I have many reasons to write in memory of the venerated Air Marshal Asghar Khan — a protégé of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, he was my role model from the age of 19 when I joined the Royal Pakistan Air Force (RPAF) in 1952.
I had considered Jinnah to be an exceptional leader ever since I got a glimpse of him during a school function at Quetta’s McMahon Park.
I was 11 at the time and sat just five feet from the Father of the Nation; I recall his words: “Some of you students will become defenders of the nation by joining the military.”
I was, from that day, hooked to the idea of becoming a fighter pilot and I chased that dream with resolve.
I first heard about Asghar Khan, who was at the time a wing commander, from my instructor at the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Academy in Risalpur, who narrated to me the historic event of Jinnah’s visit to Risalpur, where Asghar Khan, the strict disciplinarian and the first commandant of the RPAF Flying College, received Jinnah and Ms Fatima Jinnah.
My instructor told me I would have to live up to Jinnah’s famous exhortation: “PAF to be second to none.”
I never lost sight of this goal in all my decades as a fighter pilot.
To be second to none was also the basis of Asghar Khan’s vision for the PAF. His doctrine translated into a well-honed operational strategy and high training standards, which permeated our minds, and propelled us towards professional excellence.
An outstanding pilot, he was the first Indian (before Partition) to fly a fighter jet with the Royal Indian Air Force. He took part in World War II, participating in the Burma Campaign, and later after Partition, captained missions into Kashmir in a lumbering Dakota against the Indian Air Force’s agile Tempest fighter planes.
He catapulted the PAF from a rudimentary air force to one of the best in the world through extensive modernisation and professionalisation, within just 18 months of becoming the youngest commander-in-chief of the PAF to-date at the age of 36.
He was also the first native to head the PAF when he replaced the British Arthur McDonald.
Under Asghar Khan’s stewardship, the PAF created a world military aviation record in formation aerobatics with 16 aircrafts performing a loop in front of King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan.
My first encounter with him came in 1957. We had just performed an air show for a high-level US military delegation. At the end of the exercise, he shook our hands before introducing us to the visiting general. I was the youngest flying officer in the team and I recall the immense pride I felt at shaking Asghar Khan’s hands.
Years passed and we only saw glimpses of our revered commander — until June 5, 1965, when we found ourselves sitting face to face with Asghar Khan along with our senior commanders and Air Commodore Rahim Khan (who later became PAF’s third commander-in-chief).
In that meeting, he spelt out the Top Secret operational plan and tactical stratagem of the PAF war doctrine.
The occasion was intense as it was historical, for some of us were mid-career squadron commanders and were amazed and surprised that our commander-in-chief had taken us into confidence about the exact strategic plan.
He did not even utter a syllable of warning to keep the information close to our chests. He didn’t need to, as his training had imbued in his commanders that deep-rooted trust. It was left to us to execute the plan with efficiency and deadly accuracy.
I recall that it was soon after Eid-ul-Fitr that an Indian spy bomber violated Pakistan's air frontiers. The early air defence system, created as per Asghar Khan’s policy, responded with incredible alacrity.
A young flight officer brought the bomber down at 40,000 feet, way above the fighter’s operational capability. Both the Indian pilot and the navigator were taken into custody.
Trained, readied and motivated by Asghar Khan, officers of all ranks performed beyond expectations. This was also the indomitable spirit with which the PAF fought the 1965 war.
Unfortunately, he had been allowed to retire when the clouds of war were menacingly evident on the horizon. He was the only military commander who foresaw the forebodings and prepared the PAF to face the juggernaut.
I was a squadron leader during the 1965 war, and have detailed in my book Flight of the Falcon: Demolishing myths of Indo-Pak wars 1965 & 1971 about how those at the national helm perpetrated the senseless war.
My next profound experience of meeting Asghar Khan led me to become very close to him. It was during the 25th anniversary of the 1965 war when former air chiefs and some prominent participants of the war were invited to the PAF base in Sargodha.
Accompanied by my former wife, I saluted Asghar Khan and inquired about his campaign for the 1990 election, offering my humble services in any way that could help.
Spontaneously, and uncharacteristically, he addressed my former wife and asked if she would spare me for a month or more, so I could help out in the campaign.
It was agreed upon without further ado and I spent six weeks or so with him in the lead up to the election.
I saw up close his superb political vision and witnessed his true mettle and character. He had impeccable ethics and a no-nonsense, no-false-promises, no-tricks-or-treats way of doing business.
I never saw him panic or become angry, and he never uttered a word that was not politically correct. He led an simple lifestyle in which humility and firmness were blended to perfection.
The 1990 election was stolen. I was a close witness to it, to the extent that Asghar Khan instructed me to represent him before the Election Commission (EC) in a petition against the despicable methods of rigging employed by his opponents.
He also instructed Justice (retired) Tariq Saeed to accompany me in case any legal issues arose during my appearance in front of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). I had indelible proof, which I submitted to each of the three judges.
The CEC admitted my petition as valid after I fought my case vociferously, but a docile and subservient EC did nothing more than writing a polite letter to Asghar Khan months after the election was over.
I recall that during the election, the head of a certain community claiming to have around 3,000 votes of the butcher community, asked if he could meet Asghar Khan. I said his door was open to all and sundry.
During the meeting, the mustachioed man assured Asghar Khan that they would vote for him owing to his nobility of character, and requested him to have tea with them in their mohalla, to which he agreed.
During the tea, it was claimed that the mohalla’s gas connection had been cut off by the Punjab Government as the community opposed the government’s policies.
The community asked whether Asghar Khan could promise them that he would restore their gas connection after winning the election.
Calmly, Asghar Khan stood up and extended his hands with the following words in Urdu: “I do not make promises which I cannot fulfill. Besides, every citizen is entitled to amenities on merit. You may vote for someone else who gives you such undertaking; I do not make false promises.”
This was a man of integrity, undervalued by our ungrateful nation.
I recall another incident during the election. One evening, I discovered that a printer had declined to print our flyers and posters as he was owed a fair sum of money.
I managed to get the money to him through my sister, and requested our party’s finance manager not to inform Asghar Khan.
The manager replied that he could not make any promises but he’d still try to be discreet. One month after the election, I received a letter from Asghar Khan. It was a one-liner: “Thank you.” And with it was a cheque for the exact amount I had paid the printer.
On January 5, 2018, Air Marshal Asghar Khan embarked on his eternal flight at the age of 97.
His vision, courage, integrity, honesty, and resolute dedication to his mission in life, were right in the footsteps of Jinnah.
He lived in the highest traditions of an officer, commander, a leader and a sublime gentleman until his last breath.
May he rest in peace.
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