Yahya Khan

Yahya Khan

Early life

Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan was born in ChakwalPunjabBritish Indian Empire on 4 February 1917, according to the references written by Russian sources.He and his family were of Pathan (Pashtun) origin.

Few Pakistanis knew anything about Yahya Khan when he was vaulted into the presidency two years ago. The stocky, bushy–browed Pathan had been the army chief of staff since 1966…

— Editorial, Time, 2 August 1971

According to Indian writer Dewan Berindranath’s book Private Life of Yahya Khan (published in 1974), Yahya’s father worked in the British Indian Police, in Punjab province. He joined as a head constable and retired as a deputy superintendent. Yahya studied in the prestigious Col. Brown Cambridge School Dehradun and later enrolled at the University of Punjab from where he passed B.A.

Military career

Yahya Khan was commissioned from Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun in 1938. An infantry officer from the 4th/10th Baluch Regiment (4th Battalion of 10th Baluch Regiment, later amalgamated with the modern and current form of Baloch Regiment, ‘Baloch’ was spelled as ‘Baluch’ in Yahya’s time), Yahya saw action during World War II in North Africa where he was captured by the Axis Forces in June 1942 and interned in a prisoner of war camp in Italy from where he escaped in the third attempt.[self-published source]

Yahya Khan served in World War II as a lieutenant and later captain in the 4th Infantry Division (India). He served in Iraq, Italy, and North Africa. He was POW in Italy before returning to India.

1965 war and Commander-in-chief

After World War II, he decided to join the Pakistan Army in 1947, he had already been reached to the rank of Major (acting Lieutenant-colonel). In this year he was instrumental in not letting the Indian officers shift books from the famous library of the British Indian Army Staff College (now Command and Staff College) at Quetta, where Yahya was posted as the only Muslim instructor at the time of partition of India. There were other Muslim instructors besides him.[self-published source] At the age of 34, he was promoted to Brigadier and is still considered the youngest one-star officer in the history of Pakistan Armed Forces. He was appointed as commander of the 105 Independent Brigade that was deployed in LoC ceasefire region in Jammu and Kashmir in 1951–1952.[self-published source] He was described as a “hard drinking soldier” who liked young women’s company and wine, though he was a meritorious and professional soldier.

Later Yahya, as Deputy Chief of General Staff, was selected to head the army’s planning board set up by Ayub Khan to modernize the Pakistan Army in 1954–57. Yahya also performed the duties of Chief of General Staff from 1958 to 1962 from where he went on to command two infantry divisions from 1962 to 1965 including one in East Pakistan.[ Yahya also renamed the Command and Staff College from ‘Army Staff College’ in Quetta, Balochistan. He played a pivotal role in sustaining the support for President Ayub Khan’s campaign in the 1965 presidential elections against Fatima Jinnah.[8] He was made GOC of 7th Infantry Division of Pakistan Army, which he commanded during the 1965 war with India. At this assignment, he was not instrumental in planning and executing the military infiltration operation, the Grand Slam, which failed miserably due to General Yahya’s delay owing to change of command decision, the Indian Army crossed the intentional borderand made a beeline for Lahore.[self-published source]

Despite his failures, Yahya was promoted to lieutenant-general after his promotion papers were personally approved by President Ayub Khan in 1966, at a stint as an appointed Deputy Army Commander in Chief. He was appointed as commander-in-chief of Pakistan Army in March 1966 and took command in June. At promotion, Yahya Khan superseded two of his seniors: Lieutenant-General Altaf Qadir and Lieutenant-General Bakhtiar Rana.

After becoming the c-in-c Yahya energetically started reorganizing the Pakistan Army in 1966. The post-1965 situation saw major organisational as well as technical changes in the Pakistan Army. Until 1965 it was thought that divisions could function effectively while getting orders directly from the army’s GHQ. This idea failed miserably in the 1965 war and the need to have intermediate corps headquarters in between the GHQ and the fighting combat divisions was recognised as a foremost operational necessity after the 1965 war. In 1965 war the Pakistan Army had only one corps headquarters (the I Corps).

Soon after the war had started the United States had imposed an embargo on military aid to both India and Pakistan. This embargo did not affect the Indian Army but produced major changes in the Pakistan Army’s technical composition. US Secretary of State Dean Rusk well summed it up when he said, “Well if you are going to fight, go ahead and fight, but we’re not going to pay for it”.

Pakistan now turned to China for military aid and the Chinese tank T-59 started replacing the US M-47/48 tanks as the Pakistan Army’s MBT (Main Battle Tank) from 1966. 80 tanks, the first batch of T-59s, a low-grade version of the Russian T-54/55 series were delivered to Pakistan in 1965–66. The first batch was displayed in the Joint Services Day Parade on 23 March 1966. The 1965 War had proved that Pakistan Army’s tank-infantry ratio was lopsided and more infantry was required. Three more infantry divisions (9, 16 and 17 Divisions) largely equipped with Chinese equipment and popularly referred to by the rank and file as “The China Divisions” were raised by the beginning of 1968. Two more corps headquarters: the 2nd Corps Headquarters (Jhelum-Ravi Corridor) and the 4th Corps Headquarters (Ravi-Sutlej Corridor) were raised, also in East Pakistan a corps-sized formation titles as the Eastern Command was created.

President of Pakistan

Yahya Khan

President of Pakistan Yahya Khan with United States President Richard Nixon in October 1970.

Ayub Khan was President of Pakistan for most of the 1960s, but by the end of the decade, popular resentment had boiled over against him. Pakistan had fallen into a state of disarray, and long ongoing civil unrest in East Pakistan evolved into a mass uprising in January of the year. After having held unsuccessful talks with the opposition, Ayub Khan handed over power to Yahya Khan in March, who immediately imposed martial law. When Yahya assumed the office on 25 March 1969, he inherited a two-decade constitutional problem of inter-provincial ethnic rivalry between the PunjabiPashtunMohajir dominated West Pakistan province and the ethnically Bengali Muslim East Pakistan province. In addition, Yahya also inherited an 11 year old problem of transforming an essentially one man ruled country to a democratic country, which was the ideological basis of the anti-Ayub movement of 1968–69. As an Army Chief Yahya had all the capabilities, qualifications and potential. But Yahya inherited an extremely complex problem and was forced to perform the multiple roles of caretaker head of the country, drafterof a provisional constitution, resolving the One Unit question, satisfying the frustrations and the sense of exploitation and discrimination successively created in the East Wing by a series of government policies since 1948.

The American political scientist Lawrence Ziring observed that,

Yahya Khan has been widely portrayed as a ruthless uncompromising insensitive and grossly inept leader … While Yahya cannot escape responsibility for these tragic events, it is also on record that he did not act alone … All the major actors of the period were creatures of a historic legacy and a psycho-political milieu which did not lend itself to accommodation and compromise, to bargaining and a reasonable settlement. Nurtured on conspiracy theories, they were all conditioned to act in a manner that neglected agreeable solutions and promoted violent judgments.

Yahya Khan attempted to solve Pakistan’s constitutional and inter-provincial/regional rivalry problems once he took over power from Ayub Khan in March 1969. The tragedy of the whole affair was the fact that all actions that Yahya took, although correct in principle, were too late in timing, and served only to further intensify the political polarisation between the East and West wings.

  • He dissolved the one unit restoring the pre-1955 provinces of West Pakistan
  • He promised free direct, one man one vote, fair elections on adult franchise, a basic human right which had been denied to the Pakistani people since the pre-independence 1946 elections by political inefficiency, double play and intrigue, by civilian governments from 1947 to 1958 and by Ayub’s one-man rule from 1958 to 1969.

However, dissolution of one unit did not lead to the positive results that it might have led to in case “One Unit” was dissolved earlier. Yahya also made an attempt to accommodate the East Pakistanis by abolishing the principle of parity, thereby hoping that greater share in the assembly would redress their wounded ethnic regional pride and ensure the integrity of Pakistan. Instead of satisfying the Bengalis it intensified their separatism since they felt that the west wing had politically suppressed them since 1958. Thus came the rise of anti-West Wing sentiment in the East Wing.

During the course of 1968, the political pressure exerted by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had weakened the President Ayub Khan, who had earlier sacked Bhutto after disagreeing with President Ayub’s decision to implement on Tashkent Agreement, facilitated by the Soviet Union to end the hostilities with India. To ease the situation, President Ayub had tried reaching out to terms with the major parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Awami League (AL), but remained unsuccessful. In poor health, President Ayub abrogated his own constitution and suddenly resigned from the presidency.

On 24 March 1969, President Ayub directed a letter to General Yahya Khan, inviting him to deal with the situation, as it was “beyond the capacity of (civil) government to deal with the… Complex situation.” On 26 March 1969, General Yahya appeared in national television and announced to enforce martial law in all over the country. The 1962 Constitution was abrogated, the parliament dissolved, and President Ayub’s civilian officials dismissed. In his first nationwide address, Yahya maintained: “I will not tolerate disorder. Let everyone remain at his post.”

On immediate effect, he installed a military government and featured active duty military officials:

Yahya Khan administration
Ministers Portrait Ministries and departments Inter-services
General Yahya Khan President and Chief Martial Law Administrator
Information and Broadcasting
Law and Justice
Foreign and Defence
Yahya Khan  Pakistan Army
General Abdul Hamid Khan Deputy CMLA
Interior and Kashmir Affairs
Yahya Khan  Pakistan Army
Vice-Admiral Syed Mohammad Ahsan Deputy CMLA
Finance and Planning Commission
StatisticsCommerce, and Industry
Yahya Khan  Pakistan Navy
Air-Marshal Nur Khan Yahya Khan Deputy CMLA
Communications and Health
Labour and Science and Technology
Yahya Khan  Pakistan Air Force

National Security Council and LFO

President Yahya was well aware of this explosive situation and decided to bring changes all over the country. His earlier initiatives directed towards establishing the National Security Council (NSC) with Major-General Ghulam Omar being its first advisor. It was formed to analyse and prepare assessments towards issues relating the political and national security.

Secondly in 1969, President Yahya promulgated the Legal Framework Order No. 1970 which disestablished the One Unit programme where West Pakistan was formed. Instead, LFO No. 1970 hence removed the prefix West, instead adding Pakistan. The decree has no effect on East Pakistan. Following this, President Yahya announced to held nationwide general elections in 1970, and appointed Judge Abdus Sattar as Chief Election Commissioner of Election Commission of Pakistan. Changes were carried out by President Yahya to reversed the country back towards parliamentary democracy.

Last days of East Pakistan

1970 general elections

By 28 July 1969, President Yahya had set a framework for elections that were to be held in December 1970. Finally, the general elections were held in all over the country. In East Pakistan, the Awami League led by Mujibur Rahman held almost all mandate, but no seat in any of four provinces of West Pakistan. The socialist Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had won the exclusive mandate in the four provinces of Pakistan, but none in the East Pakistan. The Pakistan Muslim League (PML) led by Nurul Amin was the only party to have representation from all over the country, though it had failed to gain the mandate to run the government. The Awami League had 160 seats, all won from the East Pakistan; the socialist PPP had secured 81; the conservative PML had 10 seats in the National Assembly. The general elections‘s results truly reflected the ugly political reality: the division of the Pakistani electorate along regional lines and political polarisation of the country between the two states, East Pakistan and Pakistan.

In political terms, therefore, Pakistan as a nation stood divided as a result. Series of bilateral talks between PPP and Mujibur Rahman produced to results and were unable to come to an agreement of transfer of power from to East Pakistan’s representatives on the basis of the Six-Point programme. In Pakistan, the people had felt that the Six-point agenda was a step towards secession.

Massacres in East Pakistan

While, the political deadlock remains between the Awami League, PPP, and the military government after the general elections in 1970. During this time, Yahya began coordinating several meetings with his military strategists over the issue in East Pakistan. On 25 March 1971, President Yahya initiated the Searchlight in order to restore the writ of the government. The situation in East Pakistan worsened and the gulf between the two wings now was too wide to be bridged. Agitation was now transformed into a vicious insurgency as Bengali elements of Pakistan armed forces and Police mutinied and formed Bangladesh Forces along with common people of all classes to launch both unconventional and hit and run operations.[citation needed]

The Searchlight ordered by Yahya was a violent planned military pacification carried out by the Pakistan Armed Forces to curb the Bengali nationalist movement in erstwhile East Pakistan in March 1971. Ordered by the government in Pakistan, this was seen as the sequel to Operation Blitz which had been launched in November 1970.

The original plan envisioned taking control of the major cities on 26 March 1971, and then eliminating all opposition, political or military, within one month. The prolonged Bengali resistance was not anticipated by Pakistani planners. The main phase of Operation Searchlight ended with the fall of the last major town in Bengali hands in mid-May.

The total number of people killed in East Pakistan is not known with any degree of accuracy. Bangladeshi authorities claim that 3 million people were killed,while the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, an official Pakistan Government investigation, put the figure as low as 26,000 civilian casualties.According to Sarmila Bose, between 50,000 and 100,000 combatants and civilians were killed by both sides during the war.A 2008 British Medical Journal study by Ziad Obermeyer, Christopher J. L. Murray, and Emmanuela Gakidou estimated that up to 269,000 civilians died as a result of the conflict; the authors note that this is far higher than a previous estimate of 58,000 from Uppsala University and the Peace Research Institute, Oslo.

Khan arrested Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on charges of sedition and appointed Brigadier Rahimuddin Khan (later General) to preside over a special tribunal dealing with Mujib’s case. Rahimuddin awarded Mujib the death sentence,[citation needed] and President Yahya put the verdict into abeyance. Yahya’s crackdown, however, had led to a Bangladesh Liberation War within Pakistan and eventually drew India into what would extend into the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. The end result was the establishment of Bangladesh as an independent republic. Khan subsequently apologized for his mistakes and voluntarily stepped down.

US role

The United States had been a major sponsor of President Yahya’s military government. American journalist Gary J. Bass notes in The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, “President Nixon liked very few people, but he did like General Yahya Khan.” Personal initiatives of President Yahya had helped to establish the communication channel between the United States and China, which would be used to set up the Nixon’s trip in 1972.

Since 1960, Pakistan was perceived in the United States as an integral bulwark against global Communism in the Cold War. The United States cautiously supported Pakistan during 1971 although Congress kept in place an arms embargo.In 1970, India with a heavily socialist economy entered in a formal alliance with the Soviet Union in August 1971.

Nixon relayed several written and oral messages to President Yahya, strongly urging him to restrain the use of Pakistan forces.His objective was to prevent a war and safeguard Pakistan’s interests, though he feared an Indian invasion of Pakistan that would lead to Indian domination of the subcontinent and strengthen the position of the Soviet Union. Similarly, President Yahya feared that an independent Bangladesh could lead to the disintegration of Pakistan. Indian military supportfor Bengali guerrillas led to war between India and Pakistan.

In 1971, Richard Nixon met Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and did not[citation needed] believe her assertion that she would not invade Pakistan; Nixon did not trust her and even once referred to her as an “old witch”.Witness accounts presented by Kissinger pointed out that Nixon made specific proposals to Prime Minister Gandhi on a solution for the crisis, some of which she heard for the first time, including a mutual withdrawal of troops from the Indo-East Pakistan borders. Nixon also expressed a wish to fix a time limit with Yahya for political accommodation in East Pakistan. Nixon asserted that India could count on US endeavors to ease the crisis within a short time. But, both Kissinger and Gandhi’s aide Jayakar maintained, Gandhi did not respond to these proposals. Kissinger noted that she “listened to what was, in fact, one of Nixon’s better presentations with aloof indifference” but “took up none of the points.” Jayakar pointed out that Gandhi listened to Nixon “without a single comment, creating an impregnable space so that no real contact was possible.” She also refrained from assuring that India would follow Pakistan’s suit if it withdrew from India’s borders. As a result, the main agenda was “dropped altogether.”

On 3 December, Yahya preemptively attacked the Indian Air Force and Gandhi retaliated, pushing into East Pakistan. Nixon issued a statement blaming Pakistan for starting the conflict and blaming India for escalating itbecause he favored a cease-fire. The United States was secretly encouraging the shipment of military equipment from Iran, Turkey, and Jordan to Pakistan, reimbursing those countriesdespite Congressional objections. The US used the threat of an aid cut-off to force Pakistan to back down, while its continued military aid to Islamabad prevented India from launching incursions deeper into the country. Pakistan forces in East Pakistan surrendered on 16 December 1971, leading to the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh.

Fall from power

When the news of surrender of West Pakistan reached through the national television, the spontaneous and overwhelming public anger over Pakistan’s defeat by Bangladeshi rebels and the Indian Army, followed by the division of Pakistan into two parts boiled into street demonstrations throughout Pakistan. Rumors of an impending coup d’état by junior military officers against President Yahya swept the country. Yahya became the highest-ranking casualty of the war: to forestall further unrest, on 20 December 1971 he handed over the presidency and government to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto— the ambitious leader of Pakistan’s powerful and popular (at that time) People’s Party.

Within hours of Yahya stepping down, President Bhutto reversed JAG‘s verdict against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and instead released him to see him off to London. President Bhutto also signed orders for Yahya’s house confinement, the man who imprisoned Mujib in the first place. Both actions produced headlines around the world.


Yahya remained under house arrest orders until 1979 when he was released from the custody by martial law administrator General Fazle Haq. He remained out from public events and died on 10 August 1980 in RawalpindiPunjab, Pakistan.