal proceedings.” The case alleged two generals of the Pakistan Army had paid off several politicians in a scandal climaxing in confessions by the accused generals and denial by most of the recipient politicians.
In 1996, former Air Marshal Asghar Khan had filed a human rights petition in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, accusing the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of doling out illegal money to a group of politicians in the 1990s. He had submitted the petition after Pakistan Peoples Party leader Benazir Bhutto’s interior minister, former general Naseerullah Babar, claimed before the National Assembly in 1994 that the ISI had disbursed funds to manipulate the 1990 elections to oust the PPP out of favor with the generals.
The petition filed by Khan sought investigation into the distribution of millions of rupees by the ISI to anti-PPP politicians in a bid to rig the 1990 elections. Successive apex courts ducked the question asked in the petition because, simply put, the ISI was too powerful, manned by military personnel reporting to the Army chief although legally answerable to the elected prime minister.
Finally, in 2012, a bench headed by Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry ruled that the 1990 general elections had been polluted by the dishing out of “Rs. 140 million to a particular group of politicians to deprive the people of true representation.” It cleverly directed the then-ruling PPP government to “take necessary action under the Constitution and law against former Army chief Aslam Beg and former director general of ISI Asad Durrani for their role in facilitating the group of politicians and political parties to ensure their success against their rivals in the 1990 elections.”
The Chaudhry court had accepted the challenge of going into an embarrassing case withering on the bough of Pakistan’s legal system because of the dominance of Pakistan’s “informal” centers of power that scuttle the Constitution in a polarized political environment. The earlier courts had put the case on the back-burner. A predecessor of the current chief justice, Justice Syed Sajjad Ali Shah, was hearing the case in 1997 when he was shown the door by his fellow judges after a “judicial mutiny,” allegedly manoeuvred by the Nawaz Sharif government.
The lists of ignominy
Asad Durrani, head of the ISI from 1990 to 1991, confessed to having made the handouts on the direction of his chief, thus putting the bite on ex-Army chief Aslam Beg who said he knew nothing about the scam. Durrani’s list of “beneficiaries” of the Rs. 140 million was as follows: 3.5 million for Nawaz Sharif; 5.6 million for Lt. Gen. Rafaqat; 10 million for Mir Afzal Khan; 5 million for Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi; 5 million for Jam Sadiq Ali; 2.5 million for Mohammed Khan Junejo; 2 million for Pir Pagaro; 3 million for Abdul Hafeez Pirzada; 5 million for Yusuf Haroon, who confirmed having received the sum for Altaf Hussain of the MQM; 3 million for Muzaffar Hussain Shah; 1 million for Abida Hussain; 1.5 million for Humayun Marri; Rs. 5 million for Jamaat-e-Islami; 0.5 million for Altaf Hussain Qureshi and Mustafa Sadiq; 0.3 million for Arbab Ghulam Aftab; 0.3 million for Pir Noor Mohammad Shah; 0.3 million for Arbab Faiz Mohammad; 0.2 million for Arbab Ghulam Habib; 0.2 million for Ismail Rahoo; 1.5 million for Liaquat Baloch; 0.75 million for Jam Yousaf; 1 million for Nadir Magsi; among others.
Banker Yunus Habib, who allegedly created the slush fund for Aslam Beg and his collaborator, the late president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, submitted his own list of beneficiaries: 140 million for Aslam Beg; 70 million to then-chief minister of Sindh Jam Sadiq Ali; 20 million to Altaf Hussain; 70 million for advocate Yousaf Memon who disbursed them to Javed Hashmi and others; 150 million to Jam Sadiq Ali in 1992; 1 million to Liaquat Jatoi in 1993; 12 million to the Sindh chief minister in 1993 via Imtiaz Sheikh; 5 million to Afaq Ahmed of the MQM; another 1 million to the Sindh chief minister through Imtiaz Sheikh; 1.4 million to former federal minister Ajmal Khan; 3.5 million to Nawaz Sharif in 1993; 2.5 million to Nawaz Sharif in 1990; 0.5 million to Jam Mashooq; 1 million to Dost Mohammad Faizi; 2 million to Jam Haider; 3 million to Jam Mashooq in 1993; 1 million to Adnan, son of Sartaj Aziz; 200 million to Nawaz Sharif and Ittefaq Group of Companies; Sardar Farooq Leghari received 30 million in 1993, 2.0856 million in 1994 and another 1.92 million.
General Aslam Beg became Army chief on Aug. 17, 1988 after a plane-crash killed then-Army chief General Zia-ul-Haq in Bahawalpur—a flight Beg had mysteriously ducked out of at the last minute as if he knew the plane was going to explode in midair. Zia’s son Ijazul Haq suspected him of being a part of the plot to kill his father and, in 2012, accused him of conspiring against Zia. In a TV appearance on Dec. 1, 2012, Ijaz claimed Beg had sent Rs 500,000 to his mother in Toba Tek Singh to encourage Ijaz to participate in Beg’s plan to defeat the PPP through rigging. This was done through ISI officer Brigadier Imtiaz Ahmad alias Billa who, Ijaz alleged, had earlier assisted Beg in getting General Zia killed.
Ijaz said he was sorry that General Hamid Gul, ISI chief at the time, took no notice of what his officers were doing in cahoots with Beg. He went on to claim that Beg caused the wreckage of the plane to be removed to hide the effects of a missile fired into the plane from another plane. He also alleged that autopsies had been prevented to hide the fact that everyone on the plane had died from gas poisoning. A report by Air Force officer Zaheer Zaidi was suppressed because it focused on the “other plane,” he claimed, adding that Beg had reacted to his certain replacement with General Afzaal as vice chief, and had the chief killed.
Former ISI boss Hamid Gul, digesting the denouement of the case, “disclosed” on TV that the establishment had always been wary of the PPP coming to power and therefore manoeuvred the system to circumvent it. He had also taken it upon himself to muster a coalition of obedient politicians under the ignominious flag of Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, which got rid of the PPP government and elected Nawaz Sharif as prime minister.
A forgotten verdict
In 2012, the Supreme Court, in its short order, ruled that the late Ghulam Ishaq Khan, then-president of Pakistan, Beg and Durrani, acted in violation of the Constitution by facilitating the success of a group of politicians and political parties against rival candidates in the general elections of 1990, for which they secured funds from Younis Habib. Both the generals thereafter expressed their dissatisfaction with the verdict and decided to present their side of the case when it finally came to trial. Under the Constitution, the President of Pakistan at the time was the Supreme Commander, armed with Article 58/2/B, which allowed him to cashier the elected Parliament with the judiciary invariably siding with the “troika” comprising the president, the prime minister and the Army chief. In 2012, the PPP government hardly had the guts to take on the Army and try the generals under Article 6 for treason and ask the Army to prosecute them under law.
Durrani had provided an affidavit, after he left the military, saying he had distributed money among politicians opposing the PPP in the 1990 polls held after the first PPP government was thrown out. His former chief General Mirza Aslam Beg thereafter claimed that the presidency, and not the General Headquarters, had ordered Durrani’s actions.
The plot thickened when in 2018, Asad Durrani published his book Pakistan Adrift: Navigating Troubled Waters and wrote a confessional chapter in it headed “Mea Culpa” (my guilt). “When I reflect on my past, some of my actions were so outlandish that there must have been an invisible hand that kept pulling me out of all the trouble I got myself into. I entered the corridors of power soon after Zia passed away in August 1988. This was one of the reasons that made me often ponder the role of destiny.”
Opportunity without ethic
Why did Durrani accept the task of distributing the slush funds to undermine the 1990 elections? His grounds are honestly immoral: “The fact is that I accepted the task because it was given to me by my former boss from when I was the DGMI [Director General Military Intelligence], who was also the one who had helped me to acquire the current post as head of the ISI, and perhaps, more important, because I had been witness to the events that led to the dismissal of the Benazir Bhutto government, and was therefore not averse to the idea that BB must be denied another stint in power. That the president, also our Supreme Commander, had taken charge of the entire operation was also a significant factor.”
How was General Durrani seen by his contemporaries? One “insider,” ex-bureaucrat M.A. Siddiqi, wrote an assessment of him in The Friday Times on Oct. 20, 2017: “An intensely political general, considered the intellectual guru of the Army officer class, was removed by Army chief General Waheed Kakar for his support of elements with extreme Islamist leanings. His removal from service was quite undignified when, while returning from a visit abroad as Commandant National Defense College (now a university), he was informed at the airport of his dismissal from service two years before his retirement. During his ISI days, he had curried favor with Benazir Bhutto who appointed him ambassador to Germany in the good old days when Western Europe accepted former Army officers as envoys, a facility withdrawn after General Musharraf’s takeover in 1999. A vociferous proponent of the military point of view, General Durrani was posted as ambassador to Saudi Arabia by Army chief General Musharraf.”
Durrani is a man bereft of all ethics. He is clever, gifted in expression, but opportunistic in the extreme. He explains his loyalty to General Beg completely in reference to the favors he had received from him in service. He confesses without thinking how he would appear to his readers: “General Aslam Beg was an effective Army Chief and a trusting boss. As defense attaché at the embassy, I had organized his visit to Germany when he was the vice-chief of the Army, and he was my Corps Commander when I was commanding the brigade at Kohat. He got me over to head Military Intelligence (MI) soon after becoming the chief of the Army—the position that took most of his attention.
“He still found time for the Army’s traditional role in foreign policy (sic!) and his self-assigned charge to guide the nascent democracy of Pakistan. The problem was that though sincere in helping the recruit regime, he wanted things to move on a fast track and was susceptible to bad advice. When Benazir Bhutto appointed a retired general to head the ISI, General Beg started toying with the idea, probably prompted by some of his informal aides, to mobilize the MI to do some political work as well.”
Rewarded for treachery
When General Beg decided to bring down the elected prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in the middle of 1989, Durrani was more than willing to assist: “And that is where I faltered. To appease the boss, I volunteered to play ball.” There was no dearth of the “mistakes” he went on making and the clue is easy to get at; he was by nature a reckless man: “A more serious mistake was to induct a few street-smart operatives into my team who did deliver at the time but subsequently became liabilities. I not only met some politicians to give them the necessary message but also brought some high-profile personalities into contact with Beg. The motion failed, but I had my first lesson in politics, which was that these politicos were just too smart for us naïve soldiers.”
Sitting in the middle of the web of a major conspiracy against the people of Pakistan, Durrani immorally counts the “benefits” he has reaped: “General Beg, still in two minds about whether the powers he had inherited from a military dictator struck the right note in a democratic order, was nevertheless impressed by my connections in the right places. He made up his mind that once Bhutto was sent packing, I would be the right man to head the ISI. My efforts to get back into the Chief’s good books were bearing fruit. Although both Beg and I were to come to regret this power play soon after its success and for years afterwards, at that time, the thought never crossed our minds.”
But there is something to be said about the frankness with which he has decided to make a clean breast of it: “Frankly… making history was certainly not on my mind. I may not be able to precisely reconstruct my thought process, but I believe it was a combination of some unflattering factors: obliging a regime that had rehabilitated me after my early retirement, the fear of losing another job, and perhaps also a fear of being found guilty of hiding facts from the law.”
Is this the specimen of the ideal man that the Army professes to nurse to perfection and the nation to admire? He thinks aloud: “Had I picked up the courage to say a firm ‘no’ to Beg when he asked me to organize the distribution of funds, I would not have been involved in this unprofitable business. [About betraying Benazir Bhutto] I have rationalized my actions by arguing, as I have done in this book, that I did it out of conviction, having some experience of BB’s many gaffes, but someone more shrewd would have handled the episode better.”
Hardened in felony
After he and Beg had gotten rid of Benazir’s government with Rs. 140 million as handouts, he thought nothing of turning against the new incumbent Nawaz Sharif and hobnobbing with Benazir Bhutto again. A hardened manipulator of his own sense of what is right and what is wrong, he writes: “After falling out with Nawaz Sharif, I had no qualms about hobnobbing with Benazir Bhutto, against whom we had all ganged up only a couple of years previously. To justify this somersault, I had made myself believe that she had learnt her lesson—and of course BB agreed, and why would she not? It was only much later that it dawned on me that all she had learnt was to posture a little more convincingly.”
Then, equally cold-bloodedly, he explains his dismissal: “Since the new Army chief, Asif Nawaz Janjua, was no more a Sharif fan than I was, I actually believed I was on a holy mission. Primed by PPP leader Farooq Leghari, who said my word would be more effective than his, I threw all caution to the wind and called Ms. Bhutto from my cellphone when she was in London. When Asif Nawaz died a week later, I lost my immunity. When Bhutto came back to tell the new Army chief about our exchanges, I lost my job.”
An unrepentant Durrani’s parting shot at the end of the book sums up his, and perhaps some elements within the Army’s, feelings aptly: “Did not like old-fashioned constraints and suffered from the illusion that I could hold my own against the rest of the world. In fact, the others proved cleverer. They massaged my ego, prodded me to talk more, and were not taken in. We still feel elated when told that ours is a more open society than the Indian. I suggest we make others work hard to read our lips, and harder still to fathom our thoughts.”
From our Jan. 26 – Feb. 9, 2019 issue