Excerpts from the book “The Silent Soldier” by Brig. Muhammad Yousaf

Till the date of his tragic death on August 17, 1988, in the plane crash that also killed President Zia-ul-Haq, few people, apart from his close family, knew General Akhtar as well as I did. Within Pakistan, his name was unknown to the public. Even within the military few knew or appreciated his enormous contribution to the Afghan Jihad. This was partially due to the secretive nature of his job as Director-General of ISI from 1979-1987 and partially to his deliberate avoidance of publicity.

In September 1983 I was a brigade commander attending a divisional exercise in Quetta when I received a telephone call that was to send me on a new posting to ISI. I was told I must fly to Islamabad immediately to report to the Director-General. To say I was apprehensive would be an understatement. I was filled with misgivings. I knew the reputation of ISI. I knew that all who worked within it were regarded with intense suspicion by their seniors as well as their peers. I knew that I had no previous intelligence training and, above all, I knew the reputation of the Director-General, General Akhtar to be that of a dedicated and demanding taskmaster. I had served under him previously when I commanded a battalion in his division. Now he was a Lieutenant-General in charge of the country’s most powerful military organisation. Of the thirty or so brigadiers whose postings had been announced at that time, I was the only one going to ISI.


Within 72 hours I reported to my new boss. On meeting General Akhtar, one could not fail to be struck by his appearance. He looked a soldier. His physique was stocky and tough, his uniform immaculate, with three rows of medal ribbons denoting service in every campaign in which Pakistan had fought against India since partition in 1947. He had pale skin which he proudly attributed to his Afghan ancestry and he carried his years well. He was one of the most handsome generals in our country. He was 64 when he was assassinated but looked a good ten years younger. He was rarely ill, though his only formal exercise was walking. He attributed his good health and physical condition to his total abstention from drinking and smoking, moderate eating habits and afternoon naps. By some, he has been called the Silent Soldier. It is certainly true that he seldom revealed his inner thoughts to his subordinates. He was by nature secretive which, because of his responsibility for ISI and national security, became the predominant characteristic of Akhtar, the man. During his time at ISI, he made many enemies, both inside and outside the military. He was for years at the top of KGB’s hit list with a huge price on his head. But danger or unpopularity never concerned him.

The ISI was and still is, probably the most powerful and influential organisation in the country. It has responsibility for military and political intelligence gathering, together with overall coordination of internal security. Its activities remain covert, its operatives clandestine, and its methods unorthodox. Like any national intelligence body, it is regarded by many with apprehension, if not fear. During President Zia’s military regime this was particularly so. Within the military, the ISI and its senior staff were regarded with deep suspicion. Senior officers believed, with some justification, that ISI was watching them, that President Zia used ISI to keep a check on his generals. In these circumstances to be the Director-General with daily direct access to the President was to be in a position of great power. Such power bred envy, distrust, and perhaps hatred among some. This was the post held by General Akhtar for eight years—far longer than any other Director-General before or since. Had he not died with the president, the likelihood is that General Akhtar would have been requested to assume control in Pakistan, at least for some time. The reason for General Akhtar’s long tenure of office was his successful direction of the war in Afghanistan.

Within the ISI was a specially formed bureau headed by a brigadier (myself for the period 1983-87) charged with the day-to-day coordination of the Afghan Jihad. This bureau controlled the allocation of arms and ammunition, their distribution to Mujahideen leaders and commanders, the training of Mujahideen in Pakistan, the allocation of funds from the US and Saudi Arabian governments, and the strategic planning of operations inside Afghanistan. It was the nearest the Mujahideen came to having a General Headquarters with overall logistic and operational responsibilities.

At least fifty percent of General Akhtar’s time was spent on matters related to the war in Afghanistan. Under his leadership the Soviet superpower, although at the time I write this it has lost this status, was beaten on the battlefield. He achieved what most, including the Americans, initially considered impossible—the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan. His successes ensured his continuance in office. President Zia could not afford to lose him during those critical years when the Mujahideen had to fight armour and aircraft with rifles and mortars. When General Akhtar finally left ISI on promotion to four-star general in March 1987, military victory in Afghanistan was in sight. The Mujahideen had at long last got an effective anti-aircraft weapon in the US Stinger missile, and the Soviets were talking withdrawal. If any one person could be singled out as the architect of this victory it was General Akhtar. I feel strongly that his contribution to the Jihad in Afghanistan should not be forgotten. Like us all he had his faults, there were times when he and I disagreed on strategy and tactics, but he will go down in history as the only general to take on the Soviet military machine since the end of World War 2 and win. For this, he should be saluted.

Akhtar’s State Funeral was a fitting one for a soldier of his rank and achievements. It was attended by 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. They, along with his comrades-in-arms and the Afghan Mujahideen, came to give their final salute to the Silent Soldier. Probably it will be the Mujahideen and the rest of the world which will remember General Akhtar with more admiration and affection than his own countrymen.

Late Brigadier Muhammad Yousaf served as Head of ISI Afghan Cell from 1983 to 1987 and in this capacity was very close to General Akhtar Abdul Rahman Khan, who was ISI Chief during that period.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

On meeting General Akhtar, one could not fail to be struck by his appearance.