Pervez Musharraf, the commando who couldn’t

Irfan Husain
19 August 2008

When Pervez Musharraf launched into a litany of his achievements in his farewell speech to the nation as Pakistan's president on 18 August 2008, he was probably unaware that he was speaking almost exactly twenty years after General Zia ul-Haq's plane fell mysteriously out of the sky over southern Punjab. In his address, Musharraf remained defiant to the last: lambasting the elected government for its mishandling of governance over the last few months, while taking credit for the improvements he claimed had taken place during his nine years in power.
Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf:

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamabad" (4 June 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan's peril" (19 July 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan: the power of the gun" (7 November 2007)

Saskia Sassen, "Lahore: urban space, niche repression" (21 November 2007)

Kanishk Tharoor, "Benazir murdered: what next?" (27 December 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)
Over the years, as Musharraf was deemed to be indispensable by the west, his self-confidence hardened into arrogance, and then into megalomania. This transformation burst forth into public view on 9 March 2007, when he suspended Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry from his post of chief justice of the country's supreme court. Pakistan's most senior judge had been annoying the general by issuing a series of independent judgments that had embarrassed the government. As Musharraf was about to seek re-election, he wanted to remove any legal and constitutional hurdles Iftikhar Chaudhry was likely to erect.

There was a problem. Musharraf had become accustomed to getting his way by virtue of the power he had accumulated since he ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999; so he was ill-prepared for the chief justice's refusal to resign. In a fit of rage, Musharraf suspended him, triggering a nationwide movement spearheaded by lawyers, and supported by a wide spectrum of civil society and political parties. Throughout summer 2007, the protests mounted, with demands for Iftikhar Chaudhry's reinstatement uniting and energising the opposition, while resonating deeply among ordinary Pakistanis.

Musharraf's popularity plunged, but he responded in characteristic fashion: by embracing his power even more tightly. On 3 November, he declared a state of emergency, sacked nearly sixty judges from the supreme court and the four provincial high courts, simultaneously promising to step down as the army chief, thus clearing the decks for his re-election for another five years.

By this time, he had become virtually isolated politically, standing alone except for his jerry-built coalition of a breakaway faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (known as the "Q" league or the "king's party"), and the ethnic Karachi-based MQM. Ever since he had seized power, he had gone out of his way to malign both the centrist Nawaz Sharif and his mainstream Muslim League, and the left-of-centre Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto.

Musharraf's army-staffed National Accountability Bureau pursued a number of court cases against Ms Bhutto and her husband in Pakistan and abroad. Nawaz Sharif was convicted of hijacking Musharraf's aircraft in 1999, a charge that carried the death penalty, and exiled to Saudi Arabia. Benazir Bhutto went into exile, while her husband Asif Ali Zardari, served eight years in jail, although no case was ever proved against him; soon after her return to Pakistan, she was assassinated on 27 December 2007.

A lost leader

Musharraf's repression of the PPP and the PML in part ensured that the elections of 2002 saw the emergence of religious parties as a parliamentary force for the first time in Pakistan's patchy electoral history. Allegedly, the elections had been rigged by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to reduce the number of seats the opposition parties won. Although the PPP won the largest number of votes, Musharraf's allies were able to cobble together a majority in the national assembly, and in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab. In Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), both provinces bordering Afghanistan, the Islamic parties enjoyed their first taste of power.

Meanwhile, the events of 9/11 had produced a remarkable change of fortunes for Musharraf and for Pakistan. After testing its nuclear devices in 1998 following Indian tests, Pakistan was subjected to a crippling round of sanctions. The rupee plunged and the economy went into freefall. The situation was exacerbated when Musharraf launched his Kargil misadventure in spring 1999. When he launched his coup later that year, he and Pakistan were virtual pariahs on the international stage.

The situation was abruptly transformed when Musharraf made his famous post-9/11 u-turn. Publicly abandoning the Taliban, an ISI creation, he handed over a wide range of military facilities to the western allies that attacked Afghanistan for harbouring Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida. Suddenly, Musharraf became the darling of the west. Debts were written off; billions in military and economic aid were committed; and Pakistan became a frontline state in the "war against terror". Crucially, Musharraf pledged to reform the madrasas that had produced the leadership of the Taliban, and were churning out thousands of young Pakistanis capable only of reciting the Qur'an. Many of them became footsoldiers in the many militant groups that had sprung up during Zia's eleven years in power.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, Musharraf could talk the talk, but could never quite bring himself to walk the walk. Since his early days in power when he appeared in a famous photograph with a pet dog in his arms, together with his wife and sari-clad mother, Pakistan's secular liberals had hopes that he would arrest the country's slide into fundamentalism. Indeed, by removing Nawaz Sharif, he had ended the Punjabi prime minister's plan to enact the fifteenth amendment to the constitution that would have replaced the existing, British-era legal code with the sharia. In this proposed law, Nawaz Sharif would have been given the caliphate-era title of Amir-ul-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful).
Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan

Among Irfan Husain's articles in openDemocracy:

"Pervez Musharraf's desperate gamble" (5 November 2007)

"Pakistan's multi-faceted crisis" (12 November 2007)

"Pakistan: a question of legitimacy" (26 November 2007)

"Pakistan: the election and after" (10 December 2007)

"Benazir Bhutto: the politics of murder" (28 December 2007)

"Pakistan: a post-election scenario" (11 January 2008)

"Pakistan's critical moment" (11 February 2008)

"Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)

"Pakistan's tough inheritance" (18 March 2008)

"Pakistan's rivalrous coalition" (19 May 2008)

"China and the Olympics: a view from Pakistan" (8 August 2008)
Soon, as he became more and more dependent on the Islamic parties for political support, he distanced himself from his stated secular values; his dogs disappeared from public view; and when the mullahs announced that they would not accept state interference in their madrasas, Musharraf backed down. But as the Americans bombed Afghanistan and then invaded Iraq, Musharraf's support for their actions turned the Islamic parties and much of the rest of Pakistan against him.

A last look

Even as his security services scooped up al-Qaida operatives and handed them over to the Americans, they allowed the Taliban to use Pakistan's remote tribal areas as staging areas and training-camps. This dichotomy was rooted in the Pakistan military's conviction that a stable Afghanistan allied with India would be a strategic nightmare. Thus, although it moved around 80,000 troops to the Afghan border, the bulk of its resources continue to face eastwards. Musharraf and his colleagues continue to believe that given their political compulsions, western forces will withdraw sooner rather than later from Afghanistan. At that point, according to their calculations, they will have their Taliban proxies in place.

This blinkered strategic outlook has blinded them to the danger the Taliban and their Pakistani supporters pose to Pakistan. Over the last year, groups of tribal militants, now united under the banner of the Pakistani Taliban, have been encroaching steadily across the tribal areas as well as the settled areas of the NWFP. The real question is how a post-Musharraf army will cooperate with an elected government in tackling this growing menace. While Musharraf used the threat to squeeze more money out of the Americans, the coalition government sees the peril of Talibanisation very clearly for what it is: an existential threat to the country.

There are signs that the army has had enough. Not only has its new chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, refused to take sides politically, it is acting increasingly firmly against the tribal militias. The recent fighting in Swat to quell the Islamic rebellion there has caused a large number of militant casualties. The biggest task for the coalition government is to convince ordinary people that they are not fighting "America's war", but are struggling for their own country's survival. This is something Pervez Musharraf could never do as he was not convinced himself.

In his last speech, one of the claims Musharraf made was that he had improved the law-and-order situation. As Pakistan's security forces fight a civil war in the tribal areas, as well as an insurgency in Balochistan, I wonder if he reflected on the irony of his words. But a commando to the last, introspection and irony were never his strong suits.

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