Mohammad Asghar Khan was born in Jammu, British-held Kashmir to a Pashtun family originally hailing from Tirah Valley on 17 January 1921. His father, Brigadier Thakur Rahmatullah Khan, was a senior officer and colonel-commandant of the posted Brigade combat team of the British Army headquartered in Kashmir. Most of Asghar Khan's family members which had left Tirah Valley Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to settle in Kashmir again migrated at the time of partition to Abbottabad including his parents. He and all his brothers, except one, then joined the armed forces of Pakistan.
After attending a military school, his family directed him at the Prince of Wales's Royal Indian Military College 1933, and joined the Indian Military Academy in 1939. Initially, Asghar Khan was an Indian Army officer, a Second Lieutenant in the Indian Army, starting his active duty from the Royal Deccan Horse in December 1940. However this was short-lived, the Ministry of Defence drafted Asghar Khan in the newly established Royal Indian Air Force in 1940, joining the No. 9 Squadron of the Indian Air Force. In 1944, Asghar Khan assumed the command his unit and commanded the aerial missions of No. 9 Squadron in Burma. He took active participation in Burma Campaign 1944–1945, directing and commanding aerial operations against the Imperial Japan on behest of the Great Britain.
After World War II, the British government called Asghar Khan to United Kingdom where he joined the RAF Staff College at Bracknell, where he completed a staff course. Later, Asghar Khan joined the Joint Service Defence College where he gained BSc in military ethics after submitting his thesis on actions involving the Joint Services. He conducted his post-graduate research and studies from Imperial Defence College where Asghar Khan was awarded MSc in Military administration by the college faculty.
Upon his return, Asghar Khan was most-senior officer in the Indian Air Force, although his career with Indian Air Force is not completely known, but it is well understood that Asghar Khan commanded the No. 9 Squadron of the Indian Air Force, in 1945. Asghar Khan was also the first Indian Air Force officer to fly a jet fighter aircraft—a Gloster Meteor— whilst doing a fighter leader's course in UK in 1946.
On 7 June 1947, Asghar Khan joined the sub-committee led by RAF Air Vice Marshal Allan Perry-Keene to distribute the defence assets of undivided India between the proposed State of Pakistan. After the partition of India on 14 August 1947, Asghar Khan moved to newly established country Pakistan and, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan promoted Asghar Khan to the rank of Wing-Commander and appointed him the first commandant of the Pakistan Air Force Academy at Risalpur. He was among the most senior officers of the Pakistan Air Force so in 1949, Asghar Khan became the first Officer commanding of the No. 1 Stryker Group based in Peshawar Air Force Base. In 1948, Asghar Khan greeted founder of Pakistan and Governor-General Muhammad Ali Jinnah when Jinnah visited the Pakistan Air Force Academy.
In 1950, Asghar Khan assumed the directorship of the Directorate-General of the Air Operations (DGAO). In 1955, Asghar Khan was appointed as the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff in the Air Headquarters, directing the air administration and personnel department at the Air Headquarters. As Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, Asghar Khan established the major units and infrastructure including the Fighter Leaders School (now Combat Commander's School), the Air Staff College and the College of Aeronautical Engineering at the Pakistan Air Force Academy. As assistant chief of the air staff, Asghar Khan also instituted the Inspectorate directorate for the air force and initiated the tradition of regular air staff presentations. Two of his brothers, Squadran Leader Khalid Khan and Pilot Officer Asif Khan were killed during service with the Pakistan Air Force.
After the retirement of Air vice-marshal Arthur McDonald, Prime Minister Suharwardy approved the appointment of Asghar Khan as the commander-in-chief of Pakistan Air Force. In 23 July 1957, Prime Minister Suharwardy upgraded AVM Asghar Khan to three-star rank air marshal, making him the first native Air Force Commander-in-chief, yet at the age of 36, also the youngest to-date.
After assuming the command of air force, Asghar Khan commanded the air force for next eight years where he took initiatives to modernize and expand the air force facilities, installations and equipment, as well as the fighter jets acquired from the United States. Asghar Khan also launched the fighter training programmes and combat course at the PAF to train fighter pilots in modern air warfare. His style of leading the air force often comes with criticisms by his junior officers, first alleging that Air Marshal Asghar Khan was inclined to be autocratic in his decision makings.
His juniors noted that the Air Marshal would go out of his way to elicit a whole range of opinions before taking a decision, but once that decision was made by him, he would not tolerate any ifs and buts about its implementations. As for approving the appointments and selections process, Asghar Khan made no secret of his willingness to superseding the senior officers if that became unavoidable in ensuring that the best qualified officers needed to fill the key appointments, particularly in the combat units. During his long tenure, Air Marshal Asghar Khan gave commission to established air force bases, in Samungli, Sargodha, and the Peshawar.
The time he was appointed as the commander-in-chief, Asghar Khan negotiated with the United States to provide the military equipment, fighter jets, on an indefinite basis. The combat units and fighter squadrons were quickly raised majority of which were equipped with the state-of-the-art F-86 Sabres, and others with F-104 Starfighter, B-57 Canberra, C-130 Hercules, T-33 and the T-37 Tweet aircraft.
After leaving air force, Asghar Khan was employed at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and was appointed as the president of the national flag carriers, the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). Asghar Khan learned to fly the commercial airline and obtained a Commercial pilot licence after passing the exam from Federal Aviation Administration of the United States.
Asghar Khan introduced new uniforms for the air hostesses and stewards which earned words of admiration at domestic and international airports. During his tenure, PIA achieved lowest aircraft accident rate and highest net profit of Pakistan, and was a formidable competitor in the world airline business. His tenure as president is often reminded as "gold age of PIA". Despite urging of the government to extend his tenure, Asghar Khan took retirement and left the MoD in order to start his political career in 1968.
After leaving the MoD, Asghar Khan gave vehement criticism and blamed President Ayub Khan and Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto for the causes of the 1965 war with India, and later turn his criticism pointing straight towards General Yahya Khan for the 1971 war failure, which resulted in the breakup of Pakistan when Sheikh Mujibur Rehman's Awami League, which had won the election, had not been allowed to form a government. In protest, Asghar Khan relinquished awards of 'Hilal-e-Pakistan' and 'Hilal-e-Quaid-i-Azam' as a protest against repressive policies of Field Marshal Ayub Khan in January 1969.
In 1970, Asghar Khan founded the Tehrik-e-Istiqlal, initially a centrist secular party. Asghar Khan criticized Bhutto on numerous occasions, holding him responsible for tyranny during the 1970 elections. However, Asghar Khan and his party failed to score any big hits during the 1970 parliamentary elections, initially failing to secure any seats in the parliament.
During the Bangladesh Liberation War, Asghar Khan did support the East-Pakistan morally, alleging the West-Pakistan under Bhutto, of depriving East Pakistan from their political and economical rights. He also demanded power to be handed over to the people of East Pakistan. In 1972, after Bhutto was made president, Asghar Khan accused Bhutto for the break-up, later noting that: "We are living virtually under the one party state. The outstanding feature is suppression.
During Bhutto's rule from 1971 to 1977, Air Marshal Asghar Khan played a major role in opposition to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. During the 1977 elections, Asghar Khan allied his party, the Tehreek-i-Istiqlal with the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) against the People's Party. It was during this period he and his party faced frequent attacks by Pakistan People,s Party supporters and from the brutal paramilitary Federal Security Force. He was imprisoned in Kot Lakhpat and Sahiwal prisons from March to June 1977.
He contested two seats, one from Karachi and the other from Abbotabad, despite alleged rigging by the ppp, Asghar Khan was elected by a huge margin from both seats. The PNA rejected the election results as rigged and launched a nationwide agitation against the results. Asghar Khan resigned from both National Assembly seats as a mark of protest against massive rigging in the elections.
While imprisoned, Asghar Khan wrote a much criticized letter to the leadership of Defence Forces, asking them to renounce their support for the "Illegal regime of Bhutto", and asked the military leadership to "differentiate between a lawful and an unlawful command and save Pakistan. This letter is considered by the historians as instrumental in encouraging the advent of the far-right Zia regime. However in television show, Asghar Khan strongly defended his letter as according to him 'nowhere in the letter had he asked for the military to take over, and he had written it in response to a news story that he had read in which a Major had shot a civilian showing him the 'V sign'. After the overthrow of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's government by the Army in the summer of 1978, Asghar Khan was offered a cabinet post by General Zia-ul-Haq, Asghar Khan refused to join the cabinet and also withdrew from the PNA after a growing split between the various parties.
After successfully calling for Bhutto's 'judicial murder', Asghar Khan decided to take on the far-right regime of General Zia-ul-Haq who announced to hold the general elections in 1979. The Tehrik-e-Istiqlal became the most favorite party and benefited with large number of high profile civilian political figures including Nawaz Sharif, Khurshid Kasuri, Aitzaz Ahsan, Rashid Ahmad, Javed Hashmi, Akbar Bugti, Mushahid Hussain, Nadir Pervez, Gohar Ayub Khan, Zafar Ali Shah, Ahmed Raza Kasuri, Sher Afgan Niazi, Manzoor Wattoo, Syeda Abida Hussain, Syed Fakhar Imam and many others. All of these members left Asghar Khan under Nawaz Sharif who founded the largest conservative party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N).
However, at the last moment, General Zia-ul-Haq indefinitely postponed the elections, ordering the arrests of Asghar Khan who remained under house arrest for more than five years. In 1983, Asghar Khan decided to join the left-wing alliance, the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) led by Benazir Bhutto but he was detained by the government. He was kept under house arrest at his Abbotabad residence from 16 October 1979 to 2 October 1984 and was named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
In 1986, Asghar Khan left the MRD, as a result of which many of the Tehrik's members resigned in protest. Asghar Khan boycotted the non-partisan elections held in 1985. However, Asghar Khan and his party took full part in 1988 parliamentary elections. But this time, he was accused by Pakistan People’s Party for having called for Bhutto's death sentence and the martial law, which Asghar Khan himself failed to justify. His party members disintegrated and allied with conservative Nawaz Sharif, a major setback for his career. Asghar Khan's public rating plummeted and faced a complete annihilation and defeat in 1988 elections. He conceded his defeat but again contested in 1990 parliamentary elections from Lahore, Asghar Khan once again faced defeat. Briefly retiring from active politics in the late 1990s his party faced another one of its many splits. Since 1990, Asghar Khan has not held a significant position in politics.
As he grew older, he handed over his small party to his equally capable son Omar Asghar Khan, who had for a while joined the military government of General Pervaiz Musharraf, and became Minister of Environment. After his son's resignation from the cabinet, Omar Asghar Khan took over Tehrik-e-Istiqlal and subsequently merged it with assorted other Non-governmental organization and formed a new party called National Democratic Party, an event which caused another split in the party. Both Independence Movement and National Democratic Party suffered major shock and setback when Omar Asghar Khan was murdered in Karachi on 25 June 2001 prior to the elections. An inquiry into his death was ordered by the Sindh High Court and in spite of repeated requests, it was never started.
In a historic press conference on 12 December 2011, Asghar Khan announced his full support to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Imran Khan. He praised Imran Khan for his struggle and endorsed him as the only hope left for the survival of Pakistan. This endorsement came at a crucial time for Imran Khan, when many tainted politicians were joining his party. After announcing his party's support for PTI, Asghar Khan resigned as President of Tehreek-e-Istiqlal and left the future of his party in the hands of his workers. Contrary to many media reports, Asghar Khan never joined PTI.
Asghar Khan has authored 13 books, including We’ve Learnt Nothing from History, Pakistan at the Crossroads and General in Politics.
He was married to Amina Shamsie (Amina Asghar Khan) in 1946 and they had four children, Nasreen, Sheereen, Omar (deceased) and Ali Asghar Khan. Asghar Khan died on 5 January 2018, two weeks before of his 97th birthday. The government of Pakistan buried him with full state honours and he was given a state funeral.