Obituary

Pervez Musharraf Dragged His Country Down

The charismatic Pakistani general aimed to be a great national leader but failed by shredding the constitution and recklessly doing Washington’s bidding.

By , a senior partner at Tabadlab, an advisory services firm.
Outgoing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2008
Outgoing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2008
Outgoing President Pervez Musharraf salutes as he leaves the presidential house in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Aug. 18, 2008. Emilio Morenatti/AP

Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former president, died at age 79 in Dubai on Sunday after a long illness, according to a statement by the Pakistani military.

Outgoing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2008
Outgoing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2008

Outgoing President Pervez Musharraf salutes as he leaves the presidential house in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Aug. 18, 2008.Emilio Morenatti/AP

Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former president, died at age 79 in Dubai on Sunday after a long illness, according to a statement by the Pakistani military.

Musharraf’s military colleagues in Pakistan often praised him as daring, forthright, and brave—yet the primary legacy he leaves behind will feature none of those adjectives. Pakistan’s 10th president since independence will be remembered instead as a divisive, constitution-shredding military dictator who set Pakistan back decades.

When Musharraf took charge after a military coup in October 1999, Pakistan was not dissimilar from its neighbors China and India—countries with large populations but little economic vitality at the time. China and India, however, soon enjoyed massive growth as their economies opened up to the world and investments poured in and exports flowed out. Pakistan grew too—but not because of any changes in how Musharraf managed the economy. Instead, infusions of cash from the United States to help finance the so-called global war on terrorism bolstered solid (though unspectacular) macroeconomic numbers.

By the end of Musharraf’s tenure in 2008, Pakistan was a regional economic laggard. The country took yet another massive loan from the International Monetary Fund just weeks after he resigned. More importantly, however, insurgencies and violent political crises had engulfed three of Pakistan’s four provinces.

Democratic-minded Pakistanis often blame the United States for bolstering the country’s military dictators, and for good reason. Throughout the three extended periods when generals have run Pakistan—the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 2000s—they did so with vital political and economic support from Washington. That is what helped shore up every military dictator Pakistan has ever had to endure.

But Musharraf’s assistance to U.S. President George W. Bush’s war efforts reached a whole new level and made him something of a celebrity in the United States. In 2006, he became the first foreign head of state to appear on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. It was a somewhat awkward appearance. Asked how he balanced the wishes of the United States and Pakistan, Musharraf said, “I’ve had to learn the art of tightrope-walking many times, and I think I’ve become quite an expert of that.”

He got a few laughs. But there was nothing funny about the mess he was trying to hide back home as he sought to further secure his grip on power by marketing himself as the sole Pakistani counterterrorism partner whom Americans could count on.


Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in military uniform in Kashmir in 2001
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in military uniform in Kashmir in 2001

Musharraf gestures during an address to Kashmiri refugees in Muzaffarabad, in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, on Feb. 5, 2001.SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

Born in 1943 to a middle-class household that migrated to Pakistan from India just four years later, 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 and growing fond of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of a sovereign and secular Turkey. 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 came to be seen as a star officer and 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.

In 1998, Musharraf was appointed head of the armed forces, only to be fired in October 1999 when he was traveling abroad. The armed forces, never keen to obey even the most benign orders of elected civilian leaders, refused to carry out the decision. In scenes more fitting for a cheap thriller one might buy at an airport bookshop, the Army took control of Karachi’s airport, helped land Musharraf’s plane as he returned from his foreign trip, and conducted a coup. Musharraf then appointed himself the head of yet another military government.

As president, his straight-talking, unvarnished style was welcomed by Pakistanis unaccustomed to that kind of candor from a public official. For Pakistan’s rising urban middle class, he became a patron of music, television, film, and fashion. But for the rest of the country—the vast majority—Musharraf’s rule was a time of violence, diminished control over their own lives, and the absence of democratic representation.

Musharraf’s most memorable reform effort was Local Government Ordinance 2001, which aimed to transfer many local services from higher tiers of government to more local authorities. The idea was to empower ordinary citizens and make the authorities overseeing municipal water, sanitation, and education services more responsive to the people using those services. For the first few years after it was enacted, the ordinance and the new systems it created seemed to be improving those services across the country.

As with so many of Musharraf’s promises, though, there was no follow-through. Musharraf never delivered the necessary fiscal and political freedoms that would have ensured his reforms would last. He deliberately kept the four provincial governments weak and fiscally dependent on the largesse of the federal government. This ended up embittering ethnic minorities and deepening the suspicions of democrats already wary of Musharraf’s intentions. Both at the provincial and the national levels, Pakistan’s democratic institutions remained weak. And in 2006, Musharraf helped dismantle some of his own reforms to prolong his time as president—conceding changes to Local Government Ordinance 2001 as part of a deal with “elected” civilians who were actually installed to do his bidding. Despite Musharraf’s many protestations to the contrary, he never really favored democracy.

Nor did he respect the rights and multiple identities of his diverse citizenry. In Balochistan—the sparsely populated, poor, yet mineral-rich province that is 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. Key political leaders who articulated those demands were branded as traitors.

The tipping point probably came in 2006 when Nawab Akbar Bugti, a onetime government minister in Islamabad and former chief minister of the province, was killed in a standoff with the military. Bugti’s family accused Musharraf of having him assassinated. A 2016 court judgment cleared Musharraf of the charge, but many continue to believe that he was responsible. Even those with a tendency to align themselves with Musharraf blamed him for plunging the entire province into violence.

Meanwhile, the cost of fighting al Qaeda was not borne by Musharraf but by the thousands of Pakistani citizens, police officers, spies, and soldiers who were killed in reprisal attacks that metastasized into a full-blown terrorist insurgency in the north and northwest of the country. Bush understandably praised Musharraf for helping to fight his war, calling Musharraf “a leader with great courage and vision.” But for Pakistan, the fruits of that relationship were ruinous. From the home district of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan’s northwest to the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, full-scale military operations displaced and dislocated millions of Pakistani citizens throughout the decade that followed the Musharraf era—operations that were a response to restive and violent conditions that Musharraf, in trying to please Washington, had fostered or created.


Former President Pervez Musharraf returns to Pakistan after four years in exile.
Former President Pervez Musharraf returns to Pakistan after four years in exile.

Musharraf addresses a crowd of supporters after landing at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on March 24, 2013, after four years of self-imposed exile.Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Musharraf and his many supporters often cite the absence of better options—suggesting it would have been impossible to support U.S. counterterrorism campaigns in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks without fueling a terrorist insurgency. And, yes, the challenge of being squeezed between U.S. pressure to conduct a war on terrorism and the domestic complexities of managing that war without igniting internal conflicts and tensions would have been difficult for any leader. Still, Pakistan never had a chance to debate or contemplate how to find a proper balance—Musharraf decided for the whole country.

In the nearly decade and a half between his resignation in 2008 and his death, Musharraf showed little capacity for reflection or remorse. When he did show glimpses of regret, they were transparently self-serving. At the launch of his own political party in October 2010, when questioned about what he did to counter corruption during his time in power, he apologized for having made a 2007 deal to enable former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to return to Pakistan. (She was assassinated on his watch as president.) Later that year, during an interview with Indian television, when confronted about how he left Pakistan in political and financial ruin, he expressed regret at having given up the position of chief of army staff too soon. In an interview in December 2013, as momentum was building for a Pakistani Supreme Court case in which he would have been tried for treason, Musharraf said, “Whatever I did, I did it for the country. It could be wrong, but there was no bad intention in it. Even then, if someone thinks that I have committed a mistake, I seek forgiveness for it.”

Those who wonder about the sincerity of his halting contrition need look no further than his actions toward the end of 2007. Growing increasingly weary of the upsurge in political, legal, and social challenges to his rule that had arisen throughout 2006, he tried to fire the country’s chief justice in March 2007. That decision backfired in July of that year when a 13-judge panel from the Supreme Court reinstated the justice. In response, Musharraf arranged to be elected as president by parliament in October. When that gambit backfired—with almost all opposition members either abstaining or resigning from parliament to protest the behavior of the Musharraf regime—he suspended the constitution altogether, declaring a state of emergency. In keeping with the global post-9/11 tradition of using terrorism as a basis for violating laws, he justified the emergency declaration on the basis of the “visible ascendancy in the activities of extremists and incidents of terrorist attacks.”

It’s not only his actions as the leader of the country after 1999 that will leave his legacy in tatters. Perhaps the most egregious violation of his oath as a soldier was not the coup he conducted 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. Rather, it was the Kargil War of 1999—a military entanglement that his supporters laud for its tactical robustness, yet whose strategic cost Pakistan continues to bear to this day.

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.

A Kashmiri man rubs his eyes as he watches a speech by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Srinagar, in Indian-administered Kashmir, in 2002.
A Kashmiri man rubs his eyes as he watches a speech by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Srinagar, in Indian-administered Kashmir, in 2002.

A Kashmiri man rubs his eyes as he watches a speech by Musharraf in Srinagar, in Indian-administered Kashmir, on Jan. 12, 2002. Musharraf gave a much-anticipated speech, saying he would not allow terrorism of any kind in Pakistan and asking for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Kashmir. Chris Hondros/Getty Images

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. When disagreements between Pakistani politicians and generals boil over, the United States is the baton they use to beat each other up with. Unpredictability in Pakistani governance now seems like a given—but it wasn’t always this way. Gen. Pervez Musharraf was the gardener who planted and harvested those seeds.

To his credit perhaps, despite all his failings, Musharraf remained to the end a relatable figure for the vast middle class of Pakistan. Unlike so many other Pakistani leaders, including military dictators, his family seemed immune to the voracious appetite for money and power such people tend to have. Neither of his two children is a public figure, and neither stands accused of having benefited from the long period when their father enjoyed unlimited power in Pakistan. Previous dictators have left behind multiple generations of very wealthy, politically active offspring.

Musharraf, who had been living in self-imposed exile in Dubai since 2016, leaves behind an empty home in Islamabad and a few apartments in the Middle East and London. All empty. Just like his contrition, and his promises of uniting and reforming the nation.

Mosharraf Zaidi is a senior partner at Tabadlab, an advisory services firm. He worked in Pakistan’s National Reconstruction Bureau from 2001 to 2002. He helped design higher education reforms in 2002 and served as principal advisor to Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2011 to 2013.

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