Our culture respects the dead. Condolences pour in from near and far, even from ‘enemies’. The faults of the departed are either completely ignored, or mentioned in an elliptical manner to soften the blow. Something like this best describes the reaction to the passing away of military dictator Pervez Musharraf on February 5, 2023, following a prolonged and incurable illness.
The sum of objective, truthful, critical comment and summing up Musharraf’s legacy therefore boils down to attempts to discover some good in what has come down as a disastrous episode in our chequered history.
Musharraf was a brash, undisciplined military officer when young. Twice he came perilously close to serious disciplinary action, including perhaps having to face a military court. He was rescued by his role in the 1965 and 1971 wars with India. From there on, he seems to have lived a charmed life that finally saw him elevated to Chief of Army Staff (COAS) in 1998.
The context of his elevation was the resignation of his predecessor over the suggestion for a formal (political?) role for the military in the national security architecture. That episode involved then Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif, and no doubt was uppermost in the military’s mind when Sharif tried to dismiss Musharraf in the wake of tensions over the latter’s sabotage of the peace initiative with then Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee by launching the secret Kargil operation without Sharif’s knowledge or consent. In reaction and instead, the military overthrew Nawaz Sharif and installed Musharraf in power in the fourth (and hopefully last) military coup in Pakistan’s history.
Ironically, the peace saboteur of Kargil turned into a peace activist when in power, suggesting what appeared to be an eminently sensible path to solving the Gordian knot of the Kashmir issue with India. However, despite Vajpayee’s graciousness in conducting negotiations with Musharraf while overlooking the ‘stab-in-the-back’ of Kargil, his credentials as warmonger-turned-peacemonger failed to cut it with Indian media and public opinion. The peace attempt failed.
Musharraf’s nine years in power (1999-2008) can best be summed up by the major events and turning points of his stint in power. First and foremost, after the ousted Nawaz Sharif was jailed and eventually allowed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia (no doubt due to the latter’s influence), a strange phenomenon overtook Pakistan. ‘Liberals’ not only embraced Musharraf, who mercifully did not impose martial law unlike his three previous military coup makers, they virtually leapt lemming-like over the cliff into the lap of a perceived ‘liberal, secular’ military dictator.
This development was a Godsend for the consolidation of Musharraf’s grip on power. Further, the Supreme Court (SC) not only endorsed the coup (in a long line stretching from Chief Justice Munir’s infamous ‘doctrine of necessity’), it went so far as to empower him to amend the Constitution without even being asked to do so! The judicial guardians of the Constitution once again demonstrated their expedient interpretation of the supreme law of the land in favour of military dictators.
Despite the superior judiciary being once again hand-in-glove with a military usurper of power, it eventually fell foul of him for his sacking first Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry (evoking thereby the Lawyers’ Movement) in 2017 and his subsequent second ‘coup’ of sacking and confining the SC judges and suspending the Constitution. He was belatedly charged (after he was out of power) with treason for this suspension, but never held accountable for the 1999 coup, which the SC had legitimised.
9/11 became both a test and opportunity for Musharraf. Having bowed to US pressure (“You are either with us or against us”), he milked the Americans for aid (mostly military) while continuing to practice a policy of duality: ostensibly supporting the US in its campaign against al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban while secretly supporting the Afghan Taliban resistance to US occupation. The post facto results are before us in the return to power of the Afghan Taliban and ignominious retreat of the US in 2021.
Long before the developments outlined above on the judicial front, he initiated the policy of enforced disappearances and ‘kill and dump’ to combat the nationalist insurgency in Balochistan that had revived in 2002 after a frustrating hiatus in resolving the province’s grievances of 25 years. His reliance on a military crackdown rather than political negotiations to resolve an essentially long standing political problem led to the assassination of Nawab Akbar Bugti in 2006, after which the Baloch insurgency widened and spread throughout the province.
In 2007, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Musharraf got away with murder despite being belatedly accused of the crime. When he was eventually deposed in 2008, he never answered to these charges of the two most heinous prominent assassinations on his watch, nor for the charge of treason for his second ‘coup’ against the judiciary. Naturally, as a COAS, he was protected by his institution to the point where he was eventually allowed to leave the country in 2016 for medical treatment. He was fated never to return.
But then this denouement is consistent with our abject failure to hold accountable all our military coup makers, from Ayub to Musharraf. Pakistan’s history is awash with open and indirect interventions by the military establishment in politics, none of which have yielded good results. It makes sense therefore to include former COAS General Bajwa’s ‘Project Imran’ as the latest unmitigated disaster in this long list.
We hope and pray that the military establishment will learn the right lessons from this long and tragic history of military interventions in politics and leave the political democratic system alone to evolve through the difficult process of continuity, with all its roadblocks, concerns and difficulties.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2023