OHEN PERVEZ MUSHARRAF was appointed head of the Pakistan Army in 1998, he was seen as a surprising choice. A brash former gunner renowned for his bravery under Indian fire and his occasional indiscipline, he was number three on a list of generals from whom then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif had been tasked to choose. He was also an outlier in a top brass dominated by ethnic Punjabis and Pushtuns. Mr. Musharraf was from the city of Karachi in southern Pakistan; his Urdu-speaking family had migrated there in 1947 from Delhi, where he was born. Mr. Sharif, it was clear, viewed Mr. Musharraf as a weak army leader whom he could control.
It was a familiar ploy of Pakistani civilian leaders. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had applied the same logic when appointing Muhammad Zia ul-Haq as army chief in 1976. But Zia quickly deposed Bhutto in a coup, hanged him and ruled Pakistan until he was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1988. Mr. Sharif, it soon emerged, had also underestimated Mr. Musharraf. The general overthrew Mr Sharif in a 1999 coup, had him sentenced to life in prison and ruled Pakistan, first as ‘chief executive’ and then as as President, until his resignation in 2008.
Mr. Musharraf’s decade in power also followed a pattern similar to Zia’s. After a period of civil disorder, Mr. Musharraf stabilized the economy, enacted liberal reforms, increased the rate of growth and was championed by domestic and foreign investors. Like Zia, Mr. Musharraf’s reign coincided with a momentous event in neighboring Afghanistan that would test his leadership and transform Pakistan’s place in the world.
In Zia’s case, it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In Mr. Musharraf’s, it was the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11, carried out by Afghan veterans of the anti-Soviet liberation struggle that Zia had organized on behalf of America. . Mr. Musharraf’s decision to cooperate with America in the ensuing war on terror made him one of its most important allies. America – which cut aid to Pakistan in the 1990s – authorized $18 billion in military and non-military support to the country between 2002 and 2011. Mr Musharraf was hailed by George W. Bush as a “ ardent defender of freedom. “In the Line of Fire”, a vainglorious autobiography published by the general in 2006, swept through the New York Times list of bestsellers.
Yet politically, Mr. Musharraf faced essentially the challenge to Zia. Leading the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan had given Zia, with American acquiescence, an opportunity to accelerate his pre-existing efforts to swing Pakistan to the Islamic right. He helped rally Pakistani public opinion behind jihad. It provided well-trained Islamist recruits for the proxy war that Pakistani generals were soon to launch against India in Kashmir. By contrast, by siding with America against jihadism, in Afghanistan and beyond, Mr. Musharraf went against Pakistani opinion, including within the army, which continued to rescuing many of his former militant Islamist proxies, even as Mr. Musharraf denounced them.
America had given him little alternative: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”, Mr. Bush had said. But Mr. Musharraf’s turn against extremism was also a matter of personal conviction. Unlike the pious Zia, he was a moderate whiskey drinker with an eye for ladies. Having spent much of his childhood in Turkey, where his father was stationed as a diplomat, Mr. Musharraf has always been a fan of Kemal Ataturk, his great secular reformer. Early in his military career, his love of Pakistani rock music and Western fashions earned him the nickname “Cowboy”. As leader of Pakistan, he claimed to promote an agenda of “enlightened moderation”.
Mr. Musharraf liberalized Pakistani media, encouraged pop culture and adopted measures to protect women from the chauvinist Islamist legal regime that Zia had built. In tandem with two Indian prime ministers, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then Manmohan Singh, he also launched a bold and imaginative peace process that would approach unprecedented settlement of disputes between South Asian rivals.
But the pushback has been fierce. Mr. Musharraf has been publicly vilified as an American puppet and the target of multiple assassination plots. At the same time, the contradictions of his position, as an enlightened dictator and moderate leader of an Islamized army, made him at best a skilled reformer and an unreliable American ally.
The spurt of economic growth Mr. Musharraf has overseen has come at the expense of the democratic institutions he has bribed, including the constitution and the courts. His campaign against militancy was undermined by the strongly Islamist political parties he championed to counter his main Democratic opponents. It was also mined by the army. After leaving office, Mr Musharraf came close to admitting what had long been strongly suspected: that while fighting militants at home, Pakistani generals had continued to offer tacit support to the Afghan Taliban even as they killed American and allied troops.
By 2007, the contradictions of Mr. Musharraf’s relatively enlightened dictatorship had become untenable. Pakistan is ravaged by terrorism. The limited democracy he allowed led to mass protests against his rule. His main Democratic opponents, Mr. Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, were back on the electoral trail. Calling himself “indispensable,” Musharraf briefly declared a state of emergency and suspended the Constitution. But his army comrades, and the Americans, grew weary of the disorder, especially after Mrs. Bhutto was assassinated soon after. When Mr Musharraf’s opponents won the election in 2008, he resigned the presidency and fled to London rather than face impeachment proceedings. The new government quickly reversed many of its legal and constitutional changes.
Mr. Musharraf has remained a player in the Pakistani political drama. Soon bored of the American loudspeaker circuit – where he won top prize for inveighing against Islamic extremism – he began to chart a course back to power. He returned to Pakistan in 2013, but found little popular support and a barrage of lawsuits. He was disqualified from running for office and placed under house arrest on several counts, including complicity in the murder of Ms Bhutto. He himself survived at least one other assassination attempt before, in 2018, the military arranged for him to leave for medical treatment in Dubai. He was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death in absentia, a verdict which was later overturned. Increasingly beset by poor health, he never returned to Pakistan.
It is partly an indictment of Mr. Musharraf’s successors that his dictatorship is fondly remembered by many Pakistanis today. No successor has come close to repeating the seriousness of his peacemaking with India. He also left positive marks on Pakistan. Its liberalization of its media is a lasting success. Perhaps more than anything, Mr. Musharraf was synonymous with a time when Pakistan was hugely important geopolitically, something few Pakistanis appreciated until the opportunity it presented passed.
Despite all his shortcomings, Mr. Musharraf has attempted to turn Pakistan’s strategic relevance to his country’s advantage. But his reactionary adversaries, military and civilian, sponsors of militancy and disorder, missed this chance. And it may never come back. Whatever the merits of Pakistan’s next military dictator, he is unlikely to be celebrated in Washington, CCas Mr. Musharraf has often been. ■