Ghulam Ishaq Khan

'Quiet' president of Pakistan who sacked two prime ministers


Ghulam Ishaq Khan, civil servant and politician: born Ismail Khel, India 20 January 1915; Secretary of Finance 1966-70; Cabinet Secretary 1970; Governor, State Bank of Pakistan 1971-75; Secretary-General, Ministry of Defence 1975-77; Secretary-General-in-Chief, Adviser for Planning and Co-ordination 1977-78; Adviser to Chief Martial Law Administrator 1978; Minister for Finance and Co-ordination 1978-79, for Finance, Commerce and Co-ordination 1979-85; Chairman, Joint Ministerial Committee, Board of Governors of World Bank and IMF 1982-88; Chairman of Senate 1985-88; President of Pakistan 1988-93; married 1950 Shamin Ishaq (one son, five daughters); died Peshawar, Pakistan 27 October 2006.

Ghulam Ishaq Khan was the quiet man of Pakistani politics. Born in an obscure village, he rose through a series of quiet bureaucratic jobs to become President. He had no democratic power base, nor was he a strongman like the generals who periodically seize power in Pakistan. Yet he sacked successive elected prime ministers and at one time was arguably the most powerful man in the country. And he remained quiet to the end, in all probability taking to his grave Pakistan's biggest secret: the truth behind the death of the dictator General Zia ul-Haq.

Khan was deeply involved in the plots and manoeuvrings of Zia's turbulent reign. An economic apparatchik for the general, he was complicit in the political Islamicisation of Pakistan - an upheaval the country is still struggling to emerge from today - and in the quest for the nuclear bomb. At one time, he was even referred to by American diplomats as "Mr Nuke".

And it was Zia's mysterious death in a plane crash that suddenly propelled Khan, who until then had been largely a backroom operator, into the limelight. As Chairman of the Senate, he was constitutionally next in line, and so suddenly found himself President. He oversaw the country's return to democracy, yet he was never democracy's most committed adherent, using the powers Zia had arrogated to the presidency to sack elected governments and overrule their decisions.

He had come a long way. Khan was a Pashtun, the same race who produced the indomitable tribesmen the British never fully conquered - and the Taliban. He was born in a small village in Bannu district of the North-West Frontier Province. It was hardly a hopeful beginning for anyone hoping for political power in Pakistan, which is usually dominated by the upper-class élites of Punjab.

Khan was reportedly something of a prodigy as a child. He joined the civil service at a lowly rank in the NWFP, and rose relentlessly through the ranks. He was federal finance secretary when Bangladesh split from Pakistan in 1971. He became Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, and questioned several of the economic decisions of the powerful prime minister of the time, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. So Khan, by then an economics specialist, was moved to the Ministry of Defence. That proved to be very helpful for him: it put him in direct contact with the generals. And one general in particular: Zia.

When Zia overthrew Bhutto and seized power in a coup, he turned the running of Pakistan's economy over to Khan. Though he held several different titles under Zia, he essentially remained in charge of the economy. Zia was heavily committed to politically Islamicising Pakistan in a far more radical way than it had been before. While Zia was channelling CIA money to the mujahideen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, Khan oversaw changes in the fiscal and banking system that were supposed to Islamicise the economy.

At the same time he became heavily involved in Pakistan's quest for the nuclear bomb, and was close to A.Q. Khan, the now disgraced nuclear scientist who ran Pakistan's successful nuclear programme but sold nuclear technology to rogue states, including North Korea.

When Zia was suddenly killed in 1988 in a plane crash that has never been explained, the generals decided to stick to the constitution, which meant that Khan, who by then was Chairman of the Senate, became President automatically. It is widely believed in Pakistan that he knew the secret behind Zia's death, but, if he did, he never told it. In a strange gesture, he buried Zia inside a mosque paid for with Saudi money - which would not have been in accord with the wishes of the Wahhabi Saudis, who believe grand tombs and monuments are un-Islamic.

Khan oversaw the return to democracy, but he made heavy use of the Eighth Amendment to the Pakistani constitution, introduced by Zia, which gave the President far-reaching powers. Effectively he ruled Pakistan as part of a troika, along with the Prime Minister and the chief of the army staff. He dismissed governments headed by the two most powerful politicians of the day, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, on corruption charges. And he overruled Sharif's nomination as army chief, appointing his own candidate instead.

Eventually his battle for power with Sharif, who got his government reinstated by the Supreme Court, became too much for the military, who had both removed from power. After that Khan lived in retirement in Peshawar, steadfastly refusing to comment on his years in power.

Justin Huggler

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