The paradoxical legacy of Gen Musharraf

Published February 6, 2023
AGRA: President Pervez Musharraf is greeted by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee prior to summit talks at the Jaypee Palace, on July 15, 2001.—AFP/file
AGRA: President Pervez Musharraf is greeted by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee prior to summit talks at the Jaypee Palace, on July 15, 2001.—AFP/file

I first met Gen Musharraf at Army House in Rawal­pindi, ten days after the coup which brought him to power in Oct 1999. His piquant sense of humour, frankness and affable personality came as a marked contrast to the military ruler that came before him.

Unlike the austere Zia, Musharraf was known for a certain flamboyance in dress and a penchant for music and dancing. He was an officer of the old school with a secular bend. He came across as a moderate and pragmatic man as he talked about problems and challenges faced by his new government.

He clearly enjoyed being at the helm of political power of ‘the world’s most ungovernable nation’. “It is a tough job, but the feeling of being in charge when having the confidence makes it enjoyable,” he asserted.

His confidence had been boosted by the public euphoria, and a milder-than-expected international reaction that greeted his coup. The general, who described himself as a ‘reluctant coup maker’, made it very clear that there was no question of the country returning to democracy soon and promised to carry out ruthless accountability of politicians to clean the system.

Musharraf’s background bore all the hallmarks of the maverick, yet intensely driven politician he was to become.

The second of three sons, he was born into a middle-class Delhi family that migrated to Pakistan after Partition in August 1947. The family was settled in Karachi, where his father was a foreign ministry employee. His mother was a rarity for her era, an educated Muslim working woman who had a long career with the International Labour Organisation.

Musharraf received his army commission in 1964. He almost got thrown out for indiscipline a few months later. He then faced court martial as a second lieutenant for another disciplinary infringement. The proceedings were stopped because of the war with India in 1965, while a gallantry award saved him from court martial. He later received another gallantry award in 1971.

Despite his high performance, his indiscipline almost brought his career to an end again as a lieutenant colonel. “My rise to the post of army chief is a miracle,” Musharraf himself admitted. Known for his impetuous and decisive character, his fellow officers described him as a brilliant tactician.

Gen Musharraf was serving as a corps commander Mangla when he was appointed army chief by then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and it did not take long for him to assert himself.

As the chief, Musharraf presided over a military operation in Kargil with far-reaching consequences that caused a terrifying escalation in India-Pakistan tensions. It also brought to a grinding halt a major opportunity for peace with India, which had blossomed when Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee took the Friendship Bus to Lahore in Feb 1999.

The Kargil misadventure also brought the conflict between the civil and military leadership to a head, which by many accounts culminated in Nawaz Sharif’s decision to sack Gen Musharraf while he was on a flight back from Sri Lanka. This triggered the military takeover and the overthrow of another elected government by the all-powerful military.

The Oct 12, 1999 coup was yet another episode of the Pakistani soap opera of alternation between authoritarian rule by an elected government and authoritarian rule by a self-appointed leader from the army.

But this was a takeover with a difference; Musharraf did not impose martial law. He initially called himself chief executive. An admirer of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the modern secular state of Turkey, he presented himself as a reformist, promising to take Pakistan down a liberal course.

His first major policy speech announcing a seven-point agenda, which included eradication of Islamic extremism and sectarianism, received widespread approbation. He pledged to undo Zia’s radical legacy by transforming Pakistan into a moderate Muslim state. The liberal profile of his cabinet, comprising Western educated professionals, raised hopes for better governance.

Meanwhile, the crisis unleashed by Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States provided Musharraf an opportunity to end Pakistan’s international isolation, as well as his own. By joining the US-led war on terror, Pakistan was back in the international limelight.

Formerly, ostracised as a military dictator, Musharraf became a valued friend to the West. The lifting of sanctions and direct economic support from the US also helped ease Pakistan’s financial difficulties. All this greatly strengthened his position.

Like other military rulers before him, Musharraf also tried to establish a hybrid political system with the help of a ‘king’s party’. In an effort to legitimise military rule, he co-opted politicians, further corrupting the political culture. He strengthened the system of patronage that he had pledged to eliminate and political engineering further weakened institutions.

Although keen to distinguish himself from those who came before, Musharraf did follow their script; like Zia, he too held a referendum in an attempt to legitimise his rule.

The killing of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti in an army commando raid on his hideout was a case of political assassination that continues to haunt the nation. The murder of the Baloch leader marked the unravelling of Musharraf’s military-led government. The incident triggered a furious reaction in Balochistan and added fuel to an already-festering alienation.

Much like other authoritarians, Musharraf also tried to curtail the independence of the judiciary and the interference in the judicial process started soon after he took power. Judges were asked to take an oath of allegiance, but the chief justice at the time was not invited.

However, it would be his attempt to sack another CJP, Iftikhar Chaudhry, which would galvanise the political opposition against him into the lawyers’ movement.

Facing mass protests, Musharraf suspended the Constitution and declared a state of emergency on Nov 3, 2007, what was described as a second coup. Most superior court judges, including the chief justice, were detained. Strict controls were placed on the burgeoning private media in an attempt to contain anti-government protests. Under a draconian new law, TV networks were ordered to stop live news coverage and suspend political talk shows. It was an act of desperation as the general’s vulnerability increased.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi, following her dramatic return from exile, only deepened his troubles. With accusatory fingers being pointed at him, it seemed Musharraf had finally painted himself into a corner.

He eventually stepped down as president in Aug 2008, under threat of impeachment by the elected civilian government, installed after general elections that year.

Musharraf’s exit came after a deal brokered by the US, guaranteeing indemnity to the former president. In a cable sent to Washington and revealed by WikiLeaks, then-American ambassador Anne Patterson reported that Asif Zardari was committed to giving indemnity to Musharraf.

But the situation changed after Nawaz Sharif’s return to power. A treason case was filed more than five years after he stepped down and eventually a special court indicted Gen Musharraf on treason charges in 2014.

The treason trial was an explosive political issue and also a cause of friction between the military and the Sharif administration. The military was definitely not happy to see its former chief in the dock on treason charges. Interestingly, the former military ruler was tried not for his ‘original sin’ of staging a coup against an elected government, but rather for imposing emergency and holding the Constitution in abeyance in 2007.

Musharraf was also implicated in other cases, including the Lal Masjid operation, his property ordered confiscated and his bank accounts frozen. Then, after a three-year travel ban, he was allowed to leave the country for medical treatment. He never returned, and had been living in the UAE since 2016.

In the meantime, a special trial court convicted him in absentia and sentenced him to death, a major first in the country’s history. Predictably, the conviction provoked a robust rejection from the military leadership, which came out strongly in support of its former chief.

Musharraf leaves behind a mixed legacy. While he did initially stabilise the country’s political and economic situation and navigated some difficult times arising from the events of 9/11, his extraconstitutional actions weakened state institutions and set Pakistan back several years. It should be left to history to judge him.

Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2023

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