Pakistan's 3 Greatest Leaders of All Time

Let the debate begin.

Pakistan, like India, was created from the partition of British India in 1947. It was founded as a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims from the northwestern and eastern wings of British India where Muslims formed the majority of the population.

Born in fire and blood, Pakistan has had a turbulent history marred by political instability, a civil war, a continuous search for its identity, and hostility with India, which should be happy that it assented to the partition looking back in hindsight.

Yet despite all of Pakistan’s problems, it is to the advantage of all countries, including neighboring India, for Pakistan to succeed and become a prosperous nation that leverages its geopolitical position between the Middle East, China, and India, and its cultural position as a repository of South Asian Islam. The alternative would be a disaster for the region and the world, as a nuclear armed-state of 200 million souls descends into chaos.

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In writing about a country like Pakistan, it is a hard task to determine who its three greatest leaders were. Unlike India, which had a stable political system, Pakistan has often swung from a presidential system to a parliamentary system to military dictatorship. Almost all its leaders, even great ones, had many flaws. Nonetheless, here are the three Pakistani leaders, who did the most to improve Pakistan.

Ayub Khan

Muhammad Ayub Khan came to power in 1958 in the first of Pakistan’s many coups. Though this might condemn him in the eyes of many, his strong hand was necessary for stabilizing the new state, which had entered serious drift after the death of its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 1948 and the assassination of his successor, Liaquat Ali Khan. In fact, his time in power is known as the “Great Decade” of Pakistani history.

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When he came to power in his 1958 coup, Ayub Khan was faced with a disorganized and weak Pakistani state. He took several measures to strengthen the fledgling state. From the perspective of Pakistan’s interests, Ayub Khan got four things right.

First, he aligned Pakistan closely with the United States while also initiating Pakistan’s close relationship with China. This secured its international position and made it relevant globally.

Second, he strengthened Pakistan’s internal political system by creating a new constitution with a strong president (himself) that kept Pakistan’s feudal lobbies in their places. Khan also restrained the impulses of politicians like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (who later become Prime Minister in the 1970s) who wanted Pakistan to take a leftward turn, use Islamism, and be harder on its Bengali majority in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). Khan’s 1962 constitution accepted Bengali as a national language along with Urdu.

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Thirdly, Khan also limited the power of clerics and maintained Pakistan as a relatively secular state. He confined the traditional ulema to their limits and rejected the notion that the constitution needed to be drafted by them.

Finally, Khan focused on Pakistan’s economy and infrastructure. The world’s highest highway, the Karakoram Highway, was built between China and Pakistan during his leadership. Khan focused on promoting industrialization and free-market policies and Pakistan’s GNP grew by 45 percent. He also promoted birth control and the use of interest in banking. Later military adventurism and socialist economic policies hurt Pakistan’s upward economic trajectory.

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Although Khan was a military man, he understood the necessity of development and economics for Pakistan, which became a more religious, garrison state after him. He did make some major mistakes—such attacking Indian Kashmir in 1965 (egged on by Zulfikar Bhutto) under the false hope that China would come to his aid. After Khan, for the next three decades, many of Pakistan’s leaders screwed up their country royally: Yahya Khan who lost Bangladesh, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who destroyed Pakistan’s economy, and military man Zia ul-Haq who Islamized Pakistan and got it entangled in Afghanistan.

Asif Ali Zardari