General Akhtar Abdul Rahman was born on June 11, 1924. His father, Dr. Abdul Rahman died when Akhtar was only four years old. After completing his high school education from Ajnala High School, young Akhtar came to Amritsar and then moved to Government College Lahore. Akhtar did MA Economics in 1945 after which he joined the Army and received commission in 1946. As a young army officer, during the partition days, Akhtar faced traumatic circumstances, which left a lasting impact on his mind and personality.
General Akhtar had an enticing career where he became part of almost every important milestone of Pakistan’s history. After promotion to the rank of captain, Akhtar was appointed as an instructor at Artillery School Nowshehra, and later was selected for a training course in UK. After returning to Pakistan, he was promoted to the rank of major. He served in East Pakistan from April 1954 to Oct 1954 and then was transferred to GHQ, where he worked from April 1956 to Feb 1957. In 1965, when the war with India broke, Akhtar was sent to Lahore war-front, where he served as second-in-command. Akhtar was then promoted to the rank of Lt. Colonel, and subsequently as a full colonel. He was then transferred to Bagh, Azad Kashmir as Brigade commander.
On June 1979, General Zia called General Akhtar to the Army House and offered him the coveted position of Director General Inter-Services Intelligence. It was after the assumption of its headship by General Akhtar that the ISI became one of the major organs of Pakistan’s fast expanding military organizational machinery. He worked tirelessly and gathered around him colleagues who were equally dynamic and determined to make ISI an organization that would have great impact on the domestic and external policies of the country. President Zia promoted Gen Akhtar to a senior rank within a matter of days after assumption of his duties as DG ISI.
On December 27, 1979, Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The disappearance of Afghanistan as a buffer state increased Pakistan’s insecurity. Indeed, the USA was the only western state that showed any serious concerns, but because of President Carter’s domestic difficulties resulting from the hostage crisis in Iran, he was not prepared to give any substantial aid. However, after a year and a half when President Reagan came to White House, President Zia accepted his six years 3.2 billion dollar aid package. But fact remains, that even before Reagan entered the White House, President Zia and Gen Akhtar had made up their minds to resist the Soviet Union onslaught in every possible way.
He had a firm commitment to defeat the soviets since the start of the war, which is confirmed by various incidents. For instance, in the early days of Afghan war, while in a briefing General Akhtar asked for the maps of Soviet Union and after 30 minutes when the staff was unable to produce the maps Akhtar addressed the team: “Let me tell you one thing, I have decided to fight this war against the Russians until and unless I push them across the OMUS, I will continue fighting. Better get yourself prepared!”
When he proposed the plan that Pakistan would be fighting this war against the Russians many of the senior officers had a laugh on it where they thought Akhtar was getting too optimistic. Many of them said that India was a separate story but Russians with all their tanks and artillery and heavy armored divisions backed with MI 24 helicopters and MIC aircraft would prove out to be a very tough test. In response the confident general said: “Russians have done a very big mistake by invading Afghanistan and they will pay a very high price for it. The same price which Napoleon paid when he invaded Moscow and the same price which the Americans paid when they landed in Vietnam”:
When Gen. Akhtar, as the head of ISI, was given responsibility of organizing military and material support for the Afghans, there were no concrete plans, no defined goals, no supplies, and no organizational machinery to accomplish this mission. Gen. Akhtar was entirely responsible for the planning and policy making of this gigantic military operation. Not only this but at the same time, Gen. Akhtar was also successful on the diplomatic and political fronts. He had to work closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Pakistan, and with the State Department, especially the branch that interacted constantly with the CIA.
The next big step towards the war was to get necessary aid from the European and Muslim states. After the defeat of Vietnam, Americans were on the back foot and Russians were gaining strength day by day. Also after the 1979 Iranian revolution president Carter was facing serious criticism from the Americans. This was the perfect scenario for Pakistan to develop its defence system further. It was decided that the war would be fought on two fronts one side it would be General Zia who would handle the foreign affairs and the diplomatic issues and on ground it would be general Akhtar who would lead the troops in Afghanistan.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 President Zia sent for General Akhtar, who had recently taken over as Director of ISI. At that time nobody in authority in Pakistan, and certainly no overseas government (including the US), thought the Soviet military might could be confronted. Afghanistan was written-off as lost. The only person within the military to advocate supporting Jihad by Pakistan, and the only person to come up with a plausible plan for doing so, was General Akhtar. He convinced the president that not only was it vital to Pakistan’s interests to fight the aggressors, but that there was every chance of defeating them. Some years later Zia was to say to him; “You have wrought a miracle; I can give you nothing worthy of your achievements. Only God can reward you.”
At the outset he was almost alone in thinking that the Soviet Union with all its modern aircraft and armor could be brought down by a few thousand poorly trained and un-armed Mujahideen. It certainly seemed impossibility at the beginning but it happened and happened with such a success that the world was astonished for years to come.
As events unleashed he proved himself right. Under his leadership, the communist menace was not only confronted, but also turned back – forced to retreat. Little wonder that the chief architect of this humiliation was on the top of the KGB’s hit list with a huge price on his head.
August 17th 1988, 3.46 PM General Zia’s plane took off from the runway of Bahawalpur along with five of his generals including General Akhtar to visit a test site to observe a demonstration of the M1 Abrams main battle tank. Shortly after takeoff at 3.49 PM, the control tower lost contact with the aircraft. Witnesses cited in Pakistan’s official investigation said that the C-130 began to pitch “in an up-and-down motion” while flying low shortly after take-off before going into a “near-vertical dive”, exploding on impact, killing all on board.
Many of us still don’t know much about this un-sung hero who was, without question, the chief architect of Afghan war. But we now know that if in 1979 Pakistan Army didn’t have leadership of this competent and daring general, such a historical chapter could never have been written.