Musharraf: Military strongman, reluctant politician

Two days after Pervez Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, a poll in Pakistan revealed that 75% of Pakistanis supported the military takeover. The army chief had deposed the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, seen by many as running an inept and corrupt government.

Fast forward nine years and the irony is inescapable. On Monday, it was the 65-year-old President Musharraf who resigned rather than face impeachment charges of incompetence and corruption.
Recent opinion polls put Sharif as the country’s most popular politician.

In many ways it is an ignominious end for the military strongman. Musharraf has never been burdened by immodesty, but he comes from humble roots. His father was a lowly Indian bureaucrat in the British Raj. Pervez was born, the second of three sons, in Delhi in 1943.

During the bloody partition of India, the family fled to Pakistan. Pervez’s father joined the country’s new foreign service—posted to Turkey in 1949, where his family spent seven years, and where his sons learned fluent Turkish. Musharraf did not grow up in a particularly religious atmosphere.

Back in Pakistan, his mother persuaded him to join the army—an institution that shaped his attitudes. As a mohajir, an Urdu-speaking refugee from India, he was an outsider in a Punjabi-dominated army, but his talent did not go unnoticed and he rose steadily through the ranks.

The rapid ascent almost killed him: he was supposed to be General Zia-ul-Haq’s military secretary in August 1988 and would have been blown up when Zia’s plane crashed. However, his job had not been confirmed.

Just a decade later Musharraf seized power. He presented a liberal image, that of a man who privately liked a tumbler of scotch. He promised to end corruption and clean out the country’s institutions. General Musharraf said he wanted a return to democracy.

He also refused Bill Clinton’s request to cooperate in American attempts to capture Osama bin Laden. However, 9/11 changed all that. Pakistan became a key ally in the war on terror. Whether the Bush White House threatened to “bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age” or not, Musharraf cracked down on terror groups and he sent the army into lawless badlands on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. He stopped sending jihadis into Indian Kashmir.

But the reluctant coup-maker always appeared unwilling to hand power back to the civilian politicians he loathed. His unseating of the chief justice in 2007 was a typical piece of bravado. His declaration of a state of emergency to confirm his own presidency was another sign of how a remarkably poor politician and domestic strategist he was.

There’s no doubt Musharraf remains fairly liberal-minded. He has acted bravely to combat Islamic extremists. Repeated triumphs have fed the myth of his indispensability. On Monday all that came to an end.—

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