Musharraf tried to save the country, and himself, at all odds

ADNAN R. KHAN September 1 2008


Musharraf tried to save the country, and himself, at all odds

ADNAN R. KHAN September 1 2008



Musharraf tried to save the country, and himself, at all odds


Once upon a time, there was a general who would be king. His rise was epic: from an average soldier famously known to unerringly follow orders, to the chief of one of the world’s biggest armies, a loyal servant who would be rewarded for his fidelity but who would eventually fall victim to that most common of tragic flaws— hubris. The story of Pervez Musharraf’s rise and fall is, in Pakistan’s brief history, only the latest in a long list of coups and crashes. But it highlights just how fickle the Pakistani public can be, exalting its leaders and then abandoning them. Musharraf was embraced as a saviour by Pakistanis nationwide after he wrested power from the democratically elected government of Nawaz Sharif in October 1999, touted by his political, military and international backers as the cure-all for Pakistan’s various ills. Nine years later, he has been left out in the cold, even as the problems and forces that led to his resignation—rising fundamentalist violence, institutional instability, political mistrust and rampant corruptionremain to bedevil Pakistan’s next leaders.

When Musharraf toppled the Sharif government, only a year after his appointment to chief of army staff by Sharif himself—who had promoted the relative unknown ahead of more experienced military officers, seeing him as a pliable “yes” man—no one was par-

ticularly surprised or upset. In fact, the mood in Pakistan was upbeat—Sharif had been a disappointment. “We’ve had enough of leaders like Sharif,” said one pro-Musharraf demonstrator days after the coup. “The people are demanding honesty in politics. If Musharraf can give us that then we accept him.” Saddled with years of corrupt leadership, average Pakistanis were desperate for a saviour, and the new chief executive, as Musharraf now styled himself, promised to be just that, setting up the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which he said would eliminate corruption, and vowing to revive a withering economy.

The fact that the general had taken power in a military coup didn’t seem to bother people very much at the time. The army’s intervention in politics was nothing new, and Musharraf’s version had been tame, even heroic, by comparison. “In the first few years of his rule, people responded well to his vision,” says Iqbal Khattak, Peshawar bureau chief for the Daily Times newspaper. “He was very good at playing to the gallery, at understanding what they wanted to hear.” Nor did he impose any draconian laws—no curfews, no curbs on the media (those would come later), a constitution that was largely left in place. Yes, the judiciary was purged of judges opposed to military rule, and the national assembly was dissolved. But in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling in May 2000 that his coup had been legal, Musharraf pledged to honour another part of that ruling—that Pakistan return to civilian rule within three years. For the moment,

life went on more or less as usual, despite the absence of democratic institutions.

But the pressures on Musharraf soon began to increase, both internally and internationally. Economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. following Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests remained in place. The IMF refused to release billions of dollars in promised loans until economic reforms were implemented. The economy was on the verge of collapse, with foreign reserves reported to stand at less than US$1 billion. And political doubts about the general—however muted—began to intensify in the wake of his June 2001 decision to appoint himself president, while remaining as chief of army staff. How could that, some critics wondered, be a step on the path to reestablished civilian rule in Pakistan?

Musharraf was given a new lease on life in September 2001 when Islamic fundamentalists—many of them trained in camps inside Pakistan—hijacked four passenger planes in the U.S., slamming two of them into the World Trade Center in New York and one into the Pentagon. War subsequently erupted in neighbouring Afghanistan as the U.S. and its allies invaded to crush the Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda terrorists it had harboured. In a move that would bring short-term gain, but ultimately contribute to his downfall, Musharraf decided to join the U.S.-led war on terror (revealing in his 2006 memoir that he did so only after Richard Armitage, then the U.S. deputy secretary of state, threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age”).

The president cut Pakistan’s official ties with the Taliban, fostered for years by successive Pakistani governments through the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy service (the Taliban were seen as a strategic ally against the Indianand Western-backed Northern Alliance during the civil war in Afghanistan that followed the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from that country). Musharraf also outlawed militant Pakistani-based groups fighting a war of independence in Indianoccupied Kashmir, the flashpoint region in the north that has been divided and fought over since India and Pakistan gained independence from British rule in 1947 That and other deeply unpopular moves created severe rifts in Pakistani society as well as within the ISI, which over the years had cultivated close relationships with militants. Many extremists, and elements within the ISI and Pakistan’s military, began to turn on Musharraf, accusing him of being a toady to the U.S.

By that point, though, Musharraf had grown to like his public role as president. In April 2002, he engineered a referendum to extend his presidency for another five years. At the time, very little stood in his way. For weeks, Islamabad was awash with posters

the smiling, bespectacled former army commando turned politician. Anti-referendum demonstrations were banned, pro-referendum demonstrations encouraged. A clampdown on electronic media snuffed out any meaningful debate. Only the print media were allowed to operate freely, but with the illiteracy rate topping 50 per cent, the vast majority of Pakistanis relied on TV or radio for information. The result of the referendum, based on a mere 30 per cent turnout, was as staggering as it was unbelievable: a 98 per cent approval rating.

But the Taliban and al-Qaeda, easily vanquished from Afghanistan by the U.S.-led invasion, had begun to regroup in the autonomous Tribal Areas in Pakistan’s northwestern frontier. Rumours circulated that elements of the ISI were helping them. Not far away in Kashmir, militant groups banned by Musharraf, and also reportedly aided by rogue elements in the ISI, were also on the move. A confluence of these Kashmiri jihadists and their Afghan and al-Qaeda counterparts would, in the years to come, create a new menace: the Pakistani Taliban, which would play a crucial role in Musharraf’s downfall.

Still, by the end of 2002 U.S. funds were pouring in, bolstering the Pakistani economy and helping Musharraf ward off his most virulent critics. Massive building projects were spurring the economy. The Karachi Stock Exchange was coming to life. Some economists warned that Pakistan’s economic revival was only a chimera, based almost entirely on U.S. money. For Musharraf, however, it was grist for the ego mill. He had bought into his own saviour myth.

Other reforms were not going so well. The National Accountability Bureau was accused of being politically motivated, detaining Musharraf’s political enemies under trumpedup corruption charges and releasing others loyal to him. “This was when people started to turn on Musharraf,” says Khattak. “When he allçwed people facing charges at the NAB to get closer to him. People started to understand that he did not mean what he said.” In the face of such criticism, and bowing to intense outside pressure, especially from the U.S., Musharraf said he would allow a general election to be held in October 2002, as mandated by the 2000 court ruling that legitimized his coup. It was the country’s first since 1997, and resulted in the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League—Qaid-e-Azam (PMLQ) party—getting the most seats, although short of a majority. Ominously, the MMA, a grouping of fundamentalist parties, did better than expected, and formed a coalition with the PML-Q.

It was a development that, to some degree, tied Musharraf’s hands when the Taliban and

their al-Qaeda partners—headquartered in Pakistan—began stepping up attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan. Western governments called on the president to crack down. But while operations were launched in South Waziristan in January 2003, their scale was limited, with two key factors preventing Musharraf from ordering an all-out assault. One was the open support of the MMA, his coalition partner, for the Taliban; Musharraf could not afford to overly alienate the fundamentalists. But a similar concern applied to the army, whose foot soldiers are largely drawn from the country’s poor and uneducated population, the same demographic that enrolls in the Islamic madrasa school system where students are indoctrinated with a pro-Taliban ideology. Ordering these men to annihilate their ideological soulmates risked disintegrating the army.

Instead, Musharraf took a soft approach, and the result was a stalemate. Pakistani forces suffered as many losses as the militants, and eventually the fighting was temporarily suspended after the military signed peace deals with the militants starting in 2005 (fighting later resumed when those deals fell apart).

Those accords were severely criticized by Western leaders now questioning Musharraf’s commitment to the war on terror. At home, meanwhile, the military operations eroded Musharraf’s popular support. More and more people now viewed him as the militants did— a U.S. lapdog—even as rising extremist attacks in urban centres like Islamabad and Lahore, previously untouched by Islamic militancy, increased instability. But amid mounting calls for him to step down, Musharraf remained enamoured of his saviour myth. He was the only man, he said, who could see Pakistan through such dark times.

Hubris overtook him. In March 2007, he suspended the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, an activist judge who had clashed regularly with the ruling elite over corruption and the legitimacy of Musharraf’s rule. Lawyers rioted on the streets of Pakistan, and eventually Musharraf bowed to public pressure, reinstating the chief justice that July. But the confrontation was far from over. Lawyers continued their protests, demanding that

Musharraf step down as chief of army staff. As civil unrest increased, Musharraf promised that he would remove his uniform, but only with the extension of his presidential term by a parliamentary vote. His opponents smelled a rat: with a general election slated for January 2008, how could a president be given a new mandate by an outgoing parliament, they asked?

In the midst of the political turmoil, attacks by the Pakistani Taliban continued to rise.

He left the military, but changed the constitution to tighten his grip as president

Sensing that Musharraf’s reign was at an end, militant leaders began a push to further destabilize the country, paving the way for their emergence into political life. Two of these leaders were Abdul Aziz Ghazi and his brother Abdul Rashid, who had been using their mosque and madrasa complex in the heart of Islamabad as a base for militant activities since the beginning of2007, sending out squads of baton-wielding students to enforce their brand of Islamic sharia law. In July 2007, with the Red Mosque and the Jamia Hafsa Seminary now converted into a virtual military compound, Musharraf decided to take action, leading to a bloody standoff that would ultimately seal his fate. Gun battles between the army and militants inside the complexsome of whom, reports claimed, were members of Kashmiri outfits banned by Musharraf-lasted a week. Then, in a final, frenzied confrontation, the Red Mosque rebellion was crushed, with hundreds killed and injured.

That triggered an orgy of reprisal attacks. Suicide bombers lashed out in Islamabad and Lahore. Militants in the once peaceful

Swat Valley drove out police and security forces and established a Taliban-style Islamic government there. Anger toward Musharraf was at an apex, but, desperate to hold on to power, he remained defiant, declaring a state of emergency in November 2007, and again sacking Chaudhry. Other judges were forced to take an oath of allegiance to Musharraf; those who refused were fired and placed under house arrest. Hundreds, some say thousands, of lawyers were thrown in

jail. Against that backdrop, and with the military starting to lose faith in Musharraf, he was nevertheless re-confirmed as Pakistan’s president for another five years, in a parliamentary vote boycotted by opposition parties.

As promised, the president resigned as head of the military. Emergency rule was lifted, but only after Musharraf unilaterally changed the constitution to secure his grip on the presidency—a move that would prove futile. With the general election approaching, two popular politicians, both of them Musharraf’s nemeses, returned to Pakistan: Benazir Bhutto, who went into self-imposed exile in 1998, before Musharraf’s coup, but had directed her opposition party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, from afar; and Nawaz Sharif. The latter was banned by the election commission from running for office—after criminal convictions brought against him following the 1999 coup, he was eventually pardoned in exchange for exile and a ban preventing him from running for political office for 21 years. Bhutto, however, had arranged an amnesty with Musharraf, amid speculation the two could enter a coalition. But the possibility of any such deal quickly fell apart, and then came Bhutto’s Dec. 27 assassination, stunning Pakistan and the world. The election was rescheduled for Feb. 18,2008; her PPP swept to power on the crest of a sympathy vote. Sharif’s Pakistan

Muslim League—Nawaz (PML-N)—came second. The PML-Q, the pro-Musharraf party, was relegated to a distant third.

Together, the PPP and PML-N had secured enough seats in parliament to impeach the president. To do so would mean standing up to the powerful military, led by Musharraf’s own appointee to the chief of staff post, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. The military, according to most analysts, had made it clear that they would stay out of politics. But would that be the case if one of their own, even one they considered a liability, faced the humiliation of impeachment? That uncertainty likely held back proceedings for months. In the end, and with the approval of all four of Pakistan’s provincial assemblies, the impeachment card was finally played at the beginning of August. Backed by all levels of government and politicians of every political persuasion, even those who had supported Musharraf throughout his dictatorial rule, the ruling coalition felt it had enough support to move forward, although it gave Musharraf a window to escape impeachment proceedings: resignation, an offer that would ultimately be acceptable to the military. On Aug. 18, just days before the process would have reached the point of no return, Musharraf took the offer.

Pakistan is left facing a crucial moment in its history. “Now is the real test,” says Khattak, pointing out that opposition to Musharraf was the only binding force between the PPP and PML-N, who were at each other’s throats during the 1980s and 1990s. “How they sort out their differences will be key to their success or failure.” As for Musharraf, while his resignation marks the end of a turbulent nine years of rule, some, chief among them Nawaz Sharif, are demanding more: treason charges, which carry the death penalty. That, most observers agree, is unlikely to happen. Instead, says Khattak, people can expect Musharraf to live quietly for a while, then perhaps slip off to another country, possibly Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

It is a sad conclusion for a man who many still believe had a genuine desire to put Pakistan on the path to stability and prosperity. Instead, because of his mistakes, and also events over which he had little control—9/11, the war in Afghanistan, the subsequent destabilization of Pakistan—his country remains beset by seemingly insurmountable problems. The Taliban continue to prove that they remain a danger. The battles between the Pakistani army and militants rage on. The ISI remains an uncontrollable and destructive element in the nation’s politics. Rising fuel and food prices threaten the economy. But these are problems no one man could ever fix. For Pakistan, no one man, or woman, will ever be a saviour. M