Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, 1920-2016: The end of an era
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For diplomatic old-timers like us, Sahibzada Yaqub Khan was both a legend and a central part of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship we both worked on for years. His death at 95 leaves the world a poorer and less colorful place. We will let others write about his storied career—scion of the princely house of Rampur in central India, lieutenant general in the Pakistan army and several times foreign minister of Pakistan. What we would like to share are some stories that illustrate the talents and high professional standing of the unique gentleman we knew:
A couple of Yaqub’s official visits to Washington provided unforgettable moments. He sometimes had a tough brief. In September 1990, the United States had concluded that Pakistan’s nuclear program had reached the point where the large American assistance program would have to be terminated. Yaqub was dispatched to talk Washington out of the aid cutoff. In his meeting with Secretary of State Baker—Tezi Schaffer was notetaker—he argued his case with skill and style. He never conceded that the United States was correct in its assessment, never quite denied it, but argued what was undoubtedly the point most important to his government: that Pakistan felt its future existence was at stake. The aid cutoff happened despite his best efforts, but he walked out with his reputation intact, along with the respect in which he was held by Washington, and specifically by Baker.
His farewell visit to Lawrence Eagleburger, then deputy secretary of state, displayed the philosopher and the showman, and once again Tezi had a front row seat for the performance. The time was the summer of 1991, and the Soviet Union was coming apart. Yaqub and Eagleburger had compared notes on Russia many times in their long careers, so the subject was a natural. As the meeting participants were taking their seats, the visitor looked at his host and declaimed, “Don’t you think that the real problem is philosophical? China wants Perestroika without Glasnost, and Russia wants Glasnost without Perestroika.” Not to be outdone, Eagleburger had a mini-speech ready too: “I’ve been telling people, we’re going to be nostalgic for the Cold War.”
Howie Schaffer recalls taking notes at two very different meetings between Yaqub and U.S. secretaries of state. The first came during the brief period when General Alexander Haig presided over Foggy Bottom. The Syrian and Israeli air forces had just engaged in a large-scale fire-fight over the Golan Heights, with the Israelis’ F-16s getting much the better of their inept enemies who flew Soviet-made equipment.
The Pakistanis had a love affair with the F-16, which had become for them a potent symbol of Washington’s friendship and support. Secretary Haig no doubt had this in mind when he rhapsodized about how the Israelis had shot the Syrian planes out of the Mideast sky, with little or no damage to their own aircraft. Howie recalls the secretary’s hands moving swiftly as he mimicked the Israeli F-16s winning their devastating victory.
What Secretary Haig seemed to have forgotten was that he was relating to one of the world’s leading Muslim statesmen, and a retired general at that, this tale of the crushing defeat of the air force of an Islamic power by a Zionist state that successive Pakistani governments had never failed to revile as an enemy of their faith. As anyone who knew him would have expected, Sahibzada kept his sophisticated cool during Secretary Haig’s frenzied account.
The strange episode never made its way into the official account of Yaqub’s meeting with Haig, and historians poring over future volumes of “The Foreign Relations of the United States” will find no reference to it there. For this, the credit goes to Nick Veliotes, who as assistant secretary for Near East and South Asia affairs was Howie’s boss and sat in on the conversation. As Howie began to scribble his account of the secretary’s enthusiastic outburst, Veliotes whispered frantically: “For God’s sake don’t write that down.” And he hasn’t, until now.
Howie’s next encounter with the Sahibzada on the seventh floor of the State Department came when James Baker was secretary. By this time, Yaqub’s reputation as a sophisticated and insightful analyst of world affairs had solidified and spread. If diplomatic conversation can be spellbinding, which it rarely is, it was widely agreed that perhaps more than any other practicing foreign policymaker Yaqub could make it so.
Normally, the concerned geographic bureau in the State Department prepares background information for such meetings, along with a list of subjects the visitor might want to discuss, and talking points for the secretary. Howie had learned from sources in the Pakistan Embassy that Yaqub had no particular agenda; he just wanted to offer Secretary Baker his thoughtful views of the state of the world. Under these circumstances, Howie thought there was no particular need to labor over an agenda and talking points that would probably never be used. So he decided to recommend—most unusually—that the department dispense with all the paper work and instead let Yaqub be Yaqub. He was confident that Secretary Baker would likewise be Secretary Baker, and would come away both enlightened and pleased. Howie was surprised when this outlandish approach was approved. He was not at all surprised when the session went off exceedingly well.
One episode from Yaqub’s earlier career was close to our hearts. He had been Pakistan’s military commander in East Pakistan from 1969 until September 1971, during the earlier part of the war that gave birth to an independent Bangladesh. When Howie became U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, we both heard countless “Yaqub stories,” about his sympathetic approach to the Bengalis and of course about his decision to resign when he no longer felt able to carry out his government’s policy. We heard too about his proficiency in Bangla, both from people we met around town and especially from the professor who taught us the language, as he had taught Yaqub a decade-and-a-half earlier.
But the full impact of Yaqub’s role at this terrible and turbulent time only became clear to us a year or so after our arrival in Dhaka. Yaqub, as foreign minister, accompanied President Ziaul Haq to the inaugural meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and both men decided to stay on a couple of days. The understandably frazzled Pakistan ambassador, the late Tanvir Ahmed Khan, was tasked with hosting a reception with no prior notice. It was an enormous affair. The most conspicuous guests were senior Bangladeshi military officers, all of whom had started their careers in the Pakistan army. One officer after another pulled us aside to tell us, sometimes with eyes welling up, where and when he had served “with Sahibzada,” and how much Sahibzada’s honorable stance toward the Bengalis still meant to them.
We had no direct involvement with Yaqub during his six years as Pakistan ambassador in Washington, and were actually stationed in Pakistan at the time of one dramatic episode that illustrated his skill in personal diplomacy. In 1977, the Hanafi Movement, a group of American Muslims who had broken away from the Nation of Islam, took more than 100 people hostage, including children, from three different Washington locations. Yaqub, along with the Egyptian and Iranian ambassadors, undertook to mediate. We had the chance to ask Yaqub about this many years later. He told us his principal approach had been to review with the hostage-takers passages from the Quran that stressed God’s mercy. In the end the hostage-takers surrendered. Two people were killed, but considering the number of hostages, this has to be considered a good day for reason and diplomacy, under excruciating circumstances.
Our first direct professional contact with Yaqub was on a mission where his presence was kept totally discreet. The Soviet army had just invaded Afghanistan, and the Pakistan foreign minister came to Washington to find out what support his country could expect from the U.S. government. Yaqub had just completed his long tenure as ambassador in Washington, but by the time of this mission he was Pakistan’s ambassador in Moscow, which made his presence extraordinarily sensitive. He asked the State Department to make sure he could enter and leave the building without being noticed. One of the Pakistan desk officers was assigned to pick him up at his hotel and bring him in through the basement garage. The desk officer’s car was a particularly ratty old Volkswagen Bug—a most unaccustomed chariot for this most elegant man. Yaqub didn’t bat an eyelash; his presence went publicly unremarked, and privately appreciated by both sides.
After Yaqub retired from public life, we saw him from time to time in Islamabad through Pakistani friends who had worked closely with him during his diplomatic years. Conversations with him were part philosophical tour de force, part grand tour of geopolitics, and part remembrance of a bygone era. He was one of a kind. We shall not see his like again any time soon.