Abbottabad, Pakistan — The Hindu Kush mountains soar in all directions, giving the house and its occupant a Swiss-style setting. The sprawling pine-and-glass structure is alpine in look. The man, dressed in a tweed sports jacket and colorful ascot, could have just returned from a royal hunt. The appearances are deceptive.
Retired Air Marshal Asghar Khan, the first Pakistani to command his country's Air Force, is a military man -- yet three military rulers have tried to woo him to support their regimes, and three military rulers have failed.
He has been called a ``king breaker,'' intimately involved in all of the major street agitations that have led to the beginning of three and end of two protracted periods of martial law.
He is a pacifist, yet violence has often ripped his country apart.
He is now a highly respected politician. Like Pakistan's other party leaders, he called for a boycott of last month's parliamentary election. Yet his followers voted, and soundly trounced President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq's minister of power, Raja Sikandar Zaman.
``They are a spent cartridge,'' said President Zia of his country's political leaders after their boycott call was ignored. They indeed appeared to have been outflanked by the master military tactician in an ongoing psychological war. Yet for Asghar Khan the battle to restore democracy and human rights has only begun.
``The voters sent General Zia two distinct messages in this election,'' said Air Marshal Khan in an interview on his sweeping lawn. ``They opposed his program of Islamization [by defeating those who championed a militant Islam] and, by trouncing nearly his entire government, they were clearly expressing their distaste with General Zia's concept of power, and a government of martial law.''
Below us, the evidence of military rule: a series of Army pup tents at the edge of Khan's three-acre estate. The Army had taken over an acre of his land.
Khan's father, a retired brigadier in the British Kashmir Army, ``brought the family across'' when Pakistan was carved out of British India 37 years ago. Khan was a flying instructor in what is now India's Punjab Province. He had been married for under two years to Amina Shamsi, a Muslim from New Delhi.
Amina says she and Asghar knew they wouldn't stay in India. ``He always spoke of Pakistan as a state where we could live freely, practice our religion freely. . . . He was an idealist even then,'' she says.
So the Asghar Khans, along with Khan's nine brothers, all military men, rebuilt the family estate in Abbottabad in the Northwest Frontier Province. It was burned during the rule of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was overthrown by Zia in 1977. The new house had only just been finished when Khan was placed under house arrest. He stayed there for five years, and was released last October.
What was his offense? Khan was convinced that Zia would hold elections in 1979 -- so convinced that he defied the political elite and announced his moderate Tehrik-i-Istiqlal party would take part.
``In this very room, Zia put his hand on his heart, and looked me in the eyes and said, `It is my promise to you as a Muslim and a soldier that the elections will be held on time. If they're not, you have my permission to call me a liar and a hypocrite.' ''
``I did,'' Khan says, ``and was smartly locked up for the next five years.''
It was here that Pakistan's political leaders met on Jan. 18 and 19. They decided not to participate in the elections, and launched their boycott. ``After much debate, we finally came to the conclusion,'' Khan says, ``that if we took part, and became part of the system, it would strengthen Zia's hand, and the day of deliverance would be further delayed.''
Although the voters ignored the politicians' boycott, there are few in this volatile nation who view the politicians as a spent political factor. Yet to keep them isolated, Zia must prove wrong their charge that his new legislature is merely a veneer for the continuation of martial law.
Khan scoffs at the notion of Pakistan's being converted into a ``front-line state,'' a buffer between the Soviets in Afghanistan and an American sphere of influence beyond, stretching to the Persian Gulf.
``When Washington calls us a buffer,'' the pro-Western air marshal says, ``does it really think this country can fight off the Soviets? The Afghans? The Indians? Absolutely not. We do not have the capacity, and the United States doesn't have the will to become involved in any military incursion in this part of the world.''
``But,'' he continues, ``it's convenient for the United States to use Pakistan this way. The F-16s that they've sent us are for the generals. Like little boys playing with toys. . . .''
The telephone rings. Is he about to be arrested? No, it is a false alarm.
Why is he still at liberty?
His eyes twinkle. ``Perhaps they're giving me enough rope to hang myself.''