The year 1976 began with many domestic and international developments, especially on the nuclear programme front. Despite many assertions by the Pakistani leadership, the international community led by the US would not believe that the programme was designed for peaceful ends. They insisted on naming it the ‘Islamic bomb’. On February 24, 1976, Z. A. Bhutto visited Canada where he categorically said that the programme had the approval of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but that had little effect on Western opinion.
Back at home, an equally important matter awaited him — the appointment of a new chief of army staff (COAS), as former chief, Gen Tikka Khan, was to retire on Feb 29, 1976. In fact, Bhutto had been looking for some replacement well before Tikka’s retirement. He had initially thought of giving an extension to Tikka Khan but the idea was dropped for some reason, especially due to his role in East Pakistan where his ruthless execution of ‘Operation Searchlight’ was seriously condemned by the international community, earning him the title of ‘Butcher of Bengal’. After Bhutto’s takeover, he was appointed COAS on March 3, 1972 and continued in this post till Feb 26, 1976.
Bhutto sought his advisers’ counsel regarding a suitable general to take over as new COAS. The names they suggested included Gen Ghulam Gilani, the ISI director-general and confidant and Gen Imtiaz, his military secretary.
Bhutto had to be very cautious in his selection as Pakistan’s post-Independence history was dotted with army interference and takeovers. Even today, it is not completely clear why Bhutto not only rejected the names suggested by his advisors, he also superseded seven senior generals to appoint Gen Ziaul Haq as COAS. These seven generals were: Mohammad Sharif, Mohammad Akbar Khan, Aftab Ahmad Khan, Azmat Bakhsh Awan, Agha Ibrahim Akram, Abdul Majeed Malik and Ghulam Gilani.
It is said that Bhutto became impressed by Ziaul Haq’s conduct in 1973 when he was appointed to preside over a court martial proceeding to try some officers charged with a conspiracy to overthrow the government. In accordance with the norms, Bhutto sought the outgoing army chief, Tikka Khan’s advice regarding the matter, who recommended either Gen Akbar or Gen Sharif for the post. However, this conversation was obviously a mere formality as Bhutto’s mind was made up.
Like all pre-independence generals, the Jallandhar-born Ziaul Haq also joined the British army during the Second World War and joined the Pakistan army after independence. He was sent to Jordan in 1967 where he stayed for three years. He trained Jordanian soldiers and led the operation known as Black September, a very regrettable action against Palestinians in Jordan.
A great number of Palestinians had settled in Jordan after the creation of Israel in 1948 and over time they formed a strong minority and raised the question of an independent Palestine. King Hussein of Jordan feared that the Palestinians could endanger his kingdom; he therefore ordered an action against Palestinian camps. The estimated number of Palestinians killed in this action is believed to be anywhere from 2,000 to 25,000, depending on the source. It is however certain that their forces were thoroughly routed. Thanks to his role in this action, Ziaul Haq, a brigadier at that time, came to be remembered as the Palestinian killer in his own country.
The choice of Gen Ziaul Haq as army chief was an unpardonable error for a man like Bhutto to commit. His associates also had reservations; Zia was reported to be “quiet and watchful” with strong rightist leanings, but Bhutto thought that, as he was a junior officer, elevating him to a high position would earn his lasting loyalty. Bhutto remembered a visit to Multan in 1975 where, according to Gen Naseerullah Babar, after inspecting a tank, Gen Zia placed his hand on the Quran and said: “You are the saviour of Pakistan and we owe it to you to be totally loyal to you.”
Bhutto might have been taken in by the façade and thought that Zia was too simple to double-cross him. Unfortunately, he proved to be disastrously wrong. Zia’s appointment to the most crucial position was a lethal error which never benefited Bhutto, even during the Pakistan National Alliance uprising a year later, and eventually led to the takeover and to the gallows.