William B Milam
General Pervez Musharraf died on February 5, 2023, in Dubai where he was living in exile. His death brought back many memories of those days when he took power in Pakistan through a military coup d’état. Musharraf assumed power as chief executive in October 1999. He became president by fiat in 2001 by bypassing the constitution. He was forced out of office and into retirement in 2008 by what could be called a civilian coup d’etat.
I came to know him pretty well in the three years – between 1998 and 2001 – that I served as US ambassador to Pakistan, the first year which he was chief of army staff (COAS), and the following two years when he was chief executive. We met frequently. I guess I knew him as well as any ambassador knows the leader of the country to which s/he is accredited.
I had read that he was gravely ill. So, the news of his death seemed anti-climactic. From my present vantage point, those memories seem like a faded, flickering, old movie from several generations ago. Pakistan has moved on in many ways, and I cannot think of any relevance that Musharraf still has, unless it regards the arrogance of military rule. Given Pakistan’s political history, there may be a reason to worry about a country still caught in an archaic and contrived hybrid political system in which, in reality if not on paper, the military and an elected civilian government share power.
This dual system, inherently unstable, has thrice in Pakistan’s history turned into sole rule by the military. Despite the political and economic crises that now beset Pakistan, I am skeptical about that might will happen again – because I can’t believe that Pakistani civil society or its military would fool themselves a fourth time. But I was skeptical of rumors of coup in 1999 – and I was dead wrong.
Although the title of this piece might suggest that I might have deliberately waited a month or more to write about his death, that would not be true. The reason for the delay is that I have not been able to type for the past six weeks because of an injured right hand. I have been dealing with a broken finger and mangled, painful hand that only in the last few days has allowed me to address a keyboard again.
If I were asked for an epitaph for Musharraf, I would borrow lines from A.E. Houseman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ in the poem addressed “to an Athlete Dying Young:”
“Smart lad, to slip betimes away From fields where glory does not stay, “Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out, Runners whom renown outran, And the name died before the man.”
If General Musharraf’s 10 years in office are remembered at all, it is probably because of their “Sturm und drang” nature: much excitement, many crises, but at the end only pain and no gain to show for the stress and strain. His tenure as national leader began with a military coup d’état and ended with a kind of civilian coup d’etat brought about by a national revolt of lawyers. I was not in Pakistan either time, but in a sense the end mirrored the beginning.
On the night of the October 12, 1999 military coup, as the story goes, the army realized in the wee hours of the morning that it had to explain to the Pakistani people what had happened to their quasi democracy. General Musharraf would go on national TV to address the people at 3am. He dressed in his military uniform and stood before the cameras and spoke to the Pakistani people in English.
Given the fact that few beyond the elite had TV sets, that it was 3am, and that he spoke in English, I would not be surprised if I am the only person around who still looks upon that memorable (perhaps apocryphal) story as foreshadowing 10 years of episodic political drama, soaring hyperbolic rhetoric about building from a “sham” democracy to a real one along an imagined path set out by an imaginary military syllabus. I asked him a few days later why he spoke in English, and he told me simply he couldn’t speak Urdu. This changed as he gave later addresses in Urdu, but I am unable to judge the level of fluency that he achieved after a crash course and a lot of practice.
The proximate cause of his fall from power was equally bizarre. The lawyers rebelled when he publicly fired the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, on March 9, 2007, again while in his army uniform. He had promised at the outset of the military takeover to resign as COAS in two years, but he reneged on that and remained the army chief until November 2007.
I believe he felt that he needed to be in charge of the army if the army was to control the political reformation promised when he took over. But the reformation he promised was in fact not his – it was the army’s vision of what life should be like, and it was centered on the doctrine that civilians could not be trusted to protect Pakistan’s national and security interests. Beyond that mantra, the military planned to replace the democracy it described as “sham,” without any insightful explanation of why that “sham” democracy was not suited for Pakistan. The only clear insight, though not articulated, was that the military wanted absolute power. After all, it was the sudden dismissal of Musharraf from the COAS position in October 1999, after he had held it for about a year, which led to the coup that made him the chief executive and later president.
But I stray here from my recollections about Musharrraf the man, which was to be the gist of this article, to Musharraf the soldier bound intimately to the army and its playbook about life and politics. That, I think, is the tragic gist of the story of Pervez Musharrraf – he was a man of the army and, thus, a man of the army playbooks.
I want to get to the man himself. He was a good man. I liked him. I found him modern in his outlook and open-minded. Yet, as one got to know him better, it became clear that he was not the transformational leader that some of my friends touted him to be. That was not his fault, as very few men, even the good ones, are not necessarily made of transformational material. They are the material of their nature, upbringing, education, and life work. Pervez Musharraf was, in my view, a consummate army man. Not for a minute do I think that is bad. But in a period of opportunity, when transformational change might have been possible, at a time when Pakistan could have used a transformational leader, he was not it.
I am rereading parts of the book I wrote when I had first retired from diplomatic life to refresh my memory of those early years of Pakistan’s third try at military government. The book bears out my vague memory that instead of signs of transformation, Musharraf’s first years as national leader reflected an aim to return to a hybrid (civil-military) system of political rule which had been put in place by the previous military government of Ziaul Haq. The design of the system looked, on the surface, like that created by the Zia government. It was clearly intended to ensure the army’s predominance in power. Unlike Zia, Musharraf did not ban political parties. Instead, he created a ‘King’s Party,” which he intended would run the civilian side of the government.
Here is my favourite quote from the book. “The Musharraf regime seemed a carbon copy of Zia’s in trying to construct a political system devoid of partisan politics – and of most mainstream politicians.” (It is great fun to quote oneself!)
Yet, I must not leave out the other side of Musharraf, the side I believe that made others like me like him as a person. He was definitely not like Zia. He clearly had no interest in further Islamisation of Pakistan, and espoused a social doctrine he called “enlightened moderation,” which I think he sincerely believed in. However, enlightened moderation is hard to define and while Musharraf often defended it, he ran head on into the legacy of Zia who had promoted a much more conservative mindset. And perhaps most importantly in his favor, he fiercely defended and promoted the fundamental underpinnings of democracy: a free and unfettered press, open political expression, and freedom of movement (at least until he as president proclaimed an emergency at the end of his tenure and things fell seriously apart).
I believe he was pulled in two directions during his time in office: 1) to march to the army’s drumbeat on its determination to remain dominant politically — and he may have believed this was best for Pakistan; and 2) to follow the tenets of his social doctrine of enlightened moderation as well as he could.
Clearly the army had carried out the coup that lifted Musharraf to power as an effort to try to redress what it perceived was a further attempt by civilian parties to subordinate it to the civilian government. Ironically, Musharraf was at the center of this as he was the COAS summarily fired while on a trip abroad and briefly replaced with a more pliant general. And the army, by responding with its own coup, and effectively rescinding that action in a very few hours, restoring Musharraf as COAS actually appointed him to ascend to the presidency.
Throughout those early years while I was there or followed events after I left, the Musharraf regime’s actions to reach that improved democracy and replace the “sham” democracy echoed those of the previous military regime. But there was no doubt that someone close to Musharraf was in the wings trying to improve on Ziaul Haq’s design of a military-dominated hybrid political system. That similarity clearly showed that the army’s goal was to ensure the military’s dominance of the civilian political parties. That seemed an unlikely outcome and promised continued political stalemate.
So, here we are, 22 years later, still wondering if the system will break again.