He was born to an old farming Ahmadi family in a small village named Pindori, located in Punjab. He was the son of Malik Ghulam Nabi, a Headmaster at a local school. Despite the unavailability of schools in his village, his father made an effort to send him to a school miles away, where he and his friends had to walk for hours every day. After graduating from college, he enlisted as a sepoy in the British Indian Army. His personal qualities and education were soon noticed and he was sent to the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun for officer training and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on the Special List on 1 June 1941.
He was admitted to the Indian Army and posted to the 16th Punjab Regiment, specifically the newly raised 7th battalion. He was promoted war substantive Lieutenant. He was appointed acting Captain 1 January 1942 then promoted temporary Captain 1 April 1942. He was appointed the Brigade Intelligence Officer for the 114th Indian Infantry Brigade on 1 January 1942.
He would later serve with his battalion in Burma and Malaya and in September 1945 as a temporary Major was commanding "A" company, 7/16th Punjab Regiment in Malaya.
On the partition of India in August 1947 Malik opted to join the Pakistani Army.
Major General Akhtar Hussain Mailk was known for his towering presence, unsullied boldness in strategy, quick thinking, and his love for his country. Although he was highly admired and respected by his subordinates, he was very outspoken. As a brilliant tactician he is also given for planning Operation Gibraltar and Operation Grand Slam with finalization from Ayub Khan.
As GOC 12th Division, he was the overall commander for Operation Grand Slam in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. For his successful handling of the initial phase of the operation, he was awarded the Hilal-i-Jurat, the second highest gallantry award of the Pakistan Army. Controversially, the command was handed over to General Yahya Khan in mid operation, resulting in delay and eventual failure of the operation. The cause for this midway switch over is an object of speculation to this day.
Qudrat Ullah Shahab an eminent Urdu writer and civil servant from Pakistan said that
"At a time when Major (General) Akhtar Hussain Malik was to take over Akhnoor to pave the way to take Srinager, the capital of Kashmir, he was wrongly removed from the command, and General Yahya Khan was put in his position. Perhaps the aim was to deprive Pakistan success in Akhnoor, Yahya Khan accomplished this task very well."
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto the ninth Prime Minister of Pakistan and its fourth President said
"Had General Akhtar Malik not been stopped in the Chamb-Jaurian Sector, the Indian forces in Kashmir would have suffered serious reverses, but Ayub Khan wanted to make his favorite, General Yahya Khan, a hero."
Malik was posted to CENTO in Ankara, Turkey where he died in a road accident. His body was brought back to Pakistan and was buried in Rabwah.