Yahya Khan

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Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan
Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan
Date of Birth: February 4, 1917
Date of Death: August 10, 1980
President of Pakistan
Tenure Order: 3th President
Term in Office: March 25, 1969 – December 20, 1971
Predecessor: Ayub Khan
Successor: Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto
Chief of the Army Staff
Tenure Order: 5th Chief of the Army Staff
Term in Office: 1969 – 1971
Predecessor: Gen. Musa Khan
Successor: Gen. Gul Hasan

Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan (February 4 1917August 10 1980) was the President of Pakistan from 1969 to 1971, following the resignation of Ayub Khan.


Pre-independence career

Yahya Khan was born in Peshawar in 1917 to a family of soldiers. He attended Punjab University and finished first in his class. He then joined the British Army, and served in World War II as an officer in the British Indian 4th Division. He served in Iraq, Italy, and North Africa.

Yahya was a Qizilbash commissioned from Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun on 15 July 1939. An infantry officer from the 4/10 Baluch Regiment, Yahya saw action during WW 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.

Career before becoming Chief of Army Staff (COAS)

In 1947 he was instrumental in not letting the Indian officers shift books from the famous library of the British Indian Staff College at Quetta, where Yahya was posted as the only Muslim instructor at the time of partition of India.

Upon the formation of Pakistan, Khan helped set up an officer's school in Quetta, and commanded an infantry division during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. Immediately after the 1965 war Major General Yahya Khan who had commanded the 7th Division in Operation Grand Slam was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, appointed Deputy Army C in C and C in C designate in March 1966.

Yahya became a brigadier at the age of 34 and commanded the 106 Infantry Brigade, which was deployed on the ceasefire line in Kashmir in 1951-52. Later Yahya as Deputy Chief of General Staff was selected to head the army’s planning board set up by Ayub to modernise 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 an infantry division from 1962 to 1965.

As Chief of Army Staff (COAS)

Yahya energetically started reorganising the Pakistan Army in 1965. Today this has been forgotten while Yahya is repeatedly condemned for only his negative qualities. The post 1965 situation saw major organisational as well as technical changes in the Pakistan Army. Till 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 headquarter (i.e. the 1st Corps Headquarters).

Soon after the war had started the USA had imposed an embargo on military aid on 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 i.e. 2nd Corps Headquarters (Jhelum-Ravi Corridor) and 4th Corps Headquarters (Ravi-Sutlej Corridor) were raised.

In the 1965 War India had not attacked East Pakistan which was defended by a weak two-infantry brigade division (14 Division) without any tank support. Yahya correctly appreciated that the geographical as well as operational situation demanded an entirely independent command set up in East Pakistan. 14 Division’s infantry strength was increased and a new tank regiment was raised and stationed in East Pakistan. A new Corps Headquarters was raised in East Pakistan and was designated as Headquarters Eastern Command. It was realised by the Pakistani GHQ that the next war would be different and East Pakistan badly required a new command set up.


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 he handed over power to Yahya Khan, who immediately instituted martial law. Once Ayub handed over power to Yahya Khan on 25 March 1969 Yahya inherited a two-decade constitutional problem of inter-provincial ethnic rivalry between the Punjabi-Pathan-Mohajir 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. Herein lies the key to Yahya’s dilemma. 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, drafter of 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. All these were complex problems and the seeds of Pakistan Army’s defeat and humiliation in December 1971 lay in the fact that Yahya Khan blundered unwittingly into the thankless task of cleaning dirt in Pakistan’s political and administrative system which had been accumulating for 20 years and had its actual origins in the pre-1947 British policies towards the Bengali Muslims.

The American author 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 judgements”.

Missing image
Last President of a United Pakistan Yahya Khan with President Richard Nixon of USA

Yahya Khan, sincerely 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
  • 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 lead 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 the rise of anti West Wing sentiment in the East Wing.

Yahya announced in his broadcast to the nation on 28 July 1969, his firm intention to redress Bengali grievances, the first major step in this direction being, the doubling of Bengali quota in the defence services. It may be noted that at this time there were just Seven infantry battalions of the East Pakistanis. Yahya’s announcement, although made with the noblest and most generous intentions in mind, was late by about twenty years. Yahya’s intention to raise more pure Bengali battalions was opposed by Major General Khadim Hussain Raja, the General Officer Commanding 14 Division in East Pakistan suggesting that the Bengalis were "too meek".

Within a year he had set up a framework for elections that were held in December of 1970.The results of the elections saw Pakistan split into its Eastern and Western halves. In East Pakistan, the Awami League (led by Mujibur Rahman) held almost all of the seats, but none in West Pakistan. In West Pakistan, the Pakistan Peoples Party (led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto) won the lion's share of the seats, but none in East Pakistan. This led to a situation where one of the leaders of the two parties would have to give up power and allow the other to be Prime Minister of Pakistan. The situation also increased agitation, especially in East Pakistan.

Yahya Khan was unable to reach a compromise, and instead cracked down on the political agitation in East Pakistan. This led to a civil 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, and this was to lead Khan to step down. After Pakistan was defeated in 1971, most of the blame was heaped on Yahya and his drinking, disregarding the fact that Yahya was merely the tip of the iceberg.

Sultan Khan who served as Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary with Yahya during the fateful year of 1971 noted at many places in his memoirs that most Pakistani generals thought that the Pakistani soldier was more martial and would somehow emerge successfully through the East Pakistan War. Gul Hasan, Sultan thus noted, was one of them and firmly believed in the power of bayonet to solve all problems.The tragedy is that after the war all the blame was heaped on Yahya and the fact that the whole elite plus all those who mattered who were under influence of highly irrational ideas, was deliberately suppressed. To this day in presentations and studies carried out in Pakistan Army schools and colleges of instruction, Yahya is made the scapegoat for the entire 1971 fiasco.

Character as an officer

Yahya was from a reasonably well to do family, had a Grammar school education and was directly commissioned as an officer. He was respected in the officer corps for professional competence.

Yahya was a hard drinking soldier approaching the scale of Mustafa Kemal of Turkey and had a reputation of not liking teetotallers. Yahya liked courtesans but his passion had more to do with listening to them sing or watching them dance (His affair with Pakistan's most legendary singer Noor Jehan was quite scandalous at its time). Thus he did not have anything of Ataturk’s practical womanising traits. Historically speaking many great military commanders like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Eftikhar Khan and General Grant were accused of debauchery and womanising. These personal habits still did not reduce their personal efficiency and all of them are remembered in military history as great military commanders.

General Gul Hasan Khan who served with Yahya in the General Headquarters in the early 1960s described Yahya as "professionally competent" and as a man of few words who always approached the point at issue without ceremony. Muqeem described Yahya as "authoritarian by nature" and "reserved by temperament". Major General Sher Ali under whom Yahya served, assessed Yahya as an officer of the "highest calibre". Shaukat Riza writing as recently as 1986 described Yahya as a good soldier, as a commander distinguished for his decision making and generous nature and one who gave his total trust to a man whom he accepted as part of his team or a colleague.

At least in 1966-69, Yahya was definitely viewed as a professional in the army. His shortcomings in functioning as the Supreme Commander that became evident in the 1971 war could not have been known to anyone in 1966. No evidence exists, but it appears that Yahya’s sect and ethnicity may have played a part in Ayub’s decision to select Yahya as C in C. Musa writes in his memoirs that Yahya was not his first choice as Army C in C but was selected by Ayub overruling Musa’s reservations about Yahya’s character. This further proves that Ayub selected Yahya as the army chief for reasons other than merit. Not that Yahya was incompetent, but merely the fact that Ayub was motivated by ulterior reasons to select Yahya. Altaf Gauhar, Ayub’s close confidant inadvertently proves this fact. He described Yahya as one " selected…in preference to some other generals, because Yahya, who had come to hit the bottle hard, had no time for politics and was considered a harmless and loyal person".

Conclusion and Aftermath

In Pakistan, Mr Jinnah the politician-statesmen who created Pakistan almost single-handedly, as the country’s first Head of State, adopted a sensible policy, to make the army a national army. Jinnah ordered immediate raising of two infantry battalions of Bengali Muslims in 1948 reversing the anti Bengali policy of the pre-1947 British colonial government. Jinnah’s far-sighted and just policy of bringing Bengalis in the fighting arms of the Pakistan Army was discontinued by General Ayub Khan who was the first Pakistani Muslim C in C of the Pakistan Army and became the Army Chief in January 1951.

Yahya paid for the sins of all that ruled Pakistan from 1951 to 1969. The failure of 1971 was not an individual's failure but failure of a system with flawed constitutional, geographic, philosophic and military organisational and conceptual foundations.

Later anger over its humiliating defeat by India boiled into street demonstrations throughout Pakistan, rumors of an impending coup d'état by younger army officers against the government of President Mohammed Agha Yahya Khan swept the country. Yahya became the highest-ranking casualty of the war: to forestall further unrest, he hastily surrendered his powers to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, age 43, the ambitious leader of West Pakistan's powerful People's Party. On the same day that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto released Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and saw him off to London, Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in a supreme irony, ordered the house arrest of his predecessor, Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan, the man who imprisoned Mujib in the first place. Both actions produced headlines round the world. But in Pakistan they were almost overshadowed by what Bhutto grandly called "the first steps toward an economic and social revolution." Yahya Khan died in August 1980, in Rawalpindi.

Preceded by:
Gen. Musa Khan
Chiefs of Army Staff, Pakistan
Succeeded by:
Gen. Gul Hasan
Preceded by:
Ayub Khan
President of Pakistan
Succeeded by:
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto

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