General Pervez Musharraf, who died in Dubai at the age of 79, was a Pakistani military officer and political leader who was both vilified and praised in equal measure. In India he is known as the architect of the Kargil misadventure of 1999. But he was also responsible for a policy shift that came tantalisingly close to a settlement of the Kashmir issue.
Looking back at his years as Army chief, Chief Executive, and President, it is impossible not to be struck by the opportunities lost by a man who had considerable capabilities to set Pakistan on an even track. His predilections, fads, and vanity contributed to the weakening of the already shaky Pakistani superstructure, and we are only witnessing its sad aftermath now.
Musharraf’s views on India were shaped by the memory of difficulties faced by his family during Partition and its subsequent sojourn in Karachi as a mohajir (migrant). His father served as a junior diplomat in Turkiye for seven years, which Musharraf described in his memoir, In the Line of Fire as “the most enjoyable and formative years of my life”.
In 1961, he gained a place at the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul and was commissioned into the Pakistan Army in time to see action during the war with India in 1965. Subsequently, he was selected to the PA’s prestigious commando outfit, the Special Service Group (SSG), which contributed no end to his self-image as a tough guy and provided a certain swagger to his style. It also provided for the hubris that eventually undid him.
Nawaz Sharif appointed him Army chief in 1998 after dismissing his predecessor, Gen. Jehangir Karamat. Sharif probably thought appointing a mohajir was a safer bet than giving the job to a Punjabi general. But Musharraf wanted to prove he was as Pakistani as any Punjabi. He planned the Kargil incursion that led to a short, sharp war with India. The venture was a disaster for Pakistan as the Indian Army took on the well-entrenched Pakistani forces, forcing Sharif to eventually plead with the US to pull Pakistan’s chestnuts out of the fire.
Sharif’s subsequent botched attempt to remove Musharraf led to a military coup. He assumed the role of Pakistan’s Chief Executive, even while retaining his position as the Army chief. Later he adopted the title of President. Not surprisingly, the pro-Musharraf faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) emerged as the largest single party in the 2002 election. With his seminal Turkish experience, Musharraf sought to shape Pakistan as a liberal Muslim country. He privatised the media, encouraged the empowerment of women, and fought fundamentalism. He advertised his love for dogs, considered impure by orthodox Muslims, and in one instance Musharraf even appeared on stage with the rock band Junoon.
In the 1990s, Musharraf went along with the Pakistan Army’s policy of seeking dominance in Afghanistan to gain “strategic depth” against India. When Musharraf was the chief of the Pakistan Army after 1999, tens of thousands of Pakistanis were involved in the Afghan civil war along with the ISI and Pakistani military officers. The Pakistani approach was summed up by the actions of Lt Gen. Mahmud Ahmed, the head of the ISI, one of Musharraf’s closest aides. Ahmed was in the US when the 9/11 attack took place, and the very next morning he was told by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage that it was up to Pakistan to make the choice as to whether they were “100 per cent with us or 100 per cent against us”.
When Ahmed returned, Musharraf sent him on a mission to Kabul to talk to the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden. Instead, Ahmed encouraged Mullah Omar to start a jehad against the US if it attacked Pakistan. Musharraf had, however, decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Using charges that he was linked to one of the 9/11 hijackers, Musharraf dismissed Ahmed and even terminated his commission.
Musharraf played both sides well. He periodically came up with Al Qaeda militants to be handed over to the US, and it seemed natural for bin Laden to be hiding out in the very town that housed the military academy Musharraf had graduated from. Years later, in 2016, speaking at a US congressional hearing, the Afghan-American official Zalmay Khalilzad, who had also been ambassador to Afghanistan, said: “There is no question that the Pakistani military and the Pakistani intelligence agency… provide sanctuary and support for the Taliban.”
Relations with India
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to invite Musharraf to a summit in Agra in July 2001 to pick up the threads of the gains that India and Pakistan had made through his Lahore summit with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999 before it was torpedoed by the same Musharraf. Instead of getting down to the serious job of peacemaking, Musharraf saw the visit as an opportunity to build his image. The summit collapsed under the weight of Musharraf’s vainglorious behaviour, though blame has also been placed on Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, who had, in fact, mooted the summit.
The period thereafter saw 9/11 and Musharraf’s about-turn in Afghanistan. Shortly after that came the terror attack on the Indian Parliament House in December 2001, leading to a near-war situation as both sides mobilised their armies through most of 2002. India was hit by repeated terrorist strikes, and there was little doubt that it was the work of the Pakistani deep state.
Musharraf had by this time emerged as the blue-eyed boy of the Americans, and the US went out of its way to discourage Indian moves. Equally, the US pressured him to make up with India so as to better focus on the global war on terror. He overcame his earlier reticence and decided to offer a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) with India in Kashmir in November 2003.
Musharraf’s change of heart was steeled by his own personal experience. As Samuel Johnson once noted: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” On December 14, 2003, he narrowly survived an assassination attempt when a bomb went off minutes before his convoy crossed a bridge in Rawalpindi. On December 25, two suicide bombers tried to kill him with car bombs but failed. Amjad Farooqi, a terrorist with links to the Jaish-e-Muhammad and Al Qaeda and with a long history of strikes against India, was accused in the plot, but he was eliminated by the police in May 2004 without revealing the full extent of the conspiracy.
The ceasefire along the LoC, which was reciprocated by India, led to talks between the two sides to clinch a deal that had eluded them in Agra. In January 2004, on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Islamabad, India and Pakistan agreed to a systematic dialogue on all issues, especially Kashmir and terrorism. They also decided to embed the Indo-Pakistan entente in the SAARC process by creating a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA). This resulted in a brief era of good feelings between the two countries; both sides played cricket with each other, and with a liberal grant of visas, travellers flooded each other’s countries, and there were exchanges in many areas.
Importantly, a backchannel dialogue took place between Indian diplomat S.K. Lambah and Tariq Aziz, Musharraf’s National Security Adviser, which came close to evolving a framework to resolve the Kashmir issue. As part of this, the first bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad was launched in April 2005.
In his memoir, in characteristic style, Musharraf claimed credit for the four-point formula that was evolved then. But the idea stemmed from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s stated belief that there could be no redrawing of boundaries between India and Pakistan, but that they could be made irrelevant in Kashmir.
The formula envisaged the following: 1) Bringing down military forces on both sides of the LoC to a minimum; 2) Allowing free movement of Kashmiri people on either side of the LoC; 3) Promoting local self-government on both sides of the LoC; and 4) Creating cooperative and consultative India-Pakistan mechanisms to deal with issues such as tourism, management of water resources, trade, health and education.
By early 2007, talks between India and Pakistan progressed rapidly. Unfortunately, this is when the Musharraf government began to come apart. Musharraf’s handling of the A.Q. Khan episode relating to nuclear smuggling, the Lal Masjid crisis, and the rise of fundamentalism within Pakistan made him deeply unpopular. The final straw was when he sought to suspend the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, on charges of corruption. This triggered a nationwide upsurge until a 13-member bench of the Pakistan Supreme Court reinstated Chaudhry on July 20, 2007.
Musharraf’s position was fatally weakened, and in October 2007 he resigned his military rank and appointed Pervez Kayani as Army chief. But he continued to be President, and in yet another throw of the dice, he suspended the Constitution, declared a state of emergency, and fired Chaudhry again. He also held indirect presidential elections, and the Pakistani legislature re-elected Musharraf for another five-year term.
The situation went from bad to worse when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007 in Rawalpindi. That was also the month when Baitullah Mehsud founded the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella organisation of various armed Islamist groups in the Pakistan-Afghan border. In the general election in 2008, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) came to power, and in August that year, it forced Musharraf out of office. In November, he left for London for a life in exile.
From here, the descent was rapid. He came under attack for his actions prior to his resignation. He was blamed for the way he treated Nawaz Sharif in 1999 and for Benazir’s assassination in 2007. This turn of events united the PPP and the PML(N), which sought to try him for treason.
In 2013, he returned to Pakistan to contest the presidential election. But his efforts were in vain as his nomination was rejected by various election tribunals. Charges against him for his actions in suspending the Constitution in 2013 were revived and he suffered the ignominy of arrest, with the Pakistan Senate passing a resolution demanding that he be charged with treason.
Legal troubles continued to bedevil him until July 2014 when, with the help of the Army, he managed to return to Dubai. But he had one last humiliation: in 2019, a special court declared him a traitor and sentenced him to death in absentia for the 2007 events. The Lahore High Court later annulled this sentence. Yet, in a way, the wheel had turned full circle.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.