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EFSAS Commentary

The unenviable legacy of Pakistan’s once all-powerful military dictator Pervez Musharraf


Pervez Musharraf, the 79-year-old former military dictator of Pakistan, died in Dubai, where he had been living in exile since 2016, on 5 February of a prolonged illness. His mortal remains were flown back to Pakistan in what has been described as a subdued and isolated final homecoming, and were interred in a military cemetery in Karachi on 7 February. For a dictator who was all powerful in Pakistan for 9 long years till his ouster in 2008, the funeral was a low-key affair. Musharraf’s spokesman said in a statement that three former Army Chiefs attended the funeral prayers, as did members of a few political parties. They were joined by about 2,500 mourners, including Musharraf’s family and relatives. Musharraf’s coffin was draped in the national flag in a sign of respect, but the ceremony was not a State funeral. There was no TV news or other media coverage at the site. The reactions of senior Pakistani officials on Musharraf’s death were also muted. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, whose older brother Nawaz was ousted as premier by Musharraf in 1999 and sent into exile for years, tweeted his sympathies to the family and added simply, “May the departed soul rest in peace”. Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who has long alleged that Musharraf was behind the unsolved assassination of his mother, former premier Benazir Bhutto, during a political rally in 2007, posted a portrait of his mother on social media in place of a condolence message, without offering any comment. Army Chief General Asim Munir issued a statement of condolence on behalf of the army. Much of the disinterest after the dictator’s death stemmed from the stained legacy that he left behind.

Born in Delhi in a middle-class household in 1943, Musharraf migrated with his family to Karachi, Pakistan in 1947 after the partition of India. The second of three sons, Musharraf benefited from being in a well-educated and socially prominent family. His father worked for the government and eventually became a diplomat posted to Ankara, Turkey, where Musharraf spent seven years learning Turkish. The life story of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of a sovereign and secular Turkey, also appealed to him. Musharraf’s mother was an educated working woman who had a long career with the International Labour Organisation, something not common in her times. At age 18, Musharraf joined the Pakistan Military Academy, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1964. He saw his first combat in Pakistan’s 1965 war with India, and he was also involved in combat operations in the 1971 war that led to the breakup of Pakistan and the founding of Bangladesh. Musharraf became a member of the elite Special Services Group of commandos in the Pakistan Army. He later taught at the Command and Staff College in Quetta and in the War Wing of the National Defence College.

Despite several instances when he got into serious trouble due to indiscipline, something that prompted Musharraf to exclaim later that “My rise to the post of Army Chief is a miracle”, he did climb up the ranks. He was serving as a Corps Commander in Mangla when in 1998 he was selected as Army Chief by former Prime Minister and head of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party, Nawaz Sharif. It did not take long for Musharraf to begin to assert himself. He launched his Kargil misadventure in the spring of 1999, which brought the conflict between the civil and military leadership of Pakistan to a head. It culminated in Nawaz Sharif’s decision to sack General Musharraf while he was on a flight back from Sri Lanka. This triggered the 12 October 1999 military coup and the overthrow of another elected government by the all-powerful military. Under growing foreign pressure, Sharif was exiled by Musharraf to Saudi Arabia, eventually returning to Pakistan only in late 2007.

Unlike his military predecessors, Musharraf did not impose martial law and initially designated himself Chief Executive. He presented himself as a reformist, promising to take Pakistan down a liberal course by reforming, and then restoring, democracy, rebuilding the economy, and bringing an end to terrorism. His first major policy speech announcing a seven-point agenda, which included eradication of Islamic extremism and sectarianism, was widely appreciated. He pledged to undo former dictator General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq’s radical legacy by transforming Pakistan into a moderate Muslim State. However, like other Pakistani military rulers before him, Musharraf later also tried to establish a hybrid political system and in an effort to legitimize his military rule he co-opted politicians, further corrupting the political culture.

Meanwhile, the crisis unleashed by the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US 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. Earlier ostracized as a military dictator, Musharraf became a valued friend to the West. The lifting of sanctions and direct economic support from the United States (US) helped ease Pakistan’s financial difficulties. All this greatly strengthened his position. However, as Arif Rafiq, president of political risk advisory company Vizier Consulting told Al Jazeera, while 9/11 helped Musharraf legitimize his rule internationally, “His cooperation with the West also precipitated what was effectively a civil war in the country”. Further, Musharraf’s reign also saw a rise in enforced disappearances in Pakistan, most notably in Balochistan and the former tribal areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Hundreds of political activists, students and suspected armed fighters were forcibly disappeared. Rafiq believes that enforced disappearances remain “an enduring part of Musharraf’s legacy”.

The respected journalist Zahid Hussain wrote in the Pakistani daily Dawn that “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. However, it would be his attempt to sack another CJP (Chief Justice of Pakistan), 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”.

After stepping down, Musharraf lived between London and Dubai for several years, delivering lectures and speeches. In 2010, he announced the formation of his own party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, and returned to Pakistan in 2013 to lead it in the general elections that year. His party won one seat in parliament, while his former rival Sharif became Prime Minister for the third time. Months later, Sharif started criminal proceedings against Musharraf, leveling treason charges against him for imposing emergency rule in 2007. A special court indicted Musharraf on treason charges in 2014. Musharraf was also implicated in other cases, including the Lal Masjid military operation. His property was ordered to be confiscated and his bank accounts frozen. However, following a three-year travel ban and after some prodding from the Pakistan Army, Musharraf was allowed to leave the country for medical treatment in 2016. He never returned, and had been living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since 2016. In the meantime, the special trial court convicted him in absentia and sentenced him to death, although the death penalty was later overturned by another court.

An editorial in the Pakistani daily The News International on 6 February described Musharraf as “A dictator who had taken over the country with the words ‘we have hit rock bottom’”, but had also “left the country pretty much at rock bottom”, after a dictatorship that lasted nine years and was characterized by political, social and foreign policy contradictions. Musharraf subverted Pakistan’s Constitution and ruled the country with an iron-fist, and after initially being hailed as a man truly committed to turning around the country through his “enlightened moderation”, he was later derided for actions that spanned a wide spectrum of anti-democracy measures, human rights abuses and suppression of the media. The Kargil debacle, the increasing Taliban militancy in the country, the assassinations of Benazir Bhutto and Nawab Akbar Bugti under his watch, and the civil-military imbalance that he exacerbated, are also prominent elements that have shaped Musharraf’s legacy. Infusions of cash from the US to help finance the global war on terrorism in Afghanistan did bolster Pakistan’s macroeconomic numbers a little at the turn of the century, but by the end of Musharraf’s tenure in 2008 Pakistan was a regional economic laggard and was forced to take yet another massive loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) just weeks after he resigned.

As Mosharraf Zaidi noted in Foreign Policy, despite Musharraf’s many protestations to the contrary, he never really favored democracy. Nor did he respect the rights and multiple identities of Pakistan’s diverse citizenry. In Balochistan, now the site of some of China’s key investments in Pakistan’s infrastructure, Musharraf laid the foundation for a raging separatist insurgency. He responded to long-standing Baloch demands for greater access to the natural resources extracted from the province with contemptuous rejections, and labeled political leaders who articulated these demands as traitors. Zaidi was of the view that perhaps the most egregious violation of Musharraf’s oath as a soldier was not the coup he carried out in 1999, or the sham election he held in 2002, or the judges he tried to fire in 2007, or the emergency he declared in 2007, but rather the Kargil War of 1999, whose strategic cost Pakistan continues to bear to this day.

Zaidi elaborated, “Contingency plans for taking vulnerable parts of Indian-occupied Kashmir had been part of Pakistani military thinking for decades. In the late 1990s, several senior officers had sought to implement those plans, yet calmer heads had always prevailed, including the army chief who preceded Musharraf, a thoughtful and widely respected general named Jehangir Karamat. But in 1998, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif fell out with Karamat and fast-tracked Musharraf’s appointment as chief of army staff. Among Musharraf’s first acts as military boss was to greenlight the covert infiltration that sparked the Kargil War. The war was supposed to liberate Kashmir from Indian occupation. Instead, hundreds of Pakistani soldiers were killed, and after an initial shock, India was able to push back and regain the territory it had held. Back home, Pakistan’s elected civilian leadership claimed to have been kept in the dark about the Kargil misadventure — and the resulting bitterness is what eventually led to Musharraf’s coup. At one point, U.S. President Bill Clinton was pulled into the crossfire, both between Musharraf and Sharif and between India and Pakistan. Bitterness and disappointment from Kargil in both Washington (for the dangerous escalation the intervention represented) and Pakistan (for the United States having refused to support Pakistan) led to a strategic falling-out between the United States and Pakistan. Those tensions never fully disappeared. Recent political upheaval in Pakistan is essentially part of the toxicity that began with the disastrous Kargil misadventure”.

Zahid Hussain concurred. He wrote, “As the (army) 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”.

Those sympathetic to Musharraf do point out that the last serious attempt to resolve the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) issue with India was made by him at the Agra Summit of July 2001, and that improved relations with India during his time at the helm was one of his “biggest” foreign policy achievements. Rabia Akhtar, director at the Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research at the University of Lahore, for example, was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying that “[He was] able to make headway on the Kashmir issue and that was the last time there was hope on Kashmir front with the four-point formula that he had proposed, which was at least seriously considered for what it was worth”. The four-point formula envisaged by Musharraf included demilitarization, self-governance and a joint mechanism agreed by India and Pakistan for the supervision of Kashmir. Others point to Musharraf’s ownership of the ill-fated Kargil operation while arguing that the General was drawn towards talks with India only after being chastened in Kargil. That India at that time was led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a great proponent of peace and one of the greatest statesmen the country has ever produced, also worked in Musharraf’s favour.

Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani Ambassador to the US, in an opinion piece in The Washington Post wrote of Musharraf’s outlook towards India – “Similarly, his stated desire for peace with India was marred by his unwillingness to change the national narrative that feeds Pakistan’s India obsession. Musharraf could not bring himself to recognize that Pakistan had for more than half a century plowed the bulk of its resources into military competition with India. The ascendancy of the army in public life depends on the assumption that India presents an existential threat to Pakistan. Lasting peace with India would erode the army’s privileged position. An army man to his core, he made little progress on the issue. He also never sufficiently cracked down against Pakistani terrorist groups targeting India — another indication of the limits of how far he was willing to go”.

Musharraf’s dictatorship may have ended quite some time ago, but rather tragically for the people of Pakistan many of the problems bequeathed by him persist, or have worsened, today – democracy remains under serious pressure, the relationship between civilian and military leaders continues to be dysfunctional, the economy is on the brink of default, relations with Afghanistan and India are tense, terrorism has become a grave threat, and religious extremists are again feeling empowered.