General Pervez Musharraf held the dubious distinction of following in the footsteps of military dictators Ayub, Yahya and Zia. Like each of them, he in his time was responsible for bringing the democratic process in the country to a sudden end, and then ruling until deposed or killed.
He was born on 11 August 1943 in Delhi to an educated middle class family. He got commissioned at the Pakistan Military Academy Kakul on the 19th of April 1964. He was promoted to the rank of general in 1988 and took over command of the army as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), holding this office until November 2007.
Musharraf’s decade of rule in the country is known for a stable economy, liberal reforms, increased growth rates for the economy, free media, and age of private TV channels. A darling of investors at home and abroad, he championed the cause of “Enlightened Moderation” and strongly professed his belief in “Sab Se Pehle Pakistan” – i.e. “Pakistan First.” He depicted himself as fiercely patriotic and an enemy of all types of religious fanaticism and bigotry, with strong political views which he believed resembled those of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of Turkey – a country where he had spent time in his youth and learned the Turkish language.
His rule coincided with the momentous events of 9/11 in the USA and its subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. Arguably, this event was the greatest test of Musharraf’s leadership and how he managed to save the country from the looming disaster. As a young officer, he saw action in both the 1965 and the 1971 wars with India, and earned a reputation of bravery under fire. But he was also known for a few cases of indiscipline and a fierce temper.
His appointment as army chief in 1998 was a very surprising choice by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He was number three on the list of the senior generals given to the PM for his choice. Musharraf was an outsider in the top brass of an army dominated by ethnic Punjabi and Pashtun officers, because he hailed from the southern city of Karachi where his Urdu-speaking family had settled after migrating from Delhi in 1947. Nawaz Sharif probably perceived Musharraf as a weak person who could be controlled easily: exactly the same mistake that Z.A. Bhutto had made when appointing Zia-ul-Haq as the army chief. Musharraf toppled Nawaz Sharif in a coup in 1999, had him sentenced to life in prison and ruled Pakistan, first as “chief executive” and then as president, until his resignation in 2008.
In Zia’s case it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan of 1979. In Musharraf’s case, it was the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11, carried out by Afghanistan-based veterans of the anti-Soviet war that Zia had organized on America’s behalf. Musharraf’s decision to cooperate with America in the War on Terror that followed made him one of its most important allies. America—which had cut off aid to Pakistan in the 1990s—authorised $18 billion in military and non-military support for the country between 2002 and 2011. Musharraf was hailed by George W. Bush as a “strong defender of freedom”. In the Line of Fire, an autobiography that the general published in 2006, surged on to the New York Times bestseller list.
After the tragic events of 9/11, the US gave little choice to Pervez Musharraf. They simply spelt it out as “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” But Musharraf’s campaign against religious extremism was also a matter of personal conviction. Unlike the pious Islamist general Zia, Musharraf was a different kind of Muslim. For his political views and collaboration with the USA on the War on Terror, he earned the wrath of Islamist militants and was the target in two suicide attacks on his convoy in Rawalpindi, that he escaped narrowly.
His rule saw the liberalisation of the media, growth of pop culture and measures for the empowerment of women. His big contribution in the field of foreign relations was that he launched a very bold and imaginative peace process with India during the time of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr. Man Mohan Singh that came tantalisingly close to settling the Kashmir dispute and ending hostility between the two countries.
By the year 2007, especially after the Lal Masjid incident, Pakistan was the epicenter of terrorism with suicide attacks almost every day all over the country. The controlled democracy during the Musharraf rule led to mass agitation and protests against his government. Two of his chief opponents Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were on the rampage and campaigning for his ouster. Musharraf now declared an emergency and suspended the constitution. After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the army high command and the American leaders were growing tired of the chaos and political instability. After the 2008 elections, Musharraf threw in the towel and departed for London rather than face the threatened impeachment proceedings.
Musharraf remained a player in Pakistan’s political drama. Soon bored of the American speaker circuit—where he earned top dollar for weighing in on Islamic extremism—he started plotting a route back to power. He returned to Pakistan in 2013, but met with little popular support and a barrage of lawsuits. He was disqualified from running for election and held under house arrest on multiple charges, including complicity in Bhutto’s killing. He survived at least one more assassination attempt himself before, in 2018, the army arranged for him to leave for medical attention in Dubai. He was convicted of treason and sentenced to death in absentia, a verdict that was later overturned. Increasingly beset by ill health, he never returned to Pakistan. Musharraf died at the American Hospital in Dubai on 5 February 2023 at the age of 79 after suffering from a prolonged case of amyloidosis.
The transition from Gen Musharraf to Mr. Musharraf was a relatively unremarkable one, as his All Pakistan Muslim League suffered the fate of most other one-man parties, slipping into oblivion after 15 minutes of fame. The Musharraf era holds numerous lessons for Pakistan’s ruling elite, civilian and military. All can learn from his many mistakes, as well as his successes.
Less of Enigma; more of Stigma.
Be gone Musharraf, another time waster buried.