Nadir Shah was killed in a revolution and some members of his family escaped from Iran to Northern Pakistan area. The story is that after Qizilbash family escaped bare handed the family jewels and little treasure they carried were enough to buy them villages and maintain royal life style. Qizilbash family entered military profession and produced many high level government officials and generals.
He attended Punjab University and finished first in his class. He then joined the British Army, and served in World War II as an officer in the 4th Infantry Division (India). He served in Iraq, Italy, and North Africa.
Though culturally Pashtun, Yahya was a Shia Qizilbash commissioned from Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun on 15 July 1939. An infantry officer from the 4/10 Baluch Regiment, Yahya saw action during WW II in North Africa where he was captured by the Axis Forces in June 1942 and interned in a prisoner of war camp in Italy from where he escaped in the third attempt.
Yahya became a brigadier at the age of 34 and commanded the 106 Infantry Brigade, which was deployed on the ceasefire line in Kashmir in 1951-52. Later Yahya, as Deputy Chief of General Staff, was selected to head the army’s planning board set up by Ayub to modernise the Pakistan Army in 1954-57. Yahya also performed the duties of Chief of General Staff from 1958 to 1962 from where he went on to command an infantry division from 1962 to 1965.
Upon the formation of Pakistan, Khan helped set up an officer's school in Quetta, and commanded an infantry division during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. Immediately after the 1965 war Major General Yahya Khan who had commanded the 7th Division in Operation Grand Slam was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, appointed Deputy Army Commander in Chief and Commander in Chief designate in March 1966.
Soon after the war had started the U.S. had imposed an embargo on military aid on both India and Pakistan. This embargo did not affect the Indian Army but produced major changes in the Pakistan Army’s technical composition. US Secretary of State Dean Rusk well summed it up when he said, "Well if you are going to fight, go ahead and fight, but we’re not going to pay for it".
Pakistan now turned to China for military aid and the Chinese tank T-59 started replacing the US M-47/48 tanks as the Pakistan Army’s MBT (Main Battle Tank) from 1966. 80 tanks, the first batch of T-59s, a low-grade version of the Russian T-54/55 series were delivered to Pakistan in 1965-66. The first batch was displayed in the Joint Services Day Parade on 23 March 1966. The 1965 War had proved that Pakistan Army’s tank infantry ratio was lopsided and more infantry was required. Three more infantry divisions (9, 16 and 17 Divisions) largely equipped with Chinese equipment and popularly referred to by the rank and file as "The China Divisions" were raised by the beginning of 1968. Two more corps headquarters i.e. 2nd Corps Headquarters (Jhelum-Ravi Corridor) and 4th Corps Headquarters (Ravi-Sutlej Corridor) were raised.
In the 1965 War India had not attacked East Pakistan which was defended by a weak two-infantry brigade division (14 Division) without any tank support. Yahya correctly appreciated that the geographical as well as operational situation demanded an entirely independent command set up in East Pakistan. 14 Division’s infantry strength was increased and a new tank regiment was raised and stationed in East Pakistan. A new Corps Headquarters was raised in East Pakistan and was designated as Headquarters Eastern Command. It was realised by the Pakistani GHQ that the next war would be different and East Pakistan badly required a new command set up.
The American author Ziring observed that, "Yahya Khan has been widely portrayed as a ruthless uncompromising insensitive and grossly inept leader…While Yahya cannot escape responsibility for these tragic events, it is also on record that he did not act alone…All the major actors of the period were creatures of a historic legacy and a psycho-political milieu which did not lend itself to accommodation and compromise, to bargaining and a reasonable settlement. Nurtured on conspiracy theories, they were all conditioned to act in a manner that neglected agreeable solutions and promoted violent judgements”.
Yahya Khan attempted to solve Pakistan’s constitutional and inter-provincial/regional rivalry problems once he took over power from Ayub Khan in March 1969. The tragedy of the whole affair was the fact that all actions that Yahya took, although correct in principle, were too late in timing, and served only to further intensify the political polarisation between the East and West wings.
However dissolution of one unit did not lead to the positive results that it might have led to in case "One Unit" was dissolved earlier. Yahya also made an attempt to accommodate the East Pakistanis by abolishing the principle of parity, thereby hoping that greater share in the assembly would redress their wounded ethnic regional pride and ensure the integrity of Pakistan. Instead of satisfying the Bengalis it intensified their separatism, since they felt that the west wing had politically suppressed them since 1958. Thus the rise of anti West Wing sentiment in the East Wing.
Yahya announced in his broadcast to the nation on 28 July 1969, his firm intention to redress Bengali grievances, the first major step in this direction being, the doubling of Bengali quota in the defence services. It may be noted that at this time there were just Seven infantry battalions of the East Pakistanis. Yahya’s announcement, although made with the noblest and most generous intentions in mind, was late by about twenty years. Yahya’s intention to raise more pure Bengali battalions was opposed by Major General Khadim Hussain Raja, the General Officer Commanding 14 Division in East Pakistan suggesting that the Bengalis were "too meek".
Within a year he had set up a framework for elections that were held in December of 1970. The results of the elections saw Pakistan split into its Eastern and Western halves. In East Pakistan, the Awami League (led by Mujibur Rahman) held almost all of the seats, but none in West Pakistan. In West Pakistan, the Pakistan Peoples Party (led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto) won the lion's share of the seats, but none in East Pakistan. Though AL had 162 seats in the National Assembly against 88 of PPP,this led to a situation where one of the leaders of the two parties would have to give up power and allow the other to be Prime Minister of Pakistan. The situation also increased agitation, especially in East Pakistan as it became apparent that Sheikh Mujib was being denied of his legitimate claim to be the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
Yahya Khan could not reach a compromise, and instead cracked down on the political agitation in East Pakistan with a massive campaign of genocide named by "Operation Searchlight" which began on 25th March, 1971, targeting, among others, Muslims, Hindus, Bengali intellectuals, students and political activists. 3 million people in the east Pakistan were killed in the next few months along with an another 0.4 million women were raped by the Pakistan army officials within the cantonment area. Khan also arrested Sheikh Mujibur Rahman upon Bhutto's insistence and appointed Brigadier Rahimuddin Khan (later General) to preside over a special tribunal dealing with Mujib's case. Rahimuddin awarded Mujib the death sentence, and President Yahya put the verdict into abeyance. Yahya's crackdown, however, had led to a civil war within Pakistan, and eventually drew India into what would extend into the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. The end result was the establishment of Bangladesh as an independent republic, and this was to lead Khan to step down. After Pakistan was defeated in 1971, most of the blame was heaped on Yahya.
On the same day that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto released Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and saw him off to London, Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in a supreme irony, ordered the house arrest of his predecessor, Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan, the man who imprisoned Mujib in the first place. Both actions produced headlines round the world. But in Pakistan they were almost overshadowed by what Bhutto grandly called "the first steps toward an economic and social revolution."