Pervez Musharraf: military dictator who became a valued US ally

Divisive army chief worked with President Bush to take on the Taliban after 9/11

General Pervez Musharraf
Under his leadership, Pakistan evolved from ‘rogue state’ to valued ally in the ‘war on terror’
(Image credit: AFP/Getty Images)

Of all Pakistan’s leaders since independence, none has “so divided opinion” as General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, said The Guardian. To some, he was just another “ruthless military dictator” who allowed radical religious parties to flourish, “to clip the ambitions” of secular ones opposed to his military rule; to others, he was a “man of vision”, a whisky-drinking liberal seeking to turn nuclear-armed Pakistan into a beacon of what he called “enlightened moderation”.

It was abroad, however, that he enjoyed most acclaim. Under his leadership, the country evolved from “rogue state” to valued ally in the “war on terror” that followed the 9/11 attacks; and during Musharraf’s decade in office, the US provided Pakistan with $1bn a year in mostly military aid. But at home, where anti-US sentiment ran deep, and ties to Afghanistan, and the Taliban, were strong, he was denounced as Washington’s lackey, said The New York Times. At the same time, US officials were frustrated by his perceived reluctance to crush jihadist groups with bases in Pakistan, and the suspicion (later confirmed) that Osama bin Laden was actually hiding out there. Musharraf liked to describe himself as a skilled tightrope walker; but ultimately, he fell off the line.

Taking power in Pakistan

Pervez Musharraf was born into a middle-class Muslim family in Delhi in 1943. During partition in 1947, his parents fled to Karachi, the capital of the newly created Pakistan. His father joined the diplomatic service, and they spent several years in the Republic of Turkey. Aged 18, Musharraf enrolled in a military academy. He then joined, and later led, an elite commando unit.

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In 1998, the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif appointed him head of the army; he is said to have thought that as a Muhajir, an émigré from India, Musharraf would not be able to rally enough support in the military to pose a threat to him. But a year or so later, Musharraf got wind of the fact that the PM was trying to fire him, for his role in a disastrous incursion into Indian-controlled Kashmir. As he flew back from Sri Lanka, his plane was denied permission to land in Pakistan; but instead of diverting to India, as instructed, he urged his generals to seize the airport, and on landing, he took power.

A dangerous game-player

At home, his takeover was broadly accepted as a welcome alternative to Sharif’s corrupt and inept administration, said The Times. He said his focus would be on repairing the economy, and he won plaudits among liberals for boosting women’s rights. But he reneged on a promise to restore civilian rule, and in 2001 he made himself president. Following the 9/11 attacks, Washington made it plain that it expected Pakistan to turn on the Taliban, and support the Nato mission in neighbouring Afghanistan. Musharraf complied – but it was widely suspected that he was playing a double game, fighting extremism while also supporting the Taliban, which, his critics said, led to a violent insurgency in the country.

In 2007, with opposition to his rule mounting, he suspended the chief justice, and imposed martial law. Soon after, former PM Benazir Bhutto, who had returned from exile to fight a national election, was assassinated, sparking violent protests across the country. Widely blamed for failing to give Bhutto enough security, Musharraf resigned and fled to London. When he went back to Pakistan in 2013, he was charged with high treason. Three years later, he left the country to seek medical help, never to return.

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