WASHINGTON — The 1988 assassination of Pakistan’s President, Zia ul-Haq remains one of our era’s abiding major mysteries. Only the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy has produced wilder speculation and more conspiracy theories.
A recent article claiming the late President Zia ul-Haq was assassinated by Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, has been totally ignored by North America’s media. `Ancient history,’ is the way one US intelligence official dismisses the claim. By contrast, this new claim about Zia’s murder has aroused enormous interest and much fevered speculation in Pakistan and India.
I knew President Zia well and admired him greatly for his courageous statesmanship in almost single-handedly facing down the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. I was the first journalist to learn of Pakistan’s top secret role in the Afghan War, but never revealed the story until 1989. Zia ul Haq’s and Pakistan’s heroic role in bringing down the Soviet Empire has been forgotten by too many people. Once the Soviets were defeated, his former ally, the United States, turned against Zia and Pakistan.
Now, highly respected journalist, Barbara Crossette, former South Asia Bureau chief of the `New York Times,’ reports in the latest issue of the `World Policy Journal’ that former US Ambassador to India John Gunther Dean told her Israel had assassinated President Zia.
Dean was very well placed to observe Zia’s murder in 1988. He reportedly raised the issue with the US Department of State along with repeated warnings of a growing `Israel-India axis’ aimed against American ally, Pakistan. During this period, Israel had repeatedly tried to enlist India in mounting joint air, missile and commando attacks against Pakistan’s nuclear installations. After much deliberation, India reluctantly declined Israel’s offers.
Israel’s Mossad had apparently tried to assassinate Dean while he was serving as Ambassador to Lebanon. Dean had been reporting to the State Department about Israel’s attempts to subvert Lebanon and turn it into a protectorate -and the Israelis and their friend sin Washington were not amused. After making his claims about Zia’s murder, Dean was removed from his position, declared mentally unfit -shades of the Soviet Union – and then forcibly retired.
In fact, there was nothing wrong with Dean except for being too outspoken. He became a marked man by the powerful Israel lobby, which swiftly ended his diplomatic career.
But was the courageous Dean right about Zia? I’ve been tracking this story since 1988, determined to one day identify the killers of Pakistan’s former leader.
On 17 August, 1988, Zia, Pakistan’s senior generals, US Ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel, and a US general, and a group of senior Pakistani generals were all aboard a military C-130 aircraft that went out of control and crashed, killing all aboard — thus neatly decapitating in a single blow Pakistan’s entire leadership.
Most Pakistanis believe the United States killed Zia. While it is true the US government never allowed the FBI to mount a full investigation of the crash, and made no further effort to get at the truth, there is also no compelling evidence I have ever seen of Washington’s involvement.
I recently asked former US Ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley about the Zia case. He insists that the crash was an accident, `typical of the C-130’s which had a serious hydraulic problem that caused them to go into loops.’ But I understand that US Air Force technicians examined the wreckage and ruled the C-130 had been sabotaged. I just don’t believe Oakley’s claim of an accident.
Sources very close to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto also claimed the crash was an accident and that Zia’s body had remained on the site, while a coffin filled with rocks was buried at Islamabad. Soon after Madame Bhutto took office, most of the evidence from the crash was destroyed. `Why should we care about Zia,’ she snapped at me when I asked her about the case. Zia had presided over the execution of her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
I asked Benazir’s successor, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, why his government had not pursued the investigation. `You are right,’ he replied, `we should.’ But nothing, of course, was done. This from Sharif who owed much of his career to Zia ul-Haq.
I asked KGB’s senior officers at Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison if the Soviet Union had been involved.’ Naturally, they denied it. But KGB was then a world leader in producing undetectable lethal gases. Just such a gas, concealed in a crate of mangos, is believed to have rendered the C-130’s flight crew unconscious. Weeks before Zia’s death, the Soviet proconsul in Kabul, Yuli Vorontsov, warned that Zia `will be held personally responsible’ for Moscow’s defeat in Afghanistan.
Israel was and remains determined to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear capability. President George Bush’s recently revealed comments to Tony Blair that he would like to attack Pakistan show just how much influence Israel wields over the US leader. No less a luminary than former US National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, the chief strategist for Bush’s father, declared that Israel’s Ariel Sharon `has Bush wrapped around his little finger.’ Israel’s enemies, current and potential, have all been adopted as enemies of the United States by the Bush Administration.
So, in 1988, was Zia’s murder done by the long arm of Mossad? With all respect to Amb. Dean, I think it unlikely -though not impossible. The Mossad’s secret strength is its ability to use local Jewish communities around the world to provide information, money, shelter and operational support. Such assets were lacking in Pakistan, though Mossad has a good capability in India. It’s hard to think how Mossad agents could have sabotaged Zia’s aircraft. No evidence has emerged that agents of India’s very large intelligence service, RAW, were involved in the crash.
I wish Amb. Dean would come up with more details for his claim. But Mossad rarely leaves tracks and, like the old KGB, from which many of its officers and killer toxins have come, is very good at making murder look like an accident.
One thing is, however, clear. Successive Pakistani governments have damaged the nation’s honor and credibility by never adequately investigating the murder of President Zia. Pakistan has been left looking underhanded and guilty, as if sweeping a major crime under the rug.
Amb. Dean’s claim should be a signal to Islamabad to reopen the Zia case, have a truly impartial, international commission review it in detail, and issue a final report on this crime. Not doing so is worthy of some African banana republic. The United States also needs to open its archives and tell what it really knows about the murder of a close ally and comrade in arms.
As the self-proclaimed standard-bearer for the world’s Muslims, Pakistan owes the world some historical truth and justice.