Zia ul-Haq was born into a middle-class family in 1924 in India. After completing his education at home, he enrolled at St. Stephen’s College in India.
Choosing a career in the British army, he joined the Royal Indian Military Academy and then served with British troops in Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia during the latter part of World War II.
After the partition of India into India and Pakistan in 1947, Zia joined the Pakistani army.
He attended two military schools in the United States which included Fort Knox in 1959 and the U.S. CGSS at Fort Leavenworth in 1963.
Zia was on active duty in Kashmir during the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, and after it he was promoted to colonel.
In 1969 he was made a brigadier, and for two years he was adviser to the Royal Jordanian Army in their conflict with Palestinian guerrillas.
Under the government of Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto, Zia advanced rapidly within the army ranks.
In 1975 he was promoted to lieutenant-general and in 1976 was appointed as army chief of staff, chosen over several more senior officers.
But Bhutto underestimated Zia. Accusations by opposition leaders that the prime minister’s party had manipulated the results of the March 1977 parliamentary elections led to widespread public demonstrations and violence.
The military, headed by Zia, stepped in on July 5, 1977, to impose martial law and deposed Bhutto in a bloodless coup.
Zia suspended the 1973 constitution, dissolved the National Assembly, banned political activity and declared himself president in 1978. He purged politicians associated with Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party.
Bhutto was implicated in a case concerning the assassination of a political opponent’s father, and in April 1979, despite international protests, Zia had him executed.
Bhutto’s execution made Zia unpopular, the economy was in trouble, and in November 1979 Islamists burned the American embassy in Islamabad.
Zia’s days seemed numbered, but on Christmas Eve 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the United States reversed its long opposition to Pakistan and began aiding Zia’s regime to help it fend off Soviet agression.
Zia’s Islamization program tempered criticism of his military regime.
Soviet intervention in Afghanistan resulted in a revival of U.S. strategic interests in the region and in an economic and military aid package of $3.2 billion to Pakistan.
During the conflict, Zia helped smuggle U.S. supplies to the Soviet-backed Afghan rebels and allowed them to operate training bases in Pakistan
In December 1984 Zia abruptly called for a referendum to determine support for his Islamization policies. The referendum passed overwhelmingly, and Zia considered it a mandate to remain as president for another five years.
In 1986 Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the executed president, returned to Pakistan after two years of self-imposed exile and started to organize the opposition.
Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo led efforts to exert more civilian control over the military.
IIn May 1988, Zia fired Junejo and his 33-member cabinet and dissolved the National Assembly.
Bhhutto declared that her Pakistan People’s Party was “ready to go to the people.”
On August 17, 1988, Zia was on a secret mission to a desert area in eastern Pakistan, meeting U.S. Ambassador Arnold Raphel for a demonstration of the M-1 Abrams tank.
With an American military attache and 27 Pakistani advisors, Zia and Raphel boarded a C-130 plane to return to the capital.
Within minutes after takeoff, it exploded, killing everyone aboard. The crash was suspicious.
But Pakistani and American investigators failed to confirm the plane had been bombed.
Experts speculated about which of Zia’s many enemies might have assassinated him.
The Soviet Union, the government of India, Bhutto’s People Party and Zia’s own military all came under suspicion, but no culprit was ever found.