The Mysterious Plane Crash That Changed Pakistan

The Mysterious Plane Crash That Changed Pakistan

By Maroosha Muzaffar

Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan in 1983.
Sourcey Chip HIRES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty


It took an unexplained air disaster to help this South Asian country shift from dictatorship to democracy.

By Maroosha Muzaffar

The Pakistani Air Force plane had been in the air less than five minutes when it exploded on Aug. 17, 1988, killing all 30 passengers, including Pakistan’s president, a U.S. ambassador and the systems of power that had been ruling Pakistan for 11 years. 

President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, 64, was returning from Bahawalpur, almost 400 miles south of the capital city, Islamabad, where he’d been paying his respects to a recently deceased American nun. With him on the plane were the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel, and the top American military adviser to the region, Gen. Herbert M. Wassom. Most of Zia’s top commanders were also killed.

Within hours, Ghulam Ishaq Khan — then leader of Pakistan’s Senate — admitted that “sabotage cannot be ruled out.” Doubts about the plane crash multiplied with time: A government probe suggested it was an act of sabotage but couldn’t pinpoint an actual culprit. The Pentagon rejected mechanical malfunction as a cause: The U.S.-made, four-engine turboprop aircraft had an outstanding performance and safety record.


The site of Zia-ul-Haq’s plane crash.

Source Robert Nickelsberg/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Three decades later, there is still no conclusive evidence as to what happened. Those accused of orchestrating the assassination include the Soviet Union, India, the CIA and Zia’s enemies in Pakistan. British journalist Simon Henderson theorized that the pilot of the C-130 aircraft, Mash’ood Hassan, may have held Zia responsible for the killing of a local religious leader. There are other theories: That there was a bomb on the plane that went off midair. While we may never know exactly what happened, one thing is uncontested about Zia’s death: It changed the future of Pakistan forever. 

“His death paved the way for the restoration of democracy and elections in December that year,” says Raza Ahmad Rumi, a Pakistani policy analyst, journalist and author. Since 1977, Zia had ruled Pakistan as a military dictatorship. He encouraged Islamist groups, revised textbooks to focus more on religion and shaped modern Pakistan in ways no leader has before or since. But with his death, Pakistan got a shot at something else: It got a real vote. 


Zia had come to power via a military coup, deposing and detaining Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was tried and executed in 1978, and Zia became the Reagan administration’s most important ally in the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. According to Rumi, Zia’s foreign policy choices — including his “blind adherence” to America’s Cold War agenda in Afghanistan and increased acceptance of Saudi Arabia’s influence — continue to influence the country today. Zia’s sympathies for the Afghan war meant Pakistan was training mujahedeen for Afghanistan and supporting anti-Shia militias. That, Rumi explains, gave rise to a modern jihadi ideology that continues to spawn radicals today.

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Arnold Raphel, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.

During his regime, Zia brought in Islamization of Pakistan’s laws, changing the constitution and mandating that school textbooks emphasize hypernationalist rhetoric and religious identity. He amended the penal code, making the death penalty a legal punishment for blasphemy and lashes the price of an adultery conviction. Zia increased the power of Pakistan’s religious authorities and nominated ulemas, Islamic religious figures, for key positions. “He left his mark almost in every field of public life,” Rumi explains. “Nonparty elections became the norm, where voting was done around strong personalities instead of party ideology.” 

Most parties boycotted the election held under Zia in 1985, and the 1988 election is considered to be the return of democratic voting to Pakistan. So who did the people choose? Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of former Prime Minister Bhutto, who won the election by a margin of over 8 percent on a platform of liberal secularism. She held power for just two years before she was dismissed by the president of Pakistan in August of 1990 on charges of corruption and mismanagement. Nawaz Sharif won the next elections, held in October 1990. Bhutto was elected again in 1993. Bhutto lifted the ban on trade unions that Zia had placed in the country and ensured the release of political prisoners who’d been detained under Zia’s regime. 

Not everyone blames Zia. “I would describe Zia as one of the most seminal figures in Pakistan’s political history,” says Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “He is considered a leader that put Pakistan on a path to becoming an unwelcome place for religious minorities and a welcome place for religious radicals.” Kugelman explains that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto outlawed the Muslim Ahmadi sect, claiming they were heretics. Bhutto, he believes, laid the groundwork that Zia simply completed — and thus Zia’s credited with seismic legal and political shifts for which he’s not entirely responsible.

“It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who began Pakistan’s jihad in Afghanistan,” explains C. Christine Fair, political scientist and associate professor at Georgetown University. Bhutto, she points out, was the one to ban alcohol and gambling, the one to introduce Arabic in public schools. “I think this tendency to over-attribute everything to Zia is wrong,” she says.

But three decades after the crash, Pakistan still feels the effects of Zia’s regime. His fundamentalist approach to Islam is widely believed to be responsible for introducing the deep-rooted Islamization in Pakistan that still continues today, as does the overwhelming influence of the military and a tradition of political assassinations. Benazir Bhutto herself was killed in a bomb attack in 2007.