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How Musharraf's military dictatorship held Pakistan hostage

'Shotgun governance': How Musharraf's military dictatorship held Pakistan hostage
9 min read
20 February, 2023
Analysis: There are few more divisive figures in Pakistan than General Pervez Musharraf. Seizing power in a bloodless coup, Musharraf's admirers credit his liberalising agenda, while his detractors accuse him of 'selling off' the country to the US.

Pakistan's former president General Pervez Musharraf passed away in early February aged 79 after a battle with the rare disease amyloidosis.

One of the country’s most controversial figures, his rule between 1999 and 2008 was marked by authoritarianism and widespread human rights abuses, though many credit him for economic growth.

He was a dictator - no more, no less - and leaves behind a nation reeling from his image, divided over his legacy, and grappling with the military’s indelible mark.

Following the goose steps of General Ayub Khan and General Zia Ul-Haq, Musharraf is the third in the country’s 76-year history to swap the khaki military uniform for an Armani suit, upholding the adage that Pakistan’s military dictators cosplay as democrats, and its democrats as dictators. 

In a state that yo-yos between military and civilian rule, it seems that Pakistanis forget that autocracy is alien to autonomy and that strong men often make weak nations.

Figures like Musharraf thrive when a country is unable to tame its warrior caste. But whilst the general’s cult dwindled soon after his nine years in power ended in 2008, the institution he represents - Pakistan’s Armed Forces - remains judge, jury, and executioner. 

Despite their miscalculated blunder at Kargil, their disastrous pact with the United States in the ‘War on Terror’, and awakening ghosts in Balochistan and Waziristan, many Pakistanis still recognise the military as the nation's most effective political asset.

Descending to power: Kargil and the coup 

Pervez Musharraf was already a familiar name before the 1999 Kargil conflict with India propelled him into the media’s firing line. This is in part due to the fixation on the armed forces in the national psyche of Pakistan, but also, as an archetype of the Pakistani establishment, his path to prominence is well-trodden.

Born in 1943 Delhi in the then British Raj, Musharraf was born into a family of Muslim civil servants living off borrowed time as murmurs of Partition grew.

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Unable to manoeuvre modernity as ably as their Hindu counterparts, India’s Muslim elite, “became increasingly anxious at having fallen behind, with this anxiety accentuating as the promise of independence and democratic rule became increasingly realisable,” as the anti-imperialist scholar Eqbal Ahmad wrote.

Pervez Musharraf’s father, a disciple of the Indian Muslim reformer and philosopher Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s ‘Aligarh Movement’ of modernisation, was one of the millions of Indian Muslims who believed in the dream of this new homeland and travelled to Pakistan as a mohajir.

Musharraf’s background would affect his worldview in two ways: institutionally, he owed his rise in the army to being a mohajir as he lacked the tribal nationalism of others and was therefore more malleable.

Ideologically, his Aligarh heritage emboldened a sense of “enlightened moderation” both in terms of how Pakistan should be run and how South Asian Muslims should behave. Each would be distorted by Musharraf throughout his rule.

By 1998 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had appointed General Musharraf as Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff. Despite a Clinton-brokered rapprochement between the subcontinent’s nuclear-armed adversaries, Musharraf would stall peace a year later by presiding over the 4th India-Pakistan war in Kargil.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf (R) stands after taking the oath as a civilian president at the presidential palace in Islamabad. [Getty]

For Pakistan, the war’s indecisive conclusion was seen as an “ill-thought-out misadventure” and isolated the country as a pariah state. Crucially, the Kargil War accelerated the army’s fear of impending reprisal, causing Musharraf and his generals to overthrow Nawaz Sharif’s government. 

What followed was a coup d’etat that ushered in Pakistan’s third extended period of military rule. On the 12th of October 1999, Nawaz Sharif was placed under arrest. Two days later the constitution was suspended and martial law was imposed.

A severe water and electricity crisis meant Musharraf’s power grab was not entirely unpopular. Aided by a media held hostage, the military claimed a coup was necessary, insisting that Nawaz Sharif had plans to slide the country into autocracy, without acknowledging Pakistan’s trichotomy of power, including its elected parliament and independent judiciary.

Musharraf’s disregard for Pakistan’s institutions would continue, later claiming that the constitution of Pakistan was “just a piece of paper to be thrown in the dustbin,” revealing a mindset that stood in stark opposition to the principles of a constitutional framework.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Musharraf signed a fateful pact with the United States. Ultimately it would be the Pakistani people themselves who would suffer the consequences.

The War on Terror and Lal Masjid: Double game, double price

The September 11 attacks had an incalculable effect on global politics, not least on Pakistan, which was thrust into a ‘clash of civilisations’ and a ‘crusade’ against so-called Islamic terrorism overnight. Musharraf would play a leading role throughout this tragedy.

Pakistan’s geostrategic importance is often used to twist the arm of its primary benefactor: the United States. Never has this ‘double game’ been so calamitous as Musharraf’s pact with Bush’s America, the effects of which still haunt the country today.

President Bush told the world, “either you are with us, or against us”. His threat to Pakistan was allegedly more specific: “the United States will bomb Pakistan back to the stone age” should it refuse to align.

Without parliamentary consultation or judicial deliberation, ‘Busharraf’ chose to oblige and sent the country into a foreign war it didn’t need to fight, reigniting a powder keg in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and along the Durand Line border with Afghanistan.

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A generation of Pakistanis now lives with the consequences. For the $18.8bn Pakistan received in US aid from 2002 to 2016, it lost an estimated $123.13bn during the same time period. Over 83,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives since the War on Terror began.

Pakistan’s covert and condoned operations in Afghanistan would also backfire. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, at the behest of the United States, Pakistan’s intelligence services trained and funded the Afghan Taliban and other militant organisations, initially to disrupt the Soviet occupation of the country but later morphing into a strategic weapon in Indian-administered Kashmir.

As the war in Afghanistan and the military-mullah alliance spiralled out of control, what followed in the 2000s was the ‘Talibanization’ of Pakistan. Distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Jihad and Taliban were blurred and communities were up in arms.

In his own memoir, In the Line of Fire, the General boasts of the millions of dollars he received for selling Pakistanis to the United States. Justice Javed Iqbal, son of Pakistan’s ideological founder Allama Iqbal and former head of Pakistan’s Missing Persons Commission, revealed that Musharraf secretly handed over 4,000 Pakistanis to other countries.

Pakistani activists of the hard-line Islamic party alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), torch an effigy of President Pervez Musharraf with a US flag during an anti-Musharraf protest rally in Lahore, 13 July 2007, against the military operation against Islamic students at Lal Masjid [Getty].

In July 2007, when anti-American and anti-Musharraf sentiments were at an all-time high, the siege of Lal Masjid added fuel to the fire.

Located in Pakistan's capital Islamabad, Al-Qaeda fundamentalists Imam Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid occupied the Lal mosque to develop and harbour militancy. It is thought that up to 1,300 students were stationed in the mosque.

Unwilling to seek a diplomatic solution, and eager to dispel liberal calls for action, Musharraf went for the jugular. Over the course of a 36-hour gun battle, ‘Operation Sunrise’, more than 100 militants and 11 Pakistani army personnel were killed.

The episode marked a significant period in Pakistan’s struggle against Islamic militancy and brought the country to the brink. 

In the year after, 88 bombings, killing 1,188 people and wounding 3,209, were detonated across Pakistan. Six months after Operation Sunrise in December 2007, 40 militant leaders commanding 40,000 fighters gathered in South Waziristan under the new banner of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban) and triggered the 3rd war in Waziristan. Sixteen years later, the TTP remain at large.

Myth-busting media

Sections of the public - particularly Pakistan’s middle and upper classes - still hold Musharraf in high regard, with three features recurring: liberalisation of the media, female representation in government, and perceived economic success. 

Out of the three, Musharraf’s role in Pakistan’s media landscape is the most intriguing. By 2009, Musharraf had commissioned up to 80 Pakistani TV shows, 20 or so reserved for politics and current affairs.

Whilst it is true that Musharraf expanded Pakistan’s media, privatisation started before Musharraf took office. The first private radio station was launched under Benazir Bhutto and was aired in 1990.

Musharraf-commissioned media would remain a microcosm of the Pakistani middle classes: vulnerable to co-option and coercion on demand. The role of Geo News during the 2007-8 Lawyer’s Movement would be a notable exception and would have a hand in Musharraf's downfall.

By late 2007, the writing was on the wall. As Hassan Wattoo, Judicial Associate at the Supreme Court of Pakistan and Dawn columnist told The New Arab, “We realised that the emperor had no clothes the entire time - the empire had been built on lies and deceit”. 

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Musharraf’s mask of liberal “enlightened moderation” was discarded and the ‘drunk uncle’ lashed at the very media he professed to champion. After Musharraf fired Supreme Court Justice Chaudhry, a state of emergency was declared on the 3rd of November 2007 - postponing the elections of Pakistan’s National Assembly - and catalysed the Lawyer’s Movement that forced Musharraf to resign on the 18th of August 2008. He was convicted of high treason 12 years later.

Musharraf would later be embroiled in the murder investigation of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated upon returning to Pakistan on 27 December 2007. Benazir’s son and current Pakistan People’s Party leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari placed the blame at the General’s feet. Musharraf, then in self-imposed exile in Dubai, evaded questioning.

Musharraf would rarely return to Pakistan, and the dada geer - 'tough guy you don't mess with' - spent the last of his days in obscurity. 

The revolving door

Each time the military has staged a coup in Pakistan it has been a disaster, yet there are those who continue to hold onto the idea of a benevolent dictator. Ultimately, the rights he gave Pakistanis weren’t his to give.

“For someone like Pervez Musharraf, the solution for every armed conflict was more violence, more escalation,"  said Wattoo.

"That's why he brought us into the War on Terror. That's why he admitted to selling normal, innocent Pakistani citizens to the CIA for millions of dollars in ransom; that was the true cost of the Musharraf regime. And that is something that the Pakistani people will pay for for several years to come.”

Outside of the Defence Housing Association bubble, few will mourn Musharraf. Those that initially believed in his front will look back at Musharraf’s nine years and wonder: where was the reform, where was the liberty, where was the accountability? 

Musharraf may have been one of Pakistan’s better dictators, but he was a dictator nonetheless. The future of Pakistan and its progress will depend on whether or not the country ceases to entertain the notion of military rule.

Benjamin Ashraf is The New Arab's Deputy Features Editor. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Jordan's Centre for Strategic Studies and a board member of Red Pepper's Admin Collective. 

Follow him on Twitter: @ashrafzeneca

Ali Abbas Ahmadi is a staff journalist at The New Arab. He has experience in writing, photography, design, and data journalism, and focuses on culture, history, human rights and conflict resolution in India and South Asia. 

Follow him on Twitter: @aliabbasahmadi2