In the line of fire

Published : Sep 12, 2008 00:00 IST

Pervez Musharraf never fully lived up to the early promise he held for many, in Pakistan and in the international community.

in Islamabad

WHEN historians look back at the circumstances of Pervez Musharrafs exit from Pakistans political scene, they are sure to be struck by how suddenly it all came about and how quickly the former Army commando threw in the towel after ruling over the country for nine years.

From start to finish, the actual process of ejecting General (retd) Pervez Musharraf from office took less than 10 days, belying fears that it would be a long-drawn-out affair that would send the country hurtling into a dark tunnel of uncertainty from which it might not emerge completely. The democratically elected ruling coalition announced its decision to launch impeachment proceedings against him on August 7. He was gone on August 18, choosing to resign rather than face a humiliating impeachment trial. August will go down as a bad month for Pakistans military rulers Gen. Zia-ul-Haq was killed on August 17, 1988, in a plane crash in which sabotage was widely suspected.

By contrast, Musharraf was sent off with a guard of honour from Islamabads grand Aiwan-e-Sadr, the presidential residence that he used only as an office. (For security reasons, he chose to live in the Army chiefs house in the nearby garrison city of Rawalpindi even after he stepped down from his military office in November 2007.) The fact that he was Pakistans first military ruler to step down on his own rather than be given the boot has already provided a positive spin to his exit.

For, there is no denying that Musharraf would have stayed on if he really had the choice. If the militarys reckless killing of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti in Balochistan in August 2006 was the beginning of the slide, Musharrafs vanity in believing that he could make short work of Chief Justice Ifthikar Muhammed Chaudhary over a single afternoon in March 2007 summoning him to his Rawalpindi camp office and asking him to step down was the accelerator.

Led by lawyers, Pakistans media and civil society created the conditions for the countrys weakened political parties to return to power after first enabling their leaders to re-enter the country from their long years in exile or self-exile.

Such was the momentum of events that even the United States, which once considered Musharraf an indispensable ally, had no choice but to stand by mutely despite its misgivings about a future without him. The Pakistan Army, which could have theoretically thrown its weight behind its former chief, distanced itself from him as it was more eager to regain its lost standing after years of being identified with an unpopular man. When his political allies, too, ditched him, the writing on the wall was clear for Musharraf.

So, how will Pakistan remember Musharraf?

For sure, he will be judged as an unpopular military ruler who wanted to perpetuate his reign over Pakistan and, in the process, treated the Constitution as a plaything, resorting to what amounted to a second takeover in November 2007 when he imposed emergency rule to keep his grip over the country. His departure was celebrated widely in the cities, with shops reporting that they ran out of sweets within hours of his resignation.

But historians will also record that there were big celebrations when he seized power in 1999. Like some of the military rulers who went before him, Musharraf enjoyed immense goodwill when he took over. Pakistan had tired of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif just two years after it gave his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) the heaviest mandate in Pakistans electoral history to defeat the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) whose government was widely regarded as a kleptocratic one.

People were happy that Nawaz Sharifs efforts to perpetuate his own rule and declare himself amir-ul-momineen had been nipped in the bud. Benazir Bhuttos PPP was among the first to welcome Musharraf. Women, fearful of Sharifs retrogressive policies and his plans to implement the Shariat law, also gave the military ruler a warm reception.

Musharrafs initial steps to advance human rights and broaden the participation of women in all spheres of public life, coupled with unprecedented freedom to the media, were hailed by the liberal and progressive segments of society and by the international community in general.

Two decades after Zia-ul-Haq met his end, there is no doubt in Pakistan that his rule was the darkest chapter in the countrys history, and its consequences are being experienced even today. Musharraf was no Zia and can take credit for opening up a society still dealing with the obscurantist legacy of the 11-year rule of that dictator. Musharraf, unlike Zia, is more likely to go down in history as a military ruler, authoritarian definitely but not a military dictator.

His nine-year rule was not entirely corruption-free, but it was perhaps one of the least corrupt eras in Pakistans history. Musharraf wanted to model Pakistan after Turkey, a country where he spent his adolescent years that had a deep influence on him. For this, he passionately espoused the cause of enlightened moderation and the need for modern education, especially in the sciences. Religious minorities in Pakistan, namely Hindus and Christians, felt more secure under Musharraf than they had been under any previous regime.

But he never fully lived up to the early promise he held for many both in Pakistan and in the international community. In 2002, he walked away from his pledge to ease Pakistan back into democratic rule with a referendum widely acknowledged as rigged to ensure his continuance as President. In order to get this referendum endorsed by Parliament, he made deals with a clutch of religious right-wing groups that would ensure the rest of his tenure was a series of balancing acts between being seen as bold and progressive in the mould of Kemal Ataturk and doing nothing that would alienate the fundos and disturb his hold on power.

Thus, he did away with the system of separate electorates for religious minorities, but did nothing to do away with the countrys infamous blasphemy laws. His alliance with the religious right ensured that the amendments he brought about in the anti-women Hudood laws of the Zia era were muddled, and although his government touted it as a big stride for womens rights it did not satisfy womens groups.

Unlike Zia, he promoted the cause of a free media and took great pride in it until they turned on him last year when he imposed tight controls on television channels critical of him. He progressively hacked away at political parties, Parliament and the judiciary, weakening them in order to tighten his hold on power.

His biggest balancing act, however, was on the war on terror, and in the end it was also his undoing. As analysts have noted, 9/11 was an opportunity for Pakistan to end its international isolation following the 1998 nuclear tests. Musharraf grabbed the opportunity but was castigated at home for selling out to the United States and came to be known as President George Bushs pet dog. This was despite the fact that Washington constantly pulled him up for not doing enough to rein in militancy along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

In the international community, he was seen as playing a double game. Despite his outwardly declared spurning of jehad, Musharraf was seen as having made only a tactical retreat from using militancy as a tool of foreign policy. He never fully abandoned the militant groups in Pakistan, retaining them as options both in Afghanistan and in Kashmir.

The contradictions of the complex game he played have taken the country to the brink, with the jehadist threat turning inward, causing death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. Pakistan had not experienced suicide bombings until 9/11, but now it is a common occurrence. The tribal areas had been quiet even at the height of the conflict in Afghanistan, but are now a virtual war zone.

Pakistanis saw Musharraf as fighting the U.S. war and as a result of that the terrorism within the country. It has created a bizarre disconnect, with Pakistanis viewing the Taliban as misguided people who can be brought around through talks, when on the contrary the Taliban is the biggest threat to Pakistans existence.

Nowhere was this confusion better exemplified than in the reactions to the military operations at Lal Masjid in Islamabad. Civil society groups and the media urged Musharraf to take action against the Islamist vigilantism that the mosque was encouraging, and his reluctance to do so initially was seen as evidence that he was hand-in-glove with the militants. When he acted, the same people turned against him for killing innocent children under pressure from the U.S.

The effect of his policy of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds was seen in India-Pakistan relations too. Without doubt, Musharraf, the architect of Kargil, will also be known as one of the principal architects of the detente in the relations between the two countries. He will be remembered not only for the flamboyance with which he walked up to shake hands with Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the Kathmandu summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, but also for being the first Pakistani leader who contributed to a sea change in attitudes within his country towards Kashmir and India. If the people of the two countries understand each other better now, he can take a large share of the credit for it.

But India, like the U.S., saw the continued existence of jehadist groups under the umbrella of the Pakistani state more as evidence of a tactical retreat in the face of the changed circumstances post-9/11 than as a response to an inner voice of conviction that pushed him to make peace with the enemy.

In Pakistan, plenty of people, especially among the religious fundamentalists, denounced his sell-out to India and pointed to his Mohajir roots as evidence to brand him an agent of New Delhi. Still, his efforts to make peace with India were not as unpopular as the alliance with the U.S., and they have acquired a structure that has proved durable despite severe setbacks.

Does his going mean any substantial change in relations with the U.S.? Apparently, it seems that no significant change is likely in the foreseeable future. Although this was one of the most unpopular positions of the previous government, it is one that the PPP-led government is, ironically, expected to continue.

Analysts have talked about the enigma of Musharraf, a leader who appeared to mean well but never quite walked the talk either because he was unable to or because he was unwilling lest it endanger his own grip on power. There is also a large section of opinion in Pakistan that believes that acknowledging any of the positives of his rule would amount to legitimising his 1999 takeover. Seen in this light, it can be argued that Pervez Musharrafs entire rule from the moment he usurped power in 1999 from the elected government of Nawaz Sharif first as self-appointed chief executive, then as self-appointed President, and finally as a President elected in controversial circumstances was illegal and unconstitutional and deserves to be condemned unequivocally.

Any dictator can seize power and bring about something good. Perhaps Musharraf did a few things that were useful, said social scientist Akbar Zaidi. But because he was unelected and he was authoritarian, his overall legacy could be as damaging as that of other generals.

Zaidi is among those who want Musharraf to stand trial, primarily on the grounds that a military ruler should also be held accountable for his actions while in power, just as civilian leaders have been charged and hauled off to court by the military coup-makers who have ousted them. That does not seem a possibility now as Musharraf is believed to have closed a Nixon-model deal with the government that he will not be tried in return for his abdication.

A definitive assessment of the Musharraf legacy may have to wait the passage of a few years, but what is clear is that had he stepped down in October 2007, when his first term as President ended, or even on February 18, when the political party allied to him was trounced and the PPP and the PML(N) came to power, history may have looked at him entirely differently.

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