Pervez Musharraf: The Pakistani ex-president’s chequered legacy

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The former army chief, who seized power in a coup, died at the age of 79 in Dubai after a prolonged illness.

When asked in a 2014 Al Jazeera interview if he had any regrets from his time in leadership, former Pakistan army chief and President Pervez Musharraf emphatically said “not at all”.

“I did so much for Pakistan … I did so much for my country and my people,” the four-star general asserted, a sentiment he would continue to express in later years.

But for many Pakistanis, Musharraf, whose death after a prolonged illness was announced on Sunday, leaves behind a grim legacy – defined in large part by human rights abuses and the US-led so-called “war on terror”.

Musharraf, who died aged 79, ruled the country for nearly nine years after seizing power in a military coup in 1999.

He died in the United Arab Emirates, where he had been living since he was charged with treason in Pakistan in 2014.

INTERACTIVE_PERVAIZ_MUSHARAF_OBIT_FEB5_2023
(Al Jazeera)

Rise to power

Born in Delhi in 1943, Musharraf moved to Karachi, Pakistan in 1947 with his family after the partition of India and Pakistan.

He joined the army in 1961 as a student and steadily rose up the ranks, culminating in his selection as army chief in 1998 by former three-time Prime Minister and head of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) Nawaz Sharif.

Musharraf deposed and arrested Sharif in a coup on October 12, 1999, and became chief executive, after Sharif refused to allow a commercial plane carrying the four-star general to land in Karachi.

Tensions between the two men had been high for months, most importantly over the conflict in Kargil against India.

(FILES) In this picture taken on October 12, 1999, Pakistan army soldiers enter the state television building by jumping over the gate in Islamabad
Pakistan army soldiers jump the gate of the state television building in Islamabad on October 12, 1999 [Saeed Khan/AFP]

Under growing foreign pressure, Sharif was exiled by Musharraf to Saudi Arabia, eventually returning in late 2007.

After becoming president in 2001 following a referendum marred by accusations of widespread rigging, pro-Musharraf parties in 2002 secured the most seats in the general elections.

Speaking from Lahore, prominent columnist and lawyer Asad Rahim said as former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Sharif were both in exile, it gave Musharraf an “open field” to succeed at the 2002 polls.

“It was a hotchpotch coalition of ex-PMLN politicians, a veneer of civilian democracy bereft of truly genuine political participation,” he added.

‘War on terror’

After the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan under Musharraf chose to ally with the US and supported the overthrowing of al-Qaeda allies, the Afghan Taliban.

This included opening land routes for NATO forces to enter landlocked Afghanistan, allowing the presence of US air bases, and sending Pakistani troops to tribal areas in the north to fight al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

Arif Rafiq, president of political risk advisory company Vizier Consulting, told Al Jazeera that 9/11 helped Musharraf “legitimise” his rule internationally.

“When it came to combatting al-Qaeda, he was a very reliable ally, to the extent that he put his own country’s security at risk, as well as his own personal security,” he said from New York.

“His cooperation with the West also precipitated what was effectively a civil war in the country,” he added, referring to the growth in violent attacks, and noted that Musharraf was under “tremendous pressure” from the US to take action.

US President George W. Bush (R) and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, left, and US President George W Bush [File: Tim Sloan/AFP]

The “war on terror” also saw a rise in enforced disappearances in Pakistan, a longstanding issue in the country, most notably in the western province of Balochistan and the former tribal areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Hundreds of political activists, students and suspected armed fighters were forcibly disappeared.

In his autobiography, Line of Fire, Musharraf admitted arresting suspected al-Qaeda members and handing them over to the US, some of whom ended up in the US-run prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, while earning “bounty payments totalling millions of dollars”.

Rafiq says enforced disappearances remain “an enduring part of Musharraf’s legacy”.

“The counterterrorism efforts with the US also created perverse incentives for the Pakistani state to effectively detain and kidnap people it suspected of terrorism,” he said.

Rabia Akhtar, director at the Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research at the University of Lahore, told Al Jazeera that “while it is important to understand that hindsight is 20/20”, the results of Musharraf joining the war [on terror] were ‘devastating’ for Pakistan.

“Pakistan under [Musharraf] could have negotiated and drawn red lines in a manner that maximised its strategic interests,” Akhtar said via email.

Downfall

In March 2007, Musharraf fired former Pakistan Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, which led to a massive public backlash and gave birth to the lawyers’ movement, which protested against Musharraf’s rule after he dismissed multiple high-profile lawyers.

Four months later, the general was embroiled in another controversy – the week-long siege of Lal Masjid (the Red Mosque) by religious hardliners that ended with Musharraf ordering a military operation in which some 100 people were killed.

The incident was a catalyst for the rise of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which has claimed dozens, if not hundreds, of deadly attacks to date.

A Pakistani army armoured personnel carrier takes up a position around the Lal Masjid
A Pakistani army armoured personnel carrier takes up a position around the Lal Masjid in Islamabad July 10, 2007 [Reuters]

In November 2007, he imposed a state of emergency and suspended the constitution, reigniting protests.

He resigned as army chief later that month, but it did little to help his political fortunes as the assassination of Bhutto in December led to more widespread protests and violence. He was accused of willfully failing to ensure her security.

In February 2008, his PML-Q party performed poorly in the polls, forcing him to resign from his office several months later.

While analysts say Musharraf’s legacy has largely been negative, he has received praise for some of his domestic policies – including women’s rights and local government reforms – and in some foreign affairs.

Akhtar said improved relations with India during his time as president was one of his “biggest” foreign policy achievements.

“[He was] able to make headway on the Kashmir issue and that was the last time there was hope on Kashmir front with the four-point formula that he had proposed, which was at least seriously considered for what it was worth,” she told Al Jazeera.

The four-point formula envisaged by Musharraf included demilitarisation, self-governance and a joint mechanism agreed by India and Pakistan for the supervision of Kashmir.

Musharraf has also been credited with opening up Pakistan’s media landscape.

“Before [his rule] there was one state-owned channel [Pakistan Television], [after] there were dozens of private news channels that thrived under him,” Vizier’s Rafiq added.

However, he said the freedoms granted to the media became a “double-edged sword” and played a strong role in Musharraf’s downfall, citing the negative coverage that followed after his removal of Chief Justice Chaudhry and “non-stop coverage of the lawyers’ movement”.

During the imposition of the 42-day emergency rule, many news channels were forced off-air.

Lawyer Rahim said that while Musharraf passed legislation on women’s rights and was more tolerant of dissent and criticism in the press than previous rulers, “in the end when his authority was fundamentally challenged for the first time in 2007 … then all the promises of liberalism, moderation, media freedoms went out the window”.

Post-presidency

After stepping down, Musharraf lived between London and Dubai for several years, while giving lectures and keynote speeches.

In 2010, he announced the formation of his own party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, and returned in 2013 to lead his group in the general elections that year.

His party won one seat in parliament, while his former rival Sharif became prime minister for the third time.

Months later, Sharif started criminal proceedings against Musharraf, levelling treason charges against him for imposing emergency rule in 2007.

Musharraf was suffering from amyloidosis – a condition that leads to an abnormal build-up of the amyloid protein in major organs – and the trial, which began in 2014, was unable to proceed amid the former president’s health issues and other legal hiccups.

Critics say the military obstructed the legal process as it was unwilling to see its former chief be convicted.

He eventually moved to Dubai in 2016.

However, a special court in 2019 sentenced him to death in absentia, a conviction which was later overturned.

Musharraf is survived by his wife and two children.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA

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