Up to the date of his tragic death on 17th August, 1988 in the plane crash that also killed Gen Zia ul Haq, few people apart from his close family knew Gen Akhtar Abdul Rahman as well as I did. Within Pakistan his name was unknown to the public. Even within the military few appreciated his enormous contribution to the Afghan Jihad. This was partially due to the secretive nature of his job as Director General of ISI from 1979 – 1987, and partially due to his deliberate avoidance of publicity.
The reason for Gen Akhtar’s long tenure in office was his successful direction of the war in Afghanistan. Within the ISI was a specially formed Bureau headed by a Brigadier (myself from the period 1983-87) which was charged with the day to day coordination of the Afghan Jihad. This department controlled the allocation of arms and ammunition, their distribution to Mujahedeen Leaders and Commanders, the training of Mujahedeen in Pakistan, the allocation of funds from the US and Saudi Arabian governments to the Mujahedeen and the strategic planning of operations inside Afghanistan.
At least fifty percent of Gen Akhtar Abdul Rahman’s time was spent on matters related to the war in Afghanistan. Under his leadership the Soviet superpower was beaten in the battlefield. He achieved what most, including the Americans, initially considered impossible. His successes ensured the continuance in office of Gen Zia. He could not afford to lose him during those critical years when the Mujahedeen had to fight armour and aircrafts with rifles and mortars. When Gen Akhtar finally left ISI in March 1987, military victory in Afghanistan was in sight. The Mujahedeen had at long last gotten an effective anti-aircraft weapon, the US Stinger missile, and the Soviets were talking in terms of withdrawal. If any one person could be singled as the architect of this forthcoming victory it was Gen Akhtar.
On meeting General Akhtar one could not fail to be struck by his appearance. He looked a soldier. His physique was stocky and tough, his uniform immaculate, with four rows of medal ribbons denoting service in every campaign in which Pakistan had fought since partition from India in 1947. He had a pale skin, which he proudly attributed to his Afghan ancestry, and carried his years well. He was 64 when he was assassinated but he looked a good ten years younger. He was almost never ill, though his only formal exercise was jogging. He attributed his good health and physical condition to his total abstention from drinking and smoking, moderate eating habits and afternoon naps.
Gen Akhtar was a Punjabi of Pathan descent. Born in Peshawar on 11 June, 1924 he was son of Dr . Abdul Rahman Khan, who spent 30 years as a doctor in the NWFP government service. Unfortunately his father died when Akhtar was only four so the mother took the family back to their native village in the Jullundar area of East Punjab. From then on his upbringing was humble and in many ways hard. His formal education was at MAO College in Amritsar and then at the Government College, Lahore where he obtained a Masters degree in economics in 1945. It was while at University that Akhtar’s sporting skills were developed. He became a champion boxer, wrestler and cyclist, acquiring a reputation for physical strength that was to stay with him throughout his life.
Akhtar joined the Indian Army as an officer cadet in 1946 and was commissioned in 1947, little dreaming that one day he would command a successful guerrilla war against the Russian superpower and as a result would die in an act of sabotage.
With the demise of Gen Zia and Gen Akhtar, the last two Pakistani Army officers who had been commissioned in India were gone. Gen Akhtar fought against India three times before he faced the Soviets in Afghanistan. In 1948, he participated in the Kashmir war of independence. In 1965, Gen Akhtar was second in command of an artillery regiment deployed on the Burki front. He participated in the defence of Lahore and helped drive back the massive Indian attack. The first artillery round was fired at the Indians by this regiment on his orders. In 1971, Gen Akhtar was commanding an artillery brigade that played a significant role in the military successes in Kasur sector. He was given command of an infantry division in Azad Kashmir from 1974 to 1978 and then became ISI Director General in 1979. He was picked for this job personally by President Zia. Before he left on promotion as a Four Star General in early 1987, the signs of victory in the battlefield were visible and before he was assassinated, along with his President, he saw the Soviets in retreat.
(Late Brigadier Muhammad Yousaf served as head of ISI Afghan cell from 1983 to 1987 and in this capacity was very close to Gen Akhtar Abdul Rahman Khan , who was ISI Chief during that period.)