How General Zia's US-Supported Jihad Transformed Pakistan

As soon as the arms landed in Pakistan, the CIA's job was done and then it was the ISI who controlled the distribution of the assets - using this opportunity, General Zia and his spymaster planned the next stage of the Jihad

How General Zia's US-Supported Jihad Transformed Pakistan

As is well known, on the 5th of July 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq the Chief of Army Staff led the second military coup in our history and took control of the country. Prime Minister ZA Bhutto was arrested and hanged to death through a dubious trialm which has today come to be called a ‘Judicial Murder.’ The USSR invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and Zia-ul-Haq decided to support, assist and provide all possible support to the Afghan resistance fighters against the Soviet forces with the blessings of the American CIA and the Saudi Government. On 17 August 1988, Zia met a flaming death in the crash of the C-130 aircraft over Bahawalpur, but left Pakistan with the horrible residue of the Afghan Jihad in the form of religious extremism, militancy, suicide bombings and many armed groups determined to wage war on the state of Pakistan to establish their narrow vision of Sharia and turn Pakistan into a theocracy. 

During his eleven years of draconian grip on this nation, Zia managed to transform fundamentally Pakistan’s political culture with the creation of a semi-theocratic society and undermined the basis of a plural and democratic political structure in Pakistan. Zia will always have a uniquely controversial position in the history of Pakistan. Even 35 years after his death, he is still reviled and his legacy still haunts the nation. He was praised to high heavens by the Islamists, the USA and Saudi Arabia as a global anti-communist and an Islamic Mujahid fighting the might of the communist, ungodly USSR. 

Yet his birth and death anniversaries pass without anyone taking any notice, and the day of his coup is observed as a Black Day by political activists. He gave Pakistan the highly controversial blasphemy laws that have become a convenient tool for the persecution and oppression of non-Muslim minorities. Shia Muslims, Ahmedis, more orthodox Sunnis and other minority groups have all been targeted by extremist hardline obscurantist militants. Women's social progress was set back by years as violently patriarchal legislation like the Hudood Laws resulted in grotesque levels of gender-based violence and the culture of social and legal impunity for crimes against women. Zia will always be remembered and reviled for the harm that he did to the country, but the icing on the cake of his evil time is definitely his role in the Afghan war and the consequences suffered by Pakistan.

Immediately after the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, General Zia asked Saudi Arabia for assistance and sent his spymaster General Akhtar Abdur Rahman to Riyadh with an urgent message to the King of Saudi Arabia. Zia asked for financial help and arms and ammunition to strengthen the armed insurgents or the anti-communist mujahedeen against the soviet forces. The Saudi king agreed to help and intelligence chief Prince Turki who headed the General Intelligence Directorate began to cooperate with the ISI. Very soon, the American CIA too joined this coalition and subsequently some countries of Europe agreed to assist with arms and financial support. Ronald Reagan had Bill Casey as the CIA chief, who devoted all his time and energies to the Afghan war and became a frequent visitor to Islamabad. Pakistan became the battle ground and Pakistan was now the proxy fighting the war for the USA. 

Ronald Reagan and his advisors believed that General Zia and General Akhtar were true believers and heroes, and that without them it was not possible to defeat the USSR in Afghanistan. So, all the resources available to the USA were placed at the disposal of the ISI with one objective in view – and that was to defeat the USSR in Afghanistan.

The ISI set up training camps in the border areas with Afghanistan. Afghans started getting training from Pakistan Army experts and the SSG commandos. Within months, the ISI managed to train over 100,000 young men in these training camps who were equipped with sophisticated automatic weapons, skills and tactics in the deadly art of guerilla warfare. The head of the ISI General Akhtar Abdur Rahman was a seasoned and gifted intelligence officer and knew Afghanistan like the back of his hand. He developed close working ties to many of the Afghan mujahedeen leaders and organised them into political parties to give more legitimacy to their struggle. Akhtar also built strong ISI links to the CIA and the Saudi Intelligence Directorate. ]

The size and strength of the ISI increased phenomenally and from a meagre strength of 2,000 in 1978, it shot up to a strength of 40,000 staff with an annual budget of over a billion dollars. The ISI became the most powerful and omnipotent agency in Pakistan that was supposed to listen in on everything, keep a tab on politicians and even keep some politicians and journalists on its payroll. The head of the ISI Afghan bureau was Brigadier Mohammed Yousef during the decade of the 1980s. He has written two books of his experiences during that time. Arms, equipment and money received by the ISI were distributed among the Seven Mujahedeen groups operating in different parts of the country. The group headed by fundamentalist leader Gulbadeen Hikmatyar became the blue-eyed boy of the Coalition and was favoured with the bulk of the supplies. Ahmed Shah Masoud, the Lion of the Panjshir valley,’ received very little, as all the foreign largesse was very carefully controlled and distributed among the various factions by the ISI. 

As soon as the arms landed in Pakistan, the CIA's job was done and then it was the ISI who controlled the distribution of the assets. Using this opportunity, General Zia and his spymaster planned the next stage of the Jihad in the Indian Occupied valley of Jammu and Kashmir. The Afghan training camps were to be used to train militants to be launched in Indian Kashmir and some of the resources meant for the Afghan war were diverted for Kashmir insurgency. For security reasons, many of the meetings were held in Saudi Arabia. Gen Zia and Gen Akhtar were involved directly in the effort. Finally, in 1983 some Kashmiris began to receive training in the ISI’s Afghan camps. The ISI also reached out to other groups in Kashmir, including the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which had been founded in 1977 in Birmingham, UK, by Kashmiris living in the United Kingdom. At first it was reluctant to take ISI help, but Gen Akhtar opened talks with the group in 1984, and by 1987 JKLF militants were attending the ISI training camps. 

General Zia and General Akhtar were also avid supporters of the Khalistan movement in India and provided material and moral help to the Sikh separatist movement. This episode came to a bloody and disastrous end in 1984 when the Indian army launched operation Blue Star on the golden temple in Amritsar. The largest supply depot for the ISI’s war in Afghanistan was located just outside Rawalpindi at the Ojhri ammunition storage facility. On 10 April 1988, it was rocked by a ripping series of massive explosions as 10,000 tons of arms and ammunition went up in smoke. More than 100 people died in the disaster, including five ISI officers.

It was only the beginning of the fallout from General Zia-ul-Haq’s US-backed jihad.