Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, (Urdu: آغا محمد یحیی خان قزلباش; February 4, 1917 – August 10, 1980), was a senior Army Commander who was the third President of Pakistan, and the military dictator from 1969 until the dissolution of East-Pakistan, in 16 December 1971.
Khan was commissioned into the Indian Army and served with distinction in World War II, seeing active service in the North Africa, Middle East, and Mediterranean theatres of the war. After the war, he opted for Pakistani citizenship and became one of the earliest senior officers in the Pakistan Armed Forces. After Operation Grand Slam during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, Khan was promoted to become one of the Pakistan Army’s top commanders. He was first appointed as Chief Martial Law Administrator on March 20, 1969, succeeding Field Marshal Ayub Khan as military dictator and president on March 29, declaring martial law and dissolving much of the civilian infrastructure, government ministries and appointments, replacing them with military infrastructure and personnel instead.
Initially allied with the United States, Khan took tough strong action against his political rivals and opponents, using the means of repressive force to curb the uprising of 1969 in East Pakistan, and the civil disorder in West Pakistan. In 1970 the Bhola cyclone hit, killing 500,000 people and causing mass chaos. With the growing influence of leftists and democratic socialists, under the leadership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and amid growing public pressure and wide public disapproval of his policies and government, Khan was forced to hold the general election of 1970. The elections sparked the gruesome violence in Pakistan and tension between Awami League and the Pakistan Peoples Party began to rise. To ease off the pressure in East Pakistan, Khan appointed Nurul Amin, a prominent Pakistan Movement activist of Bengali origin, as Vice-president and Prime minister as well, but took the executive power under his control. Pressured by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Khan refused to hand over the powers to the majority party, Awami League and situation in East-Pakistan ran out of government control, prompting Khan to authorised military operations, like Operation Searchlight, in the entire provisional state.
The operations never resulted in success and had ignited a gruesome insurgency that Khan was unable to tackle down with complete force. They also caused the 1971 Bangladesh atrocities to occur. By the end of 1971, Khan soon faced another war with India that lasted less than two weeks. Isolated, and attempting to forestall further unrest, Khan handed over the power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on 16 December 1971, and stepped down as Commander-in-Chief. Soon after falling from military presidency, Bhutto ordered the arrest of Yahya Khan, dishonoring him by withdrawing the military decorations conferred to him by the state, denying him military and government pensions, and placing him under house arrest for the most of the 1970s. Khan was finally released after Bhutto’s death in 1979, by General Fazle Haq, and died on 10 August 1980 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Khan was survived by one son, Agha Ali Yahya and one daughter, Yasmeen Khan.
Yahya Khan was born on 4 February 1917 near Peshawar, in what is now Pakistan. His family descended from the elite soldier class of Nader Shah of Khorasan. Khan is described as an ethnic Pashtun.
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.
It is unknown if his family was Persian and became Pashtunized or if they belonged to the Abdali Pashtun tribe, who were led by Ahmad Shah Durrani during their 1738 occupation of Peshawar.
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.
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.
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 where unable to come to an agreement on 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 
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 Liberationary Forces along with common people of all classes to launch both conventional and hit and run operations.
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 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, within one month. The prolonged Bengali resistance was not anticipated by Pakistani planners. 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, while the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, an official Pakistan Government investigation, put the figure as low as 26,000 civilian casualties. The international media and reference books in English have also published figures which vary greatly from 200,000 to 2,000,000 for Bangladesh as a whole. A further eight to ten million people fled the country to seek safety in India.
The Office of the Historian of the United States Department of State held a two-day conference in late June 2005 on U.S. policy in South Asia between 1961 and 1972. Bangladeshi speakers at the conference stated that the official Bangladeshi figure of civilian deaths was close to 300,000, which was wrongly translated from Bengali into English as three million. Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury acknowledged that Bangladesh alone cannot correct this mistake and suggested Pakistan and Bangladesh should form a joint commission to investigate the 1971 disaster and prepare a report. A 2008 study in the British Medical Journal concluded that 269,000 civilians were killed by all sides in the war.
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, 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.
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. India, with a heavily Socialistic economy, signed a formal alliance with the Soviet Union in August 1971. Both Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger felt that the atrocities committed by Pakistan in Bangladesh were greatly exaggerated for propaganda purposes. 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.
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. The Awami League, the dominant political force in Bangladesh, was an explicitly Socialist party aligned with Moscow.
Nixon relayed messages to Yahya, urging him to restrain Pakistani forces. 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. 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.
Nixon met with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and did not believe her assertion that she would not invade Pakistan; he did not trust her and once referred to her as an “old witch”. 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.” On 3 December, Yahya preemptively attacked the Indian Air Force and Gandhi retaliated, pushing into East Pakistan. Nixon issued a statement blaming Pakistan for starting the conflict and blaming India for escalating it because he favored a cease-fire. The United States was secretly encouraging the shipment of military equipment from Iran, Turkey, and Jordan to Pakistan, reimbursing those countries despite Congressional objections. 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. 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”. 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.
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.
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).