Military Wiki
Yahya Khan
3rd President of Pakistan

In office
25 March 1969 – 20 December 1971
Prime Minister Nurul Amin
Preceded by Ayub Khan
Succeeded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Minister of Foreign Affairs

In office
5 April 1969 – 20 December 1971
Prime Minister Nurul Amin
Preceded by Mian Arshad Hussain
Succeeded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Minister of Defence

In office
5 April 1969 – 20 December 1971
Prime Minister Nurul Amin
Preceded by Afzal Rahman Khan
Succeeded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Chief of Army Staff

In office
18 June 1966 – 20 December 1971
Deputy Abdul Hamid Khan
Preceded by Muhammad Musa
Succeeded by Gul Hassan Khan
Personal details
Born (1917-02-04)4 February 1917
Chakwal, Punjab, British India
(now in Punjab, Pakistan)[1]
Died 10 August 1980(1980-08-10) (aged 63)
Rawalpindi, Punjab, Pakistan
Political party Independent
Domestic partner Akleem Akhtar
Alma mater United States Army Command and General Staff College
Religion Islam
Military service
Allegiance  British Raj
Service/branch  British Indian Army
 Pakistan Army
Years of service 1939–1971
Rank US-O10 insignia.svg General
Unit 10th Battalion, Baloch Regiment (PA – 98)
Commands 111th Infantry Brigade
Deputy Chief of General Staff
Chief of General Staff
14th Infantry Division
15th Infantry Division
Deputy Chief of Army Staff
Chief of Army Staff
Battles/wars World War II
Indo-Pakistani War of 1965
Indo-Pakistani War of 1971
Awards Hilal-e-Pakistan

Agha Yahya Khan (Urdu: آغا محمد یحیی خان; February 4, 1917 – August 10, 1980), was a four-star general officer and politician who served as the 3rd President of Pakistan from 1969 until East Pakistan's secession to Bangladesh in 1971, and Pakistan's defeat in the Indo-Pakistani war of the same year.[2] Serving with distinction in World War II as a British Indian Army officer, Yahya opted for Pakistan in 1947 and became one of the earliest senior local officers in its army. After helping conduct Operation Grand Slam during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, Yahya was made the army's Commander-in-Chief in 1966. Appointed to succeed him by outgoing president Ayub Khan in 1969, Yahya dissolved the government and declared martial law for the second time in Pakistan's history.[2] He held the country's first free and fair elections in 1970, which saw Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League party in East Pakistan win the majority vote. Pressured by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose party had won in West Pakistan but had far less votes, Yahya delayed handing over power to Mujib. As civil unrest erupted all over East Pakistan, Yahya initiated Operation Searchlight to quell the rebellion.[3]

With reports of widespread atrocities by the Pakistan Army against Bengali civilians, and counter-killings of Biharis and suspected Pakistani sympathisers by the Mukti Bahini insurgency,[3] the crisis grew deeper under Yahya. In December 1971, regional tensions escalated into the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, with neighbouring India intervening on the side of the Bengali fighters.[4] Pakistan was defeated on 16 December 1971, with 93,000 of its army officers in Dhaka turning prisoners-of-war, and East Pakistan seceding to become Bangladesh. Yahya handed over the presidency to Bhutto and stepped down as army chief in disgrace.[5]

As the new president, Bhutto stripped Yahya of all previous military decorations and placed him under house arrest for most of the 1970s.[5] When Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup in 1977, Yahya was released by General Fazle Haq.[2] He died in 1980.[6] He is viewed largely negatively by Pakistani historians, and is considered among the least successful of the country's leaders.[7]

Early life

Yahya Khan was born on 4 February 1917 in Chakwal, in what is now Pakistan. His family descended from the elite soldier class of Nader Shah of Khorasan,[8] who are said to have belonged to the Qizilbash militant group.[9][page needed] Khan is described as a Pathan.

Few Pakistanis knew anything about Yahya Khan when he was vaulted into the presidency two years ago. The stocky, bushy-browed Pathan had been army chief of staff since 1966.[10]


Army career

Khan was commissioned into the Indian Army and served with distinction in World War II, seeing active service in the 4th Infantry Division in the North Africa, Middle East, and Mediterranean theatres of the war, including Iraq, Italy, and North Africa.[2]

Career before becoming commander-in-chief

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 miserably commanded the 7th Division in Operation Grand Slam to utter disgust (since the change of command from a successfully advancing Maj. General Akhtar Hussain Malik had resulted in a shameful retreat from Akhnoor river bridge) was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, appointed Deputy Army Commander in Chief and Commander in Chief designate in March 1966. At promotion, Yahya Khan superseded two of his seniors, Lt Gen Altaf Qadir and Lt Gen Bakhtiar Rana.[11]

President of Pakistan

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 on 25 March 1969. In his first nationwide address, Yahya reimposed martial law, saying, "I will not tolerate disorder. Let everyone remain at his post."

The last days of Pakistani East Bengal

Within a year of 28 July 1969 he had set up a framework for elections that were held in December 1970. 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. Though Mujib had 162 seats in the National Assembly and Bhutto had 88 of PPP. The election results truly reflected the ugly political reality: the division of the Pakistani electorate along regional lines and political polarization of the country between the two wings, East and West Pakistan. In political terms, therefore, Pakistan as a nation stood divided as a result. Bhutto and Mujib were unable to come to an agreement on the transfer of power from to East Pakistan on the basis of this Six-Point Program. Many felt that the 6 points were a step towards secession. It since emerged that Mujib met Indian diplomats in London according to his daughter in 1969 from where he agreed to secede from Pakistan [12]

Yahya Khan ordered a crack down to restore the writ of the government. Operation Searchlight began on 25 March 1971 and extremely worsend order. However, the gulf between the two wings now was too wide to be bridged. Agitation now transformed into a vicious insurgency as Bengali elements of Pakistani armed Forces and Police mutinied and formed Bangladesh Forces along with common people of all classes to launch both conventional and hit and run operations.[citation needed]

Operation Searchlight ordered by Yahya was a planned military pacification carried out by the Pakistan Army to curb the Bengali nationalist movement in erstwhile East Pakistan in March 1971[13] Ordered by the government in West Pakistan, this was seen as the sequel to Operation Blitz which had been launched in November 1970.

The original plan envisioned taking control of the major cities on 26 March 1971, and then eliminating all opposition, political or military,[14] within one month. The prolonged Bengali resistance was not anticipated by Pakistani planners.[15] The main phase of Operation Searchlight ended with the fall of the last major town in Bengali hands in mid May.

The total number of people killed in East Pakistan is not known with any degree of accuracy. Bangladeshi authorities claim that 3 million people were killed,[16] while the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, an official Pakistan Government investigation, put the figure as low as 26,000 civilian casualties.[17] According to Sarmila Bose, between 50,000 and 100,000 combatants and civilians were killed by both sides during the war.[18] A 2008 British Medical Journal study by Ziad Obermeyer, Christopher J. L. Murray, and Emmanuela Gakidou estimated that up to 269,000 civilians died as a result of the conflict; the authors note that this is far higher than a previous estimate of 58,000 from Uppsala University and the Peace Research Institute, Oslo.[19] According to Serajur Rahman, the official Bangladeshi estimate of "3 lahks" (300,000) was wrongly translated into English as 3 million.[20]

Khan arrested Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on charges of Sedition and appointed Brigadier Rahimuddin Khan (later General) to preside over a special tribunal dealing with Mujib's case. Rahimuddin awarded Mujib the death sentence,[citation needed] and President Yahya put the verdict into abeyance. Yahya's crackdown, however, had led to a Bangladesh Liberation 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. Khan subsequently apologised for his mistakes and voluntarily stepped down.

The US role

As President, Khan helped to establish the communication channel between the United States and the People's Republic of China, which would be used to set up the Nixon trip in 1972.[21]

Pakistan was perceived in the United States as an integral bulwark against Communism in the Cold War. The United States cautiously supported Pakistan during 1971 although congress kept in place an arms embargo.[22] India, with a heavily Socialistic economy, signed a formal alliance with the Soviet Union in August 1971. Moreover, noting that India was using the violence committed by all sides during this Pakistani civil war as a pretext for a possible military intervention, they suspected that India had aggressive intentions.[23]

Kissinger would work to prevent sectarian conflicts in Yemen and Lebanon from devolving into regional wars under Presidents Nixon and Ford. With the Soviet Union already covertly engaged in neighbouring Afghanistan, the Nixon administration used Pakistan to try to deter further Soviet encroachment in the region.[citation needed] Nixon relayed messages to Yahya, urging him to restrain Pakistani forces.[24] His objective was to prevent a war and safeguard Pakistan's interests, though he feared an Indian invasion of West Pakistan that would lead to Indian domination of the sub-continent and strengthen the position of the Soviet Union.[25] Similarly, Yahya Khan feared that an independent Bangladesh could lead to the disintegration of Pakistan. Indian military support for Bengali guerillas led to war between India and Pakistan.[26]

Nixon met with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and did not believe her assertion that she would not invade Pakistan;[27] he did not trust her and once referred to her as an "old witch".[28] Kissinger maintained that Nixon made specific proposals to Gandhi on a solution for the crisis, some of which she heard for the first time; for example, mutual withdrawal of troops from the Indo-East Pakistan borders. Nixon also expressed a wish to fix a time limit with Yahya for political accommodation in East Pakistan. Nixon asserted that India could count on US endeavours to ease the crisis within a short time. But, both Kissinger and Gandhi aide Jayakar maintained, Gandhi did not respond to these proposals. Kissinger noted that she "listened to what was in fact one of Nixon's better presentations with aloof indifference" but "took up none of the points." Jayakar pointed out that Gandhi listened to Nixon "without a single comment, creating an impregnable space so that no real contact was possible." She also refrained from assuring that India would follow Pakistan's suit if it withdrew from India's borders. As a result, the main agenda was "dropped altogether."[29] On 3 December, Yahya preemptively attacked the Indian Air Force and Gandhi retaliated, pushing into East Pakistan.[30] Nixon issued a statement blaming Pakistan for starting the conflict and blaming India for escalating it[30] because he favored a cease-fire.[31] The United States was secretly encouraging the shipment of military equipment from Iran, Turkey, and Jordan to Pakistan, reimbursing those countries[32] despite Congressional objections.[33] The US used the threat of an aid cut-off to force Pakistan to back down, while its continued military aid to Islamabad prevented India from launching incursions deeper into the country. A cease fire was reached on 16 December, leading to the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh.[34] Sheikh Mujib led the newly established People's Republic of Bangladesh as a one-party, dictatorial state.

The US remained hostile to the Mujib regime, and considered Mujib to be a demagogue. His government's mismanagement of food supplies caused a famine in Bangladesh from March to December 1974, leading to the death of more than one million people. During this famine, the United States objected to Bangladesh's exports of jute to Cuba, and Mujib refused US humanitarian aid for some time. By the time Mujib agreed to end support for Cuba, and the US began shipments of food to Bangladesh, it was "too late for famine victims".[35] The US claims that Mujib's regime committed widespread human rights violations and tortured and executed thousands of dissidents. Nixon and Kissinger argued that these atrocities were far worse than anything Pakistan had committed in Bangladesh.[23]

Fall from power

Later overwhelming public anger over Pakistan's defeat by Bangladeshi rebels and the Indian Army, and the division of Pakistan into two parts boiled into street demonstrations throughout West Pakistan. Rumours 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, on 20 December 1971 he handed over power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, age 43, the ambitious leader of West Pakistan's powerful People's Party.

Shortly after Yahya Khan stepped down, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reversed Rahimuddin Khan's verdict, released Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and saw him off to London. As Pakistani President, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto 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.


Yahya Khan died on 10 August 1980 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

Personal life

He was known as a heavy drinker, with a preference for whiskey. Khan's close friend and domestic partner during his reign was Akleem Akhtar, otherwise known as General Rani (General's Queen).[36]

  • List of Pakistani heads of state or government


  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Tory of Pakistan:Editorial. "Yahya Khan". June 01, 2003. Story of Pakistan Foundation. Retrieved 7 January 2012. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Shaikh Aziz. "A chapter from history: Yahya Khan’s quick action". Dawn Newspapers, December 25, 2011. Dawn Newspapers, December 25, 2011. Retrieved 7 January 2012. 
  4. Press Release. "". Story of Pakistan, Final years. Retrieved 7 January 2012. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Press Release. "Zulfikar Ali Bhutto becomes President [1971"]. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto becomes President [1971]. 
  6. Ahmed, Munir (2001). "خان کی کہانی ان کے بیٹے علی یحٰیی کی زبانی" (in Urdu). جنرل محمد یحٰیی خان: شخصیت و سیاسی کردار. Lahore, Pakistan: آصف جاوید برائے نگارشات پبلشرز. p. 240. 
  7. Yahya Khan considered major villain within the country - Story of Pakistan
  8. Encyclopædia Britannica, Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan
  9. Democracy, security, and development in India. By Raju G. C. Thomas.
  10. Time Good Soldier Yahya Khan
  11. Brig A.R. Siddiqui. "Army's top slot: the seniority factor" Dawn, 25 April 2004
  13. Sarmila Bose Anatomy of Violence: Analysis of Civil War in East Pakistan in 1971: Military Action: Operation Searchlight Economic and Political Weekly Special Articles, 8 October 2005
  14. Salik, Siddiq, Witness To Surrender, p63, p228-9 id = ISBN 984-05-1373-7
  15. Pakistan Defence Journal, 1977, Vol 2, p2-3
  16. White, Matthew, Death Tolls for the Major Wars and Atrocities of the Twentieth Century
  17. Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report, chapter 2, paragraph 33
  18. Jack, Ian, "It's not the arithmetic of genocide that's important. It's that we pay attention", The Guardian, May 20, 2011.
  19. Obermeyer, Ziad, et al., "Fifty years of violent war deaths from Vietnam to Bosnia: analysis of data from the world health survey programme", British Medical Jornal, June 2008.
  20. Rahman, Serajur, "Mujib's confusion on Bangladeshi deaths", Letters, The Guardian, May 23, 2011.
  21. Kissinger's Secret Trip to China
  22. Mosleh Uddin. "Personal Prejudice Makes Foreign Policy". Retrieved 2011-03-28. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 "RICHARD NIXON TAPES: Henry Kissinger on Indians & Vietnam Bombings". YouTube. 26 December 1971. Retrieved 2011-03-28. 
  24. Black, Conrad (2007), p. 751.
  25. "The Kissinger Tilt". Time. 17 January 1972.,9171,877618-2,00.html. Retrieved 30 September 2008. 
  26. "World: Pakistan: The Ravaging of Golden Bengal". TIME. 2 August 1971.,8816,878408,00.html. Retrieved 2011-03-28. 
  27. Black, Conrad (2007), p. 752
  28. Chowdhury, Debasish Roy (23 June 2005). "'Indians are bastards anyway'". Asia Times. Retrieved 4 May 2009. 
  29. Jayakar, Indira Gandhi, p. 232; Kissinger, White House Years, pp. 878 & 881–82.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Black, Conrad (2007), p. 753.
  31. Black, Conrad (2007), p. 755.
  32. Black, Conrad (2007), p. 756.
  33. Gandhi, Sajit (16 December 2002). "The Tilt: The U.S. and the South Asian Crisis of 1971". National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 79. National Security Archive. Retrieved 15 January 2009. 
  34. Black, Conrad (2007), p. 757.
  35. "Opinion: Devinder Sharma – Famine as commerce". Retrieved 2011-03-28. 
  36. "Fakhar-e-Alam: Actor, VJ and Singer". Pakistan Herald. Gibralter Information Technologies. 


  • Conrad Black (2008) [2007]. Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. New York, NY: PublicAffairs. ISBN 9781586486747. 

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
Sher Ali Khan Pataudi
Chief of General Staff
Succeeded by
Malik Sher Bahadur
Preceded by
Muhammad Musa
Chief of Army Staff
Succeeded by
Gul Hassan Khan
Political offices
Preceded by
Ayub Khan
President of Pakistan
Succeeded by
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Chief Martial Law Administrator
Preceded by
Mian Arshad Hussain
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Preceded by
Afzal Rahman Khan
Minister of Defence

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