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The Death of Ambassador Arnold Raphel

U.S. relations with Pakistan have often had a disproportionate importance. In the 1980’s, they were again front and center in U.S. foreign policy as Washington ramped up its support for Afghan mujahedeen in their fight against the USSR. On August 17, 1988, matters took a stunning turn when the plane carrying Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Arnold “Arnie” Raphel, and Brigadier General Herbert M. Wassom mysteriously crashed shortly after takeoff, killing everyone aboard.

Zia had been the leader of Pakistan for 11 years, after deposing Ali Bhutto in a coup and ordering his execution. Since then, Zia had steadily accumulated more and more power to the point where he was essentially the sole ruler of Pakistan. With his sudden death, Pakistan ­­risked a massive power vacuum.

To maintain stability, “diplomatic troubleshooter” Robert B. Oakley was appointed to Pakistan. Because of the nature of the tragedy, time was of the essence. In an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy and Thomas Stern starting July 1992, Oakley recounts his unexpected appointment to the position and his first days on the ground as he helped stabilize bilateral relations and fight off numerous conspiracy theories.

You can read about the execution of Ali Bhutto and Phyllis Oakley’s account of life as a Foreign Service spouse. Go here for other Moments on South Central Asia.


“He wanted me to be on his plane with two suitcases”

OAKLEY: On August 17, 1988, a Pakistani plane carrying, among others, U.S. Ambassador Arnold Raphel and President Zia crashed, killing all aboard. We immediately held an emergency meeting to decide how best to handle the situation. That was chaired by General [Colin] Powell.

One of the conclusions was that an immediate replacement for Arnie Raphel should be nominated and sent at once to ensure that there be no perceived gap which might be interpreted as a weakening of U.S. support for Pakistan. It was important that there be continuity in our activities in Pakistan, to ensure that assistance to the Mujahideen continued, that the Indo-Pakistan relationship did not deteriorate and that internal stability in Pakistan be maintained. Zia had been the sole leader for ten years; he was now gone and we were concerned about what might happen to Pakistan internally.

Some of Arnie’s [State Department] friends — the [Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Michael] Armacosts, the [Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research (INR) Morton] Abramowitzes, the Oakleys and [former Assistant Secretary of State, later Ambassador to the UN] Dick Holbrooke — went to the Palm Restaurant [an upscale establishment in Washington, DC] that evening in a tribute to him.

While there, I got a call from Secretary [George] Shultz from the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. He told me that he was leading the U.S. delegation to Zia’s funeral leaving the following day; he wanted me to be on his plane with two suitcases.

I was not coming back because he and the President [Ronald Reagan] had decided that I would be the next U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan. I said OK — it was a significant challenge, but did create some family problems.

When I returned to the table and told the assembled group what I had just been told, Phyllis asked what that meant for her — she was Shultz’s spokesperson at the time. I told her I didn’t know; she would have to ask the Secretary. The next day she announced to the press that I had been appointed as Ambassador to Pakistan. The whole 24 hours were bizarre because neither Phyllis or I had any idea what fate would bring.

We were apart for six months until Secretary Shultz completed his tour and Phyllis remained as his spokesperson. It was not the first time that Phyllis and I had been separated, but I certainly did not relish the prospect.

I certainly understood the need to replace Arnie as quickly as possible, since Zia’s death had created new conditions on the ground that might have been quite deleterious. We had a big stake in Pakistan, both because of Afghanistan and because Zia had promised to hold elections, which we wanted to take place very badly.

I was also a known quantity to the Pakistanis, having visited there on a number of occasions. They knew me from my NSC [National Security Council] tours; they knew me from my days as Counterterrorism Coordinator; they knew me from other previous assignments. During my second NSC tour, my brief covered Afghanistan, which had given me the opportunity to visit Pakistan with Mike Armacost. Therefore they knew that I had considerable familiarity with U.S.-Pakistani issues. I think they must have been reassured by my appointment.

So I left for Pakistan in August and never came back, even for my confirmation hearings. I was given a recess appointment, which was processed while I was in flight. So by the time we landed, I was the official emissary of the President of the United States. Agrement  [official recognition by the host government to accept someone as ambassador] had been received from the Pakistani government, all in the space of 24 hours. All I had to do when I arrived was to present my credential, which I did a day later.

Because of the way my appointment was made, I did not have the opportunity, as had my predecessors, to study Pakistan from an academic point of view, nor to learn Urdu.

Conspiracy theories and leaks

I found a high degree of uncertainty and anxiety in Pakistan. No one knew who the perpetrators of the plane crash had been. The remaining leadership was convinced that it was part of a plot which would claim more victims in the forthcoming days. The fear was, of course, of destabilizing the country.

I was instructed to try a) to calm the Pakistani leadership down; b) to ensure that the arms supplies to Afghanistan would continue to flow; c) to make sure that the planned elections would take place; and d) that there be no rise in tensions in Pakistan-India relations.

I worked on those issues on the Secretary’s plane on the way to Pakistan. The CINC [Commander in Chief] of CENTCOM [Central Command] was on the plane; Mike Armacost was there as well and, of course, Shultz. That was a key core group which reached a consensus on a game plan. We sent warnings to everyone — the Soviets, the Indians, etc — to stay away from Pakistan.

We did not feel that the plane crash was part of a general plot, but we had to be sure that no other country would try to take advantage of the power vacuum created by Zia’s demise. We told the Pakistanis that we had sent these warnings.

We tasked the intelligence community to pay special attention to any information it might receive about threats to Pakistan. We told the Pakistanis that we had done that and that we would inform them of any significant intelligence that we might pick up.

We dispatched a top flight Air Force investigation team to the crash site, along with some State officials. I was able to negotiate an agreement with the Chief of the Pakistani Air Force and the President which allowed our crash team to merge with theirs so that we had a single investigative team.

They agreed after I assured them that no reports would be submitted to Washington until after the entire investigation had been completed so that no separate reports would be filed, which they weren’t. Such agreement was just as much in our interest because we also were concerned about “leaks,” particularly of partial results. We too wanted the whole investigation completed before any reports were filed.

I had no idea, of course, what had caused the airplane crash. It took me about four days after the arrival of the investigating team — about a week after the accident — that I began to lean towards the accident theory. The team indicated that it could find no evidence — either inside or outside the plane — of any explosion.

It, of course, could not be certain, but sabotage or ground fire did not seem to be the cause. That, of course, was the opposite of what most observers had believed; initially, most of the speculation was on a missile or a bomb. But the team never found any evidence of that.

The team reviewed all the records maintained by the Air Force and Lockheed on C-130s; they found about 20 cases in which the plane porpoised through the air before hitting the ground, as the one that Arnie and Zia were flying on had done. In most of the other cases, the planes had not crashed, but it was entirely possible that this one had done so because it was lower. In most of the earlier cases, the planes were sufficiently high that the pilots were able to recover and land safely.

Our team attributed the crash of the Pakistani plane to a) the inexperience of the Pakistani pilots with C-130s and b) the low level at which the plane was flying before its crash. In the previous cases, the fault seemed to lie with the hydraulic system; we believed that that was also the cause of the crash of the Pakistani plane.

Our intelligence — which is not always infallible — had not picked up any indicators of a plot or any subversive activity by either the Soviets or the Indians or any of the known Pakistani enemies of Zia (pictured). Although we couldn’t be sure, there was no unusual activity outside of Pakistan which might have suggested a foreign plot.

Of course, it was easier for us Americans to be more dispassionate about the event than the Pakistanis. They were very nervous; they were certain that some outside power was behind the plane crash. But they too began to wonder when no foreign action was forthcoming; then they turned to theories of Pakistani sabotage — by the Army or some political opposition.

At one point, some Pakistanis even blamed the CIA — a convenient whipping boy. But none of the theories seemed very convincing and there certainly was no sign of any follow-up activity which might have taken advantage of Zia’s demise.

Tom Clancy, in one his books, attributed the crash to a laser beam emanating from a satellite under the management of some Soviet controllers in Central Asia.

After the team had reached its conclusions, I had long conversations with the President of Pakistan and the Chief of the Pakistani Air Force. I told both that I could foresee what might happen. Under most circumstances, Americans tend to look at accidents rather mechanistically, and the accident had not involved our President.

However, we could nevertheless understand how they might feel. Our evidence was of course not 100% conclusive, but our best guess was that the accident was due to mechanical failure.

If the Pakistanis however felt that the cause was something else, the final report should so state. And in fact, that is what the final report showed six weeks later:  the Pakistanis maintained that although no definitive proof was available they felt that the accident was the result of a plot by person or persons unknown. The Americans said that we believed that mechanical failure had been the cause.

I think you have to remember that South Asia is conspiracy-theory oriented — even more than we are about who killed JFK. It was hard for them to accept the accident theory, particularly since we had no hard evidence to support our findings. I thought therefore that the split conclusion in the final report was the best possible outcome; neither side could definitively prove its conclusion and therefore both sides were satisfied. Eventually, the issue died away.

“The Embassy rallied around in admirable fashion”

I should comment a little about the Embassy staff. It was in a state of shock after Arnie’s untimely death. It was a great staff: Beth Jones was the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] — she had been handpicked by Arnie and had been at post for only about two weeks. Most of the staff were Foreign Service couples. For example, the Political Counselor’s wife was the deputy chief of the Economic Section. The Economic Counselor’s wife was the Budget Officer. Beth Jones’ husband was the deputy PAO [Public Affairs Officer]. I think that kind of staffing is a plus; it assuredly was in Pakistan in the late 1980s. (Pictured: Amb. Oakley)

We all went to work trying to stabilize morale; everybody rallied around and responded in admirable fashion. I did not detect any resentment of my appointment, although I was not comfortable with the circumstances. Arnie Raphel was an extremely capable and popular diplomat; he was an expert and understood South Asia; he knew the language. The Embassy was his. He had picked the leadership personally.

It was not an easy situation for the new fellow on the block to move into. But the staff responded as professionals should and pretty soon, we all developed a close bondage and a tight relationship. I welcomed that and it made my tour an enjoyable one.

I think the staff was satisfied after the investigation that Arnie’s death was due to an accident. Fortunately, we were too busy to develop a bunker mentality. All of us had too much to do in trying to work with the Pakistanis to assure continuity and stability. The Embassy felt that it was functioning well under severe pressures and it received good support and commendations from Washington, which helped morale considerably.

I kept the DCM that Arnie had chosen; it was one of my better decisions. She was invaluable and stayed in Pakistan an extra year after my departure so that the two top Embassy jobs wouldn’t be turned over in the same year. In fact, I made no changes in the staff, except those demanded by the usual rotation policy.

I did add one position — courtesy of the CIA. Arnie was the only long-time South Asia specialist in the Embassy. During my first consultation in Washington — after having been in Pakistan for about two months — I tried in vain to get from the Department a political officer who really knew South Asia. I had never served in South Asia and I felt we needed more expertise on the staff. Beth Jones was also not an South Asia expert. Apparently the Department did not have an available officer.

Of course, Arnie had not needed an South Asia expert because he was the preeminent one in the Service. Ed Abingdon, our Political Counselor, was an excellent officer, but was not a South Asia expert; none of the other political officers were either. Interestingly enough, this was a period during which we also had a shortage of Arabists. These ebbs and flows in personnel occur from time to time.

So I asked the Agency whether it would be willing to lend me such an officer; it readily agreed. I got a real crackerjack who worked in my Political Section giving us a depth of knowledge of South Asia affairs that we had been lacking. He was very, very good.

Bill Clark, our Ambassador in New Delhi, was not a South Asia expert either. But he had people on his staff who had a sufficient depth of knowledge of the area. His DCM and Political Counselor had considerable South Asia experience.

Bill and I were old friends and the first thing we decided to work together on was “peace” between our two embassies. Before us, the two institutions had been as much at each other’s throats as had the Indians and Pakistanis. We were determined that was not going to continue. We agreed on a program of visits between ourselves and our two staffs.

Furthermore, since Pakistan was under the military purview of CENTCOM and India was under PACOM [Pacific Command], we agreed that when those CINCs visited, they would visit both countries; that turned out to be very helpful.