After seizing power in 1999, General Pervez Musharraf proclaimed himself Pakistan’s “chief executive”. Over the next decade, he likened himself to a range of historical leaders, including Kemal Atatürk, Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln. He believed he was Pakistan’s saviour, and maintained that only his military approach could rescue the country from a self-serving political establishment.
The general, who has died aged 79, set out to free Pakistan from the “sham democracy” of its civilian elite, and to restore the nation’s economy. During nearly ten years in power between 1999 and 2008, he championed “enlightened moderation”, a term he dreamt up to marry Islam and secularism and justify his rule. But his strategy failed, and he resigned in disgrace in 2008. He spent most of his final years practically confined to his Dubai home, in self-imposed exile.
Musharraf came to power in a bloodless military coup in 1999 that began as he circled over Karachi in a civilian airliner running short of fuel. He had learnt on board that he had been sacked by the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif and would not be allowed to land. But a fellow general took control of the airport, and the army ushered in Pakistan’s fourth era of military rule in the 52 years since its creation.
His seizure of power was welcomed at the time as a way of ending widespread corruption and Sharif’s increasing authoritarianism. But the goodwill began to evaporate after a legally suspect referendum in 2002 gave Musharraf five years in office as president.
Like all of Pakistan’s military rulers, Musharraf failed to give the country long-term stability and, in seeking a mandate to stay in power, undermined its civilian, democratic and federal institutions. The major victors of his era were the religious parties he allowed to proliferate, in an attempt to counter the traditional separatist groupings and popular political parties of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, whom he had forced into exile.
Musharraf was born in Delhi on 11 August 1943 into a family of middle-class Indian Muslims. As a child during the 1947 partition of India, he was taken to Karachi, then the capital of a newly created Pakistan. Musharraf became a fanatical nationalist and for the rest of his life referred to India as “the arch enemy”.
He won a place at Pakistan’s military academy, and worked his way up the army hierarchy. He was a rumbustious teenager, keen on practical jokes, and in his adult life prided himself on his bravery and his fellowship with his men.
As army chief in 1999, before he seized power, he precipitated war with a nuclear-enabled India by sending troops masquerading as insurgents to occupy the Himalayan heights of Kargil on the UN boundary line. When he was ordered to withdraw by Sharif, he claimed his original action was to prevent an Indian attack and accused the prime minister of humiliating Pakistan.
Events in Afghanistan helped Musharraf secure support from the US and Britain. The general’s help was essential to America’s post-9/11 war against the Afghan Taliban. He said that in 2001, Richard Armitage, the US deputy secretary of state, had threatened to bomb Pakistan back into the stone age if he did not co-operate. Washington denied the claim.
It was a difficult situation to navigate. On the one hand, Musharraf disdained Islamic extremism. On the other, he considered it to be in Pakistan’s interest to support the Taliban against their northern, largely Tajik rivals. His solution was to supply the US with mostly inconsequential, low-ranking al-Qaeda and Taliban officials for capture.
Still, Musharraf was seen by many religious nationalists within and outside the army as a traitor and a US stooge. He survived at least two major assassination attempts.
A turning point in Musharraf’s already waning popularity came when opposition party leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 2007. Bhutto’s supporters accused Musharraf of failing to provide her with a strong security detail. By 2008 Pakistanis had had enough of the general, and he was forced to resign amid an escalating public and political backlash.
He tried to contest the general election in 2013, but was unable to make inroads without the army’s backing, and left quietly for Dubai.
In Musharraf’s absence, he was sentenced to jail time in connection with Bhutto’s assassination and was sentenced to death in 2019 for imposing a state of emergency when in power, though these rulings were subsequently revoked.
The general’s army colleagues described him as a bold and adventurous tactician. Yet as a strategist he was severely lacking. During his time leading the country, he relied on short-term solutions to deep-rooted infrastructural problems. He left Pakistan as unstable as he had found it, but with the army more deeply entrenched than ever.
Source: Financial Times