From commando to Prez: The Musharraf era led to turmoil & ill-will in South Asia

Columnist  | K C Singh

Opinion, Columnists

Musharraf was on the run from legal and political retaliation from within Pakistan

Pakistan’s former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s popularity dropped and the attack by the security forces on Lal Masjid conservative seminary in Islamabad in July 2007 further increased his unpopularity. (File Photo: AP)

Pakistan’s former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who died in Dubai on February 5, was living as an exile in the Gulf emirate for the past several years, away from the country he once controlled as President and earlier as Chief of Army Staff. A debilitating disease kept him off the stage in recent years, ending his life, in the words of T.S. Eliot, with a whimper and not a bang.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif handpicked him as Army Chief in October 1998, after falling out with Gen Jehangir Karamat. But differences soon emerged after Mr Sharif hosted Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s bus trip to Lahore on February 20, 1999. Gen Musharraf was not conspicuous during the visit, but the rumours about him not saluting Vajpayee are just that.

The May-July 1999 Kargil War caused the final rupture once Pakistan stood internationally isolated and outfought. Musharraf gambled to force India to negotiate a settlement of the Kashmir issue on Pakistan’s terms. That failed as India’s military ejected the intruders without breaching the Line of Control.

The final embarrassment came as President Bill Clinton summoned Mr Sharif to Washington to insist on unconditional pullout. By October the relationship irreparably collapsed. Mr Sharif attempted Musharraf’s ouster while on a trip to Sri Lanka, even denying his plane permission to land. Musharraf retaliated as he would to multiple crises while in power, reacting like a trained commando that he was. His tactical ingenuity always overpowered strategic wisdom.

Two Indian PMs, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, tried their best to finesse a peace deal between India and Pakistan by repeatedly engaging him despite major terrorist attacks launched from Pakistan interrupting the process. Jihadi groups controlled by the Pakistan Army’s ISI always played spoilers.

Despite the Kargil War, Vajpayee invited Musharraf for the Agra summit on July 14-16, 2001. It failed as Musharraf misread Indian willingness to talk as weakness and overplayed his hand by posturing before senior Indian journalists. Musharraf later blamed hawks like deputy PM L.K. Advani, ignoring that the puppeteer was always Vajpayee.

The 9/11 attacks on America months later again saw Musharraf quickly readjust once the Americans asked if Pakistan was with them or not. On the surface, Pakistan and its military committed to the war on terror. They merely moved support to favourite terror outfits and top Al Qaeda leadership to surreptitious methodologies. It took two US Presidents to decipher this, leading to the killing of Osama bin Laden near Pakistan’s military establishment in Abbottabad in 2011.

By then, Musharraf was on the run from legal and political retaliation from within Pakistan. Before that, in December 2001, came the deadly terror attack on India’s Parliament, with the possibility of India’s top leadership getting killed or kidnapped. A lazy assessment is that he was taking revenge for the Agra summit’s failure. But he was by the end of 2001 embroiled in balancing terror cooperation with the US against his Army’s desire to safeguard their jihadi assets. A better explanation is that he wanted to provoke India to put its forces on high alert. That would have given him a pretext to not move more forces to the Afghan border and seal it, as the US was demanding. Once again, he miscalculated as India listened to US appeals to not distract Pakistan.

Dr Manmohan Singh became PM in 2004 and was expected to be even more dovish than his predecessor. Back-channel diplomacy began to find a mutually agreeable solution to Kashmir. There was a narrow window as Musharraf had got Pakistan’s Parliament in 2004 to endorse his term as President till 2007. He also got Parliament to legalise his coup by the 17 th  constitutional amendment.

Musharraf’s key political antagonists, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, were exiled, but an Alliance for Restoration of Democracy between them was operational since December 2000. Musharraf’s popularity dropped and the attack by the security forces on Lal Masjid conservative seminary in Islamabad in July 2007 further increased his unpopularity. The India-Pakistan peace process hit a snag when there was a massive Mumbai train bombing in July 2006.

In September, on the sidelines of the NAM summit in Cuba, an India- Pakistan anti-terror mechanism was created to make resumption of dialogue palatable to the Indian public. There was little progress on the terror issue as Pakistan would insert Kashmir into the discussion on every occasion.

Musharraf realised that to continue in power he needed to reshuffle his political cards. He met Benazir Bhutto in Dubai in July 2007, and with his personal animosity against Nawaz Sharif, the preferred option as an ally became Benazir. But he then got into a confrontation with the judiciary. He played his last gambit on November 3, 2007 by declaring emergency and sacking the Chief Justice. Lawyers rose up in protest. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto on her return from Dubai to campaign on December 27, 2007 completely debased Musharraf’s public standing. When people voted a PPP- led government into power in February 2008, the game was up for Musharraf.

Hunted at home, he shuttled between Britain and the UAE. A book deal and speaking engagements kept him busy till his health failed. Wrongly assessing his own standing in Pakistan, he returned to fight the 2013 election. Debarred by a court, he escaped imprisonment only by exploiting the Pakistan Army’s unwillingness to let a former chief be jailed. He left Pakistan for the final time in 2016.

For India, the question remains whether the back-channel proposal for an open-border deal had been finalised but fell through after the 2007 domestic crises faced by Musharraf. His successors totally denied even the existence of any such proposal.

Thus, Pakistan’s once supreme leader has exited like the Cheshire cat, leaving behind a quizzical smile and much ill-will.