Obituary: Air Marshal Asghar Khan

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Air Marshal retired Asghar Khan was perhaps one of the few Air Force officers in the world that will be remembered for their political and national significance.  

His passing away on Friday at the age of 96, and the outpouring of condolences and reactions that followed only reinforced the great impact his life had on Pakistan.

Pakistan’s first native Air Force Commander in Chief, the WW2 veteran’s political relevance did not wane in his lifetime. Precedent would have indicated that he should have gone into the shadows after retirement, as Chiefs of the armed forces are wont to do.

Yet even in 2018, Asghar Khan remained a looming figure in the national discourse, especially in the aftermath of of former Premier Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification. 

After all, his 1996 petition in court against electoral fraud committed by the Armed Forces and the intelligence agencies in the 1990 and 1993 election had struck the jugular vein of Pakistani politics: corruption.

It was thus natural that great interest arose in the Asghar Khan case once during the probe into the Panama Papers, and his petition became a comparative focal point for the nature of corruption in the country.  

The significance of the Asghar Khan case is perhaps larger than that of the Panama case. Rather than being a probe into a single family, the former Air Chief’s petition was linked to a deliberate attempt to derail the democratic system in order to get ‘positive’ results in 1990 elections.

This goal for ‘positive’ results managed to make a much larger point than the Panama Papers case ever could. This case was not about technicalities, or personal dishonesty. In Asghar Khan’s own words, he wished to achieve two things from his petition: the first was to see politics clean from corruption, the latter was to bring on record the presence of a political cell in the ISI.

Asghar Khan’s petition is perhaps going to be the lasting legacy he leaves Pakistan with, for it did much to make audible that which everyone knew existed but could not be expressed.

And this may just be the lasting legacy Asghar Khan wanted, because while his life may present the picture of a principled man, he was one with many contradictions.

His short lived Tehrik i Istiqlal was the only serious competition that the PPP faced after 1971.  And while it was touted as a secular political party, his dislike of Bhutto led him to support Zia ul Haq, something he visibly regretted later in life.

He maintained throughout his life that his letter to the military establishment against Bhutto was not the cause of Zia’s coup, and attempted to create distance between them. Yet a help to Zia ul Haq he was.

He would also go on to support General Musharraf in his early days, something he would regret almost as much as he did his aid to General Zia.

The death of his son in mysterious circumstance, seemed to change Asghar Khan, with his visible participation in national affairs depleting afterwards.

Perhaps his last act of political significance was his merger with the PTI in 2012. And while no one can really say Imran and Asghar Khan could ever see eye to eye on ideology, one feels that it was something he felt he had to do. As one last token attempt at the change and justice the PTI claims to represent, and which Asghar Khan tried to uphold throughout his storied life.