Why ZAB was executed

“Rather than boasting of calamitous missions, the politicians responsible for them must be held to account.”
–Seumas Milne, Guardian News

Pakistan is about the only country on this planet where Politics, the ancient art and science of managing the affairs of the state and its citizens, is and has been absolutely and exclusively a personalized response to national events by its successive ruling class. This has been a predetermined modus operandi of the political managers of this country in the normal day-to-day functioning of the state as well as in major national crises faced by this nation. This mindset has written irony and national tragedy into our history and shaped the extremely problematic existence of our last 6 decades.
ZAB, with his charismatic persona, extraordinary ability for perception management and support of the emotionally-charged West Pakistani masses, refused to transfer political power to the legitimately and democratically elected East Pakistani leader Mujibur Rahman and thus caused the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. It was ZAB’s pure and exclusively “personalized” response and exploitation of a most serious national crisis that split the nation into two separate countries and put the legitimacy of a two-nation theory to open questioning that haunts the ideology of Pakistan even today.
Eight years later, despite international protests and mercy appeals by powerful actors in global politics, Gen. Zia had ZAB executed.
Three commonly accepted mainstream narratives have attempted to explain ZAB’s “political assassination.”
1) It is believed that irrespective of whether the murder charges brought against ZAB were true or fabricated, Gen. Zia saw an opportunity to eliminate a potentially powerful adversary to consolidate his hold over power and extend his rule. This explanation appears to be quite reasonable. After all, Gen. Zia had the presidential power to commute ZAB’s death sentence or hand him over to another country that had already offered ZAB political asylum. But Gen. Zia decided not to do so.
2) Some political analysts, historians and observers contend that Gen. Zia, behind closed doors, was under intense pressure by ZAB’s powerful foreign opponents to politically and physically eliminate him. These foreign actors loathed ZAB’s relentless personal independence and strong pro-Islamic Bloc initiative, and had knowledge of ZAB’s secret plans for making Pakistan a nuclear power. These foreign elements saw ZAB’s Pakistan as a threat to the existing status quo of the international system, which was under their complete control. Some political historians point to Henry Kissinger’s notorious conversation with ZAB in which the US Secretary of State threatened, “We will make an example of you.”
Indeed Gen. Zia was a close ally of the US and the West – but subsequent political developments point to the fact the Pakistan’s nuclear power project was completed during Zia’s era. The question is, could Gen. Zia, as a military commander and at the urgings of ZAB’s foreign enemies, politically and physically eliminate a popular leader who advocated a nuclear Pakistan projecting its power and influence on the global stage? This does not seem to be a plausible explanation.
3) Some other analysts believe that Gen. Zia abhorred ZAB’s personal lifestyle, his political arrogance and aristocratic mindset, his disrespect for his opponents and their mass arrests and imprisonments, and his subsequent political manipulations and aggressive attitude toward his adversaries to the extent of humiliation, insults and personal vendettas.
I wish to offer a 4th explanation by looking at Gen. Zia’s merciless act of executing ZAB from a different angle: Gen. Zia was a thorough military-man throughout his life. Before the Indo-Pakistan partition he served with the British troops in Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia during the latter part of WWII. In the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, Zia was on active duty in Kashmir. In 1969, he was promoted to the rank of a one-star general (Brigadier) and later served as an advisor to the Royal Jordanian army. Zia was also stationed in then East Pakistan and reportedly had developed a distinct liking for the East Pakistani Bengali culture and land.
Hence, it is imperative to analyze Zia’s act of April 1979 by understanding his military-political behavior. Hypothetically speaking, is it not possible that Gen. Zia, throughout the East Pakistan crisis, held ZAB responsible for breaking up Pakistan by manipulating and coercing Gen. Yahya into a military solution rather than opting for a legitimate political settlement?
Indeed, as we know, all major political decisions are normally made behind closed doors and we have no verifiable records of what exchange of personal ideas, opinions and expressions of support for military action in East Pakistan or against it took place between the military officers at Zia’s level. However, with Zia’s background and military career history, it is a clear probability that he might have held the opinion that ZAB was primarily responsible for the breakup of the country. As the President, Gen. Zia might have decided to punish ZAB in his absolute conviction that ZAB had committed an unpardonable crime against the nation.
Whatever the case, in the end analysis, Gen. Zia acted by an exclusively personalized response to a politically-loaded event in this nation’s history; he could have done better had he understood the art and science of politics.
Gen. Musharraf’s response to Gen. Powell’s telephone call was also a personalized response that involved this nation in a destructive war for over a decade.
For the purpose of inquiry and learning lessons from history, now let us move to our contemporary national predicaments caused by our leadership’s personalized approach to national events and political crises. Consider last week’s military operation in the country’s troubled northwest where 26 civilians are reported to have been killed by army raids initiated and supported by Islamabad. Homes and hotels were bombed and destroyed and a large-scale destruction of property and life took place. Consequently, the question that begs unmitigated attention is: Did no one in the Islamabad-Rawalpindi political-military establishment think that the said attack on our soldiers might have been a trap set up by our enemies/adversaries to instigate a military response in an area where the US has been demanding a military operation?
The recent tragic killing of our soldiers has come on the heels of proposed US legislation, the US Defense Authorization Bill of 2014, dictating such terms of engagement with Pakistan as “support counter terrorism operations…in Pakistan” and other conditions that include open passage for US military hardware and equipment, etc. Ironically, Islamabad-Rawalpindi political-military leadership completely ignored the warning given by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel during his recent visit: to punish Pakistan if Washington’s dictates were not followed. Did no one in our political-military establishment consider a possible tactical connection between the killing of our soldiers and US strategic objectives in the Pak-Afghan corridor of conflict? Are we not aware that the CIA, RAW and some other foreign secret agencies are actively engaged in destabilizing Pakistan? Are we ignorant of the fact that another military operation in the northwest of the country will increase terrorism all over Pakistan?
It is said that Islamabad-Rawalpindi political-military establishment acted in a manner that benefits our adversaries rather than supports our legitimate right to run our own affairs without an indulgence in political reactions under organized and orchestrated circumstances. It is my considered opinion, you might disagree, that the recent attack on our soldiers was a set-up and a tactical move to instigate a quick military response from our political–military leadership that, in fact, came abruptly.
My educated guess is that our adversaries are aware that this country’s leadership is prone to personalized responses and interventions when a crisis hits this nation. Perhaps our adversaries understand our political psychology and political behavior imprints thoroughly. Perhaps they are astute readers of our political history.
Have not the entire nation, all the political parties, mainstream political actors, media-intellectuals, and the majority of political activists all agreed on a political solution with the Taliban to end the war on terror? Let us stay on the political course that we have decided for ourselves.
Personalized responses to national crises and events is an outdated modus operandi of political management that must be replaced by the more appropriate skills of in-depth analysis, rational consideration of policy alternatives and patient, logical and objective decision-making.
Pakistan cannot continue to flaw on its national political discourse anymore!

The writer is UAE-based academic, policy analyst, conflict resolution expert and author of several  books on Pakistan and foreign policy issues. He holds a doctorate and a masters degree from Columbia University in New York.


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