January 5th is the 5th death anniversary of Air Marshal Asghar Khan, who was the 5th Commander in Chief of Pakistan and the first Pakistani to command this prestigious institution. Following in the footsteps of his father, Brigadier Thakur Rahmatullah Khan, he and all his brothers, except one, joined the armed forces of Pakistan.

Two of his siblings, Asif and Khalid, who also had joined the air force, died in air crashes at an early age. His father was POW during World War I, and also served in World War II. His illustrious father and elder brothers played a valiant role in the liberation of Azad Jammu Kashmir.

Asghar Khan was educated at the Doon School, and the Prince of Wales's Royal Indian Military College, Dehradun. He joined the Indian Military Academy in 1939, was commissioned in the Royal Deccan Horse.

His army career was short lived as due to the advent of the Second World War, the Ministry of Defense drafted Asghar Khan in the newly established Royal Indian Air Force in 1940 fulfilling his ambition to fly. He joined No. 9 Squadron of the Indian Air Force assuming its command in 1944. He flew active missions in the Burma Campaign against the Japanese and gave a good account of himself.

Quaid Reviews the Parade at Risalpur April 13 1948. Air Marshal Perry Keene & Wing Commander Asghar Khan behind the Quaid.
Quaid Reviews the Parade at Risalpur April 13 1948. Air Marshal Perry Keene & Wing Commander Asghar Khan behind the Quaid.

After World War II, Asghar Khan was sent to the United Kingdom for his Staff College course at Bracknell. Later, Asghar Khan joined the Joint Service Defense College where he gained B.Sc. in Military Ethics. After submitting his thesis on his actions involving the Joint Services,he conducted his Post Graduate research and studies from Imperial Defense College where Asghar Khan was awarded M.Sc. in Military Administration.

Asghar Khan also has the unique distinction of being the first Indian Air Force officer to fly a fighter jet air craft - a Gloster Meteor III - whilst undergoing the Fighter Leader's Course in UK in 1946.

Asghar Khan pilots the Gloster Meteor III, May  201946—RAF West Raynham, UK (Painting by Gp. Capt. Hussaini).
Asghar Khan pilots the Gloster Meteor III, May 201946—RAF West Raynham, UK (Painting by Gp. Capt. Hussaini).

On June 7, 1947, then Squadron Leader Asghar Khan joined the sub-committee led by Royal Air Force Air Vice Marshal Allan Perry Keene (who later became the first Commander-in-Chief of Royal Pakistan Air Force) to distribute the defense assets of undivided India between the proposed states of Pakistan and India. Asghar Khan's attachment with No. 9 Squadron, which he had commanded, was so deep that at the time of Partition, when the assets of the Royal Indian Air Force were divided between India and Pakistan, he insisted that No. 9 Squadron be awarded to Pakistan.

PAF pays tributes to Asghar Khan

After independence, Asghar Khan opted to join Pakistan Air Force. He was promoted to the rank of Wing Commander and given the command of RPAF Flying Training School at Risalpur. He has the unique distinction of hosting the founder of Pakistan, on 13 April, 1948, when the Quaid elevated the School to the status of College of Flying Training (in 1967 it was upgraded to PAF Academy).

In 1950, Asghar Khan assumed the directorship of Directorate General of the Air Operations (DGAO). In 1955, Asghar Khan was appointed as the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff in the Air Headquarters, directing the Air Administration and Personnel. As Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, Asghar Khan established the major units and infrastructure including the Fighter Leaders School (now Combat Commander's School), the Air Staff College (now Air War College) and the College of Aeronautical Engineering at Korangi Creek. As Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, Asghar Khan also instituted the Inspectorate Directorate for the Air Force and initiated the tradition of regular Air Staff presentations.

Finally in 1957, at the young age of 36, Asghar Khan became the youngest to date and the first Pakistani Commander-in-Chief of PAF.

December 9, 1971: when the hunter became the hunted

In April 1948, at Risalpur, a young Asghar Khan had listened to the words of the Quaid with awe and reverence:

"There is no doubt that a country without a strong Air force is at the mercy of any aggressor. Pakistan must build up her Air Force as quickly as possible. It must be an efficient Air Force second to none and must take its right place with the Army and the Navy in securing Pakistan's defense.”

Now he had the distinctive opportunity to lend credence to the Quaid's prophetic words. As Air Chief from 1957-65, the venerable Asghar Khan moulded Pakistan Air Force in tempered steel and through his outstanding attributes of leadership; transformed it from a fledgling status with WWII aircrafts into a fine fighting force, which had the capacity to rise to the occasion when the test came and got the better of an adversary five times its size in 1965, 1971 and continues to do so in every trial and tribulation the nation faces.

Under his leadership the PAF created a world record as early as 2 February, 1958, by performing the 16 aircraft loop on the US supplied Sabre jets. Hundreds of thousands watched admirably and the Attaché Corps. from India, UK, USA and other countries, sitting along with King Zahir Shah in whose honor this stellar performance had been organized. From then on PAF was catapulted into a highly professional and operational fighting machine.

The author with AM Asghar Khan during a Defence Day Dinner.
The author with AM Asghar Khan during a Defence Day Dinner.

If the world record setting 16 F-86 Sabre's diamond formation loop was not enough, under Asghar Khan's watch, another world record was set. On 27 October, 1964, during an air display at Peshawar, at which Omar Dani C-in-C of the Indonesian Air Force was the chief guest, the first ever formation aerobatics on B-57 Bombers was performed. A formation of 4 B-57 Bombers executed loops, rolls and wingovers, maneuvers heretofore unheard of in such a heavy class of aircrafts as the B-57 Bomber which are not designed to perform aerobatics even singly.

Polish contribution to PAF and its Air Transport Command

Asghar Khan is remembered as an Air Chief, who stuck to the criteria of merit and qualification for every promotion and appointment. He did not refrain from ruffling a few feathers, even if he had to supersede officers for lack of merit. His sense of distinction between right and wrong and not taking undue privileges was extremely strong.

While serving as aircrew in PAF's Air Transport Command, an eyewitness account of an incident, which speaks volumes for Asghar Khan's strength of character, was narrated to me by AVM Masood Khan who had been an exceptional Air Transport pilot. The Air Chief had requested that in one of the routine missions of any transport aircraft proceeding to Karachi; his wife may be allotted a seat.

When the appointed day and time arrived, Asghar Khan came to see his wife off. He was aghast and furious to see that the regular troop seats of the aircraft had been removed and VIP seats installed in their place to make Begum Asghar Khan more comfortable. The Air Chief blew his top and immediately ordered the VIP seats to be removed and said that his wife and for that matter he himself whenever flying on service aircraft must use normal seats. What a far cry from today's breed of air officers, who not only demand special seats but also have flights scheduled to suit their domestic agenda.

While Air Marshal Asghar Khan was honing the skills of his fighter pilots and moulding the entire PAF into an efficient and hard-hitting fight force, he was leading it from the front. In January 1961, in response to an invitation extended to the PAF's Commander-in-Chief to visit Japan and some other important USAF Air Bases enroute, Air Marshal Asghar Khan chose to lead a formation of two B-57 for the long tour. The two aircraft followed the route: Peshawar, Dhaka, Bangkok, the Philippines (Clark AFB), Okinawa (Kadena AFB) and Tokyo. At each stop, his military hosts were thrilled to see the Air Chief personally leading the formation of vintage medium bombers.

PAF’S gallant Christian heroes carry Quaid's message

On 5th April 1965, the Indian Army set out to capture the disputed Rann of Kutch territory while launching three infantry brigades. The Pakistan Army took the precaution of moving into an area between Chad Bet and Biar Bet, to prevent the Indian forces from attempting the complete military occupation of Rann. The limited scale Rann of Kutch military dual between Indian and Pakistani armies provided an opportunity to PAF to test and update its air war planning and operational preparations accordingly.

Although the Air Force was not called upon to actively join the Kutch Operations, yet it was fully mobilized to face the eventual threat from the enemy. In light of the armed flare up in the area, Air Marshal Asghar Khan swiftly made operational preparations to react immediately, assuming that the enemy air force could have committed to battle operations.

Besides ensuring operational preparedness of the PAF, Air Marshal Asghar Khan played a master stroke in keeping the skirmishes limited and also saving Pakistani ground forces from interdiction by Indian Air Force. Asghar Khan, who had attended the Military College, Dehradun, with his Indian counterpart, Air Chief Marshal Arjun Singh and knew him personally, called him on the hotline. He advised Arjun Singh that it would be prudent to agree to keep both Air Forces away from the local conflict of Rann because, if the IAF attacked the Pakistan Army in the Rann of Kutch areas, the PAF would feel free to retaliate anywhere and in any manner it saw fit, and this could lead to an immediate escalation of the local conflict beyond predictable dimensions.

Air Chief Marshal Arjun Singh heeded to the implied threat because he was fully cognizant of the firm and resolute demeanor of Asghar Khan and the IAF did indeed stay away from the Rann of Kutch battle areas and this proved advantageous to Pakistan Army's military duel with Indian Army.

For Air Marshal Asghar Khan, it was an uphill task to convince the army, especially after Ayub Khan became the military ruler, of the concept of Joint Operations and Planning between the Army, Air Force and the Navy. Not only were the Navy and the Air Force not being considered in strategic roles but the Army was engaged in its war planning in isolation from its sister services. The Army top brass, in its limited military vision and elementary knowledge of strategy and tactics showed total disregard to the importance of air power, and had been considering the Air Force as an extension of the artillery.

Despite the Army's cognitive dissonance, Air Marshal Asghar Khan continued preparing and prepping the PAF in a high state of operational readiness, for he was convinced that when the crunch came it was air power that could save the nation from the adversary's aggression.

How PAF helped Quaid see Pakistan's first Independence Day

The straw that broke the camel's back was when he realized that he had not even been informed nor consulted before the launch of the Operation Gibraltar. He opted for retirement on 23 July, 1965 i.e., six weeks before the 1965 Indo-Pak War. It is to Pakistan's credit that the baton was passed to another outstanding leader, Nur Khan who led Pakistan Air Force, which had been sharpened, whetted and honed by Asghar Khan into a fighting force comprising officers and men whose courage and will to die for the nation was a thing of the legends. Thus, it was the PAF of Asghar Khan under the leadership of Nur Khan, which saved the nation from ignominy and defeat in the 1965 Pakistan-India War.

After retiring from Air Force, Asghar Khan became Chairman of Civil Aviation, Tourism and Managing Director of PIA. To acquaint himself with the working of Civil Airline and problem of Air Crews, he got converted into a Captain of Boeing aircraft after formally acquiring a license and appearing in the requisite tests and occasionally flew as such. The national carrier benefited immensely from his sterling leadership qualities. During his tenure, PIA achieved the lowest aircraft accident rate and highest net profit of Pakistan, and was a formidable competitor in the world airline business. His tenure as Chairman is often remembered as the 'Golden Age of PIA.'

In 1970, Asghar Khan founded a secular political party, the Tehreek-e-Istaqlal. Because of adherence to principles and strong convictions, he has not won elections but has earned the respect of the nation. His party has been a nursery for high profile civilian political figures including Nawaz Sharif, Khurshid Kasuri, Aitzaz Ahsan, Rashid Ahmad, Javed Hashmi, Akbar Bugti, Mushahid Hussain, Nadir Pervez, Gohar Ayub Khan, Zafar Ali Shah, Ahmad Raza Kasuri, Sher Afgan Niazi, Manzoor Wattoo, Syeda Abida Hussain, Syed Fakhar Imam and many others. Asghar Khan has suffered incarceration and physical torture but he remains firm in opposing military and totalitarian regimes ruling Pakistan. His only son in politics Omar Asghar was murdered in 2002 yet he did not abandon fighting for principles.

The F-16 fleet: area of collaboration between Islamabad and Washington

Asghar Khan was designated a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, and conferred with the Gold Medal by the Human Rights Commission, and Jinnah Award by the Jinnah Society for the cause of democracy.

Besides indulging in politics, Asghar Khan is a prolific writer. His publications include:

'The First Round - Indo-Pakistan War 1965', 'Pakistan at the Crossroads' (1969), 'Generals in Politics' (1983), 'The Lighter Side of the Power Game' (1985), 'We've Learnt Nothing from History' (2005), 'My Political Struggle' (2008) and Milestones in a Political Journey (2009) in English.

'Pakistan Ka Mustaqbil' (1969), 'General Siyasat Mein' (1983), 'Sada-i-Hosh' (1985), 'Chehray Nahi Nizam ko Badlo' (1998), 'Islam - Jamhooriyat aur Pakistan' (1999) and 'Yeh Batain Hakim Logon Ki' (1999) in Urdu.

My first glimpse of Asghar Khan came in 1965, when as Commander-in-Chief; he came to inspect PAF Public School Sargodha, where I was a student. I still remember that despite the fact that he was the Air Chief, he was walking one step behind our Principal Mr. Hugh Catchpole, who had been his teacher at the Royal Indian Military College Dehradun.

The lesson that your teacher is to be respected, no matter how high a position you may be elevated to, was instilled in our tender minds that day.

Later I kept meeting Asghar Khan, I interviewed him for my TV show a number of times and we have kept in touch with mutual respect. He once humbly told me during an interview that when he opted for Pakistan in 1947, he was a Squadron Leader and posted to Delhi. He had his seat booked on a train to travel with his family to Rawalpindi. While handing over his house, which had been allotted to an Indian Air Force Wing Commander Nair, he was asked by the new allottee regarding his travel plans.

When he informed him he was travelling by train, Wing Commander Nair, who was a Hindu, spontaneously exclaimed that the trains were being attacked by marauders and no one was reaching alive. On his own initiative Wing Commander Nair requested Indian Air Headquarters to allot seats to Squadron Leader Asghar Khan and his family to fly in the Service aircraft that was taking Air Marshal Perry Keene, RPAF's C-in-C from Delhi's Palam Airport to Chaklala (Rawalpindi). Asghar Khan was much obliged and more so when he later learned that the train he was supposed to travel on had been attacked by fanatic Hindus and not a single passenger had reached Pakistan alive.

Besides being an outspoken leader and a fearless politician, Asghar Khan is a gracious host. Each time I have visited him for an interview, he and his equally courteous wife personally served tea and refreshments to the entire TV crew.

For his exceptional service to Pakistan Air Force and laying its foundations on a solid edifice, Air Marshal Asghar Khan deserves to be called the 'Father of Pakistan Air Force.' For his genuine leadership qualities of establishing clean ethics and politics, he must be recognized as the 'Doyen of Pakistani Politics'.

On March 23 2017, Pakistan Air Force changed its tradition of naming Air Force Bases after deceased heroes thus, during his life time, the PAF Academy Risalpur was renamed as PAF Academy Asghar Khan.He was weak and frail by attended the ceremony which was held despite inclement weather and stood erect to take the general salute and guard of honour presented to him.

Only nine months later, on 5 January 2018 Air Marshal Asghar Khan met his maker, two weeks shy of his 97th birthday. The government of Pakistan buried him with full state honours and he was given a state funeral.PAF befittingly organized a state funeral while a formation of four K-8 trainer and four T-37 aircraft from PAF Academy, now named after him, presented a fly past in the honour of the great leader. The aircraft flew the famous ‘Missing Airman’ Formation, which is an aerial salute indicating the departure of fallen air warrior for the eternal abode. May the soul of the father of Pakistan air force and the doyen of Pakistani politics rest in peace. Ameen.

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

S. M. Hali

The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF, and now a security analyst


Comments are closed.

Sleepless Jan 05, 2023 03:05pm
An officer and a gentleman, a very rare breed these days!
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Chemgez k Jan 06, 2023 09:59am
A true Hero of Pakistan!!!
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KU Jan 07, 2023 12:12pm
Thank you for the insight on our men of steel and integrity, sad to see the current degradation of professional men in service.
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Yamin Jan 07, 2023 03:04pm
What an illustrious career on wings.Youngest Air Martial . (GBHS)).
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Samina Khan Jan 11, 2023 09:32pm
Thank for covering so much of Asghar Khan’s life. Just need to correct one point about Doon School as he only went to RIMC in Dehradoon
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