Pervez Musharraf tried to fix Pakistan. His failures have consequences

Pervez Musharraf, former president of Pakistan, in March 2013. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)
Pervez Musharraf, former president of Pakistan, in March 2013. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistan’s fourth military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who died in Dubai on Sunday, reflected the contradictions and paradoxes that continue to trouble his country more than a decade after his removal from office.

A military man with a learned contempt for civilians, he assumed absolute power in a military coup in 1999 promising to restore democracy, rebuild the economy, and bring an end to terrorism. He failed on all counts. He was driven from power in 2008 by civilians intent on making an example of him, targeting him with prosecution that preceding military rulers had evaded. He went into exile and assumed a much lower profile.

After his ouster, a semblance of order was made possible with billions of dollars in assistance from the United States and its allies. But the order was only skin-deep. In reality, Pakistan has hurtled from crisis to crisis since Musharraf’s departure. Its democracy remains precarious, its economy is on the brink of default and terrorism has become an even greater threat. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is an incredibly consequential country, and its current trajectory owes a lot to Musharraf’s mixed legacy.

Musharraf’s foreign policy, and his legacy abroad, was no less contradictory and paradoxical. He supported the United States in its fight against al-Qaeda while backing the Taliban fighting American forces in Afghanistan. The result of that policy manifested itself in the Taliban’s 2021 return to power. Despite this, Musharraf is remembered in Washington as a better friend of the United States than most of his relatively weak successors have since proved to be.

Similarly, his stated desire for peace with India was marred by his unwillingness to change the national narrative that feeds Pakistan’s India obsession. Musharraf could not bring himself to recognize that Pakistan had for more than half a century plowed the bulk of its resources into military competition with India. The ascendancy of the army in public life depends on the assumption that India presents an existential threat to Pakistan. Lasting peace with India would erode the army’s privileged position. An army man to his core, he made little progress on the issue.

He also never sufficiently cracked down against Pakistani terrorist groups targeting India — another indication of the limits of how far he was willing to go.

In 2009, after he had been removed from office, I met Musharraf during his visit to the United States. I was then serving as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, representing the civilian government that had followed his ouster. In his suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, we had a candid conversation — the formerly powerful military ruler chatting with one of his most outspoken public critics.

During that conversation, Musharraf offered an insight into his learning curve, and his evolution from a soldier trained to fight enemies to the president of a complex nation of more than 200 million people. He appeared sincere in his view that Pakistan is a difficult country to govern and that his motivations were always patriotic, even when his actions lacked respect for constitutional niceties and legitimacy.

The general admitted that he was a product of a culture that considers the army as the center of Pakistan’s universe, and the army chief as having an almost divine right to set things right for Pakistan — law and constitution be damned. After coming to power in 1999, Musharraf had been forced to interact extensively with the civilians he was trained in the military to look down upon. “The army has its own way of thinking”, I recall him telling me. “And with hindsight, I know it is not enough to manage the country”.

In exile, Musharraf refused to show any public remorse for the mistakes he seemed quite ready to acknowledge privately. On his last trip as Pakistan’s president to the World Economic Forum in January 2008, Musharraf defended himself by describing Pakistan as a troubled country. He was, by then, imposing a state of emergency to deal with protests over his decision to remove Pakistan’s chief justice. In his media interviews during that period, he described Pakistan’s people as ill-disciplined, “tribal”, and “feudal” — and certainly not ready for modern democracy. Pakistan’s politicians were intrinsically “corrupt”, its Supreme Court judges “politicized”, “inept”, and “nepotistic”. Pakistan’s journalists tended to undermine its army and their country. He felt (with some justification) that Pakistan’s religious leaders tended to be “extremists”.

“When he has so much contempt for his own nation”, a European journalist asked me around that time, “why does he want to lead it?”

Given the disasters that have befallen Pakistan since Musharraf’s departure from office, his characterizations of his country’s elite do not seem far off the mark. But just as he failed in playing savior of a nation on the brink of disaster, Musharraf’s successors, too, have a lesson to learn: Nuclear-armed Pakistan needs a functioning democracy and an economic plan, not self-proclaimed messiahs.

Husain Haqqani is a senior fellow and director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute, and diplomat-in-residence at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi. He served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011.

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