Military

Pervez Musharraf’s possible Pakistan return reignites debate over his dictatorship

Musharraf came to power in 1999 after a military coup toppled the Nawaz Sharif government. He led the country till 2008 when he resigned to avoid impeachment

Pakistan’s ailing former President and Army Chief, General (retired) Pervez Musharraf (78 years) is now being enabled to return to Pakistan. This marks a milestone in Pakistan’s history. Generals abrogating the Constitution no longer escape censure during their lifetime. The Army squirms under this scrutiny but it remains steadfast in support of its own, especially those who have held high office.

Four years old during Partition, when his family moved from their Nehar Wali Haveli home in old Delhi, Musharraf grew up in middle-class environs in Karachi, where his father served as an Accountant in the Foreign Ministry, and later, during the latter’s seven-year posting in Turkey. He studied in Forman Christian College, Lahore before joining the Army in 1961.

By his own admission, Musharraf was “passionate but impetuous” (Line of Fire; Simon & Schuster, 2006), erring on discipline. Assigned to the Artillery, his army dossier had many ‘red’ entries. Yet, professionally it ticked off all the right slots. He commanded artillery units under both Mangla and Multan Corps. As a young officer, he saw action in the 1965 war against India in the Kasur-Khemkaran sector. He served seven years in two stints in the Special Services Group (SSG), as Captain and Major, (including in 1971, when he did not see active combat). He did Staff College as a Major (1974) and later, the National Defence College War Course, serving also as Instructor at these institutions. He was Deputy Director, Military Operations during the Siachen setback (1983-84), where he typically ascribed the ‘delay’ to the Force Commander, Northern Areas (FCNA). In 1990, Musharraf attended the Royal College of Defence Studies, London. He commanded an Infantry Division (40 Div, Okara), later becoming Director General, Military Operations (1993-1995). In October 1995, he was appointed Corps Commander, Mangla.

From early days, Musharraf shared the Army officer’s institutionally bred contempt for civilian politicians. In May 1997, the then Army Chief, General Jehangir Karamat, appointed his batch-mate, Lt Gen Ali Kuli Khan Khattak, as Chief of General Staff. Musharraf regarded Khattak as mediocre professionally, but as he was backed also by President Leghari, Khattak was emerging as front runner for the next Army Chief. However, fate intervened. In December 1997, prime minister Nawaz Sharif fell out with president Leghari, easing him out along with a recalcitrant Chief Justice (Sajjad Ali Shah). In October 1998, General Karamat too was asked to quit after his controversial speech demanding a National Security Council and Nawaz appointed Musharraf COAS.

Musharraf’s relations with Nawaz Sharif were not comfortable from the outset. He had to cope with the latter’s penchant for interfering in Army postings. Musharraf did not hesitate to discipline an errant Lt Gen Tariq Pervez, Corps Commander, Quetta, who was suspected of playing politics, leaking details of Corps Commanders’ meetings to his brother, Raja Nadir Pervez, a minister in Nawaz’s Cabinet. Matters came to a head over the Kargil intrusion, which Musharraf claims was a tactical manoeuvre, explained as such to the Prime Minister in two briefings in January and February, 1999. When Nawaz was proceeding to the US to meet president Bill Clinton, Musharraf told him that Pakistan had the military advantage in Kargil, yet the PM succumbed to US pressure, agreeing to a withdrawal. The slide to the October 1999 coup was inevitable, despite Nawaz’s attempts to lull Musharraf into complacency by making him Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, in addition to COAS, and inviting him to a dinner with the family patriarch, Mian Mohammed Sharif.

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As Chief Executive, Musharraf came into his own, riding a crest of popularity (1999-2002). Developments on the international front had mixed impact, with terror links of the 9/11 attack on New York’s twin towers being traced back to Osama bin Laden (OBL). He had to face pressure from US officials to fall in line with the Americans’ ‘war on terror’, which he and his team of duplicitous officials in Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) did adroitly, facilitating the arrest of Osama’s cohorts inside Pakistan — Abu Zubaida, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Omar Sheikh — but helping the Taliban to regroup.

When confronted by CIA chief George Tenet in September 2003 with proof of Dr AQ Khan’s illegal proliferation networks to North Korea, Iran and Libya, Musharraf resorted to an uncomfortable tightrope walk, forcing Khan to apologise on national media, while disciplining “his erstwhile hero” through indefinite house arrest. An elaborate mechanism of command and control was devised for the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), to belatedly espouse Pakistan’s credentials as `a responsible nuclear power’.

As president (2001-08), Musharraf ventured into somewhat controversial forays in diplomacy. His efforts to break the ice with India at Agra in July 2001 were not successful but ‘out of box’ suggestions on the Kashmir issue did make considerable headway, through Track II contacts in the Tariq Aziz-Satish Lambah dialogue, 2004-2007.

In March 2007, Musharraf sacked an errant Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, for misusing office to extend benefits to his son, Arsalan. The move burgeoned into a massive lawyers’ agitation for the latter’s restoration (July 2007). Under pressure now, Musharraf reluctantly facilitated Benazir’s return to the country in October. He may not have plotted her assassination but clouds remain on the lackadaisical security provided for her and the role of his cronies in its aftermath.

Soon thereafter (28 November 2007), Musharraf had to give up being Army chief. This was the beginning of the end. Even as the new Army leadership, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani first and General Raheel Sharif later, looked on, he had to suffer the ignominy of repeated court strictures for the state of emergency he declared in November 2007. In April 2013 an Islamabad court ordered his arrest. However, after a dramatic route diversion taking him to hospital, Gen Raheel Sharif enabled him to move to the UAE (March 2016). In 2019, a Special Court sentenced him to death for treason but this judgement was annulled by the Lahore High Court.

Musharraf’s possible return to Pakistan after he left the country in 2016 has reignited the debate about the military dictatorship that he led between 1999 and 2008.

The writer is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views expressed are personal.

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