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Pervez Musharraf, Pakistani Military Ruler Who Never Overcame Dangerous Foes, Dies At 79

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Pervez Musharraf salutes at a public rally in 2002 in Lahore, Pakistan.
Pervez Musharraf salutes at a public rally in 2002 in Lahore, Pakistan.

Pakistan lost one of its most influential and polarizing figures with the death of General Pervez Musharraf, who died at a hospital in Dubai on February 5 at the age of 79 after a prolonged illness.

General Musharraf took over the presidency of the nuclear-armed country on the back of a bloodless 1999 military coup, but was forced out of office in 2008 amid scandal and efforts by his political rivals to impeach him and even briefly faced a death-sentence verdict for alleged treason before a court overturned it.

Upon assuming power following the bloodless military coup, Musharraf promised to bring progress and harmony to Pakistan.

"I wish to inform you that the armed forces have moved in as a last resort to prevent any further destabilization," he said at the time. "I wish to assure you that the situation in the country is perfectly calm, stable, and under control. I request you all to remain calm and support your armed forces in the reestablishment of order to pave the way for a prosperous future for Pakistan."

Fighting The Taliban

Musharraf's rule was complicated by the political realities that emerged after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

He openly supported Washington by joining the global war on terrorism. But he had to balance that decision against the rise of anti-Americanism at home after the fight came to neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan's restive northwest.

He achieved some success in his efforts to modernize Pakistan by creating a more open media environment, expanding the middle class, holding elections, and allowing key politicians to return from exile.

But he failed to overcome opposition to his highly unpopular moves to root out extremism and separatism on Pakistani soil, to improve Islamabad's often uneasy relations with neighboring states, or to suppress his most dangerous political foes -- some of whom came back to haunt him.

He survived at least five purported assassination attempts by Islamist militant groups or other enemies between 2000 and 2014.

Indian Rivalry

Born in New Delhi in 1943, Mushrraf's family migrated to Pakistan in 1947 after it was established as an independent state. His formative years were spent in Turkey, where his father worked as a diplomat.

Musharraf joined the Pakistani Army's officer corps at the age of 18, rising through the ranks over the next few decades to become its chief in 1998.

He was appointed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but differences quickly emerged -- a sign of the fierce political rivalry to come.

Musharraf disagreed with Sharif's peace overtures toward India and launched a botched offensive against Indian forces in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. This fanned his disagreements with Sharif's civilian government, ultimately resulting in a coup in October 1999.

Musharraf titled himself chief executive and consolidated power quickly. He appointed himself president in 2001, giving him final say in Pakistani affairs.

'The Path Of Development'

He quickly sided with Washington after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

In a televised speech days after the 9/11 attacks, he told Pakistanis he had allied with Washington to save his country's critical security and geopolitical interests.

"At this moment, our decisions may have far-reaching and wide repercussions," Musharraf said. "The worst results, God forbid, may endanger our territorial integrity and our survival."

The alliance prompted a domestic backlash, as pro-Taliban hard-liners opposed his policies. But in a major policy speech in January 2002, Musharraf indicated he was determined to lead Pakistan on the path of moderation:

"Do we want to turn Pakistan into a theocratic state? Or do we want Pakistan to become a progressive, dynamic, Islamic welfare state?" he asked. "The choice of our people is absolutely clear. And their decision is to take the path of development."

His efforts produced mixed results at best and provoked two assassination attempts masterminded by Al-Qaeda-linked militants in 2003.

Islamabad benefited enormously from allying with Washington, as it received tens of billions of dollars in military and civilian assistance. Major Western donors wrote off Islamabad's debts and Pakistan was formally declared a major non-NATO U.S. ally.

Defeated By Radical Backlash

But Musharraf's failure to confront or eradicate pro-Taliban radicals backfired. Under his watch, Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters who had been chased out of Afghanistan recuperated across the border in Pakistan and, by the end of 2007, emerged as a major challenge to Pakistan's stability and security.

Musharraf's failure to handle extremist clerics at Islamabad's Red Mosque eventually ended in a bloody showdown in July 2007. Dozens died in a weeklong siege of the mosque. The confrontation provoked Pakistani Taliban to mount attacks across Pakistan and capture large swathes of territories in the northwest.

That year he was unable to manipulate the country's political scene, as he had done for years.

His firing of a popular Supreme Court chief justice in March 2007 prompted a countrywide protest movement led by lawyers.

By year's end the movement grew strong enough to force him to give up his leadership of the military, and to step down as president in 2008. Afterward he went into self-imposed exile in London and Dubai.

Facing Charges

Musharraf returned to Pakistan in March 2013 in an attempt to make a political comeback -- hoping to be voted into parliament and position himself to become prime minister.

But those hopes were dashed when he was barred from taking part in the general elections and placed under house arrest amid a litany of court cases related to his final years in office.

In March 2014, Musharraf was formally charged by a special tribunal on five counts of high treason -- charges which highlighted tensions between Pakistan's military and its civilian government, which initiated the case.

The treason charges stemmed from Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule, followed by his dismissal of high-ranking judges, less than a month after his controversial reelection as president in 2007.

Musharraf was also charged with murder and conspiracy to murder for allegedly failing to protect his political rival and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007 while campaigning for general elections.

In another case he was investigated for the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti, a senior Baluch leader who died in a military operation ordered by Musharraf in August 2006. He was also tried for his role in the 2007 siege of the Red Mosque.

Musharraf tried hard to defend his record.

He told the court at his formal indictment for treason that he "put the country on the path of progress after 1999 when the country was being called a failed and defaulted state," asking the judges, "Is this the way to reward someone for being loyal to the country and loving the country?"

Musharraf also labeled attacks against him as a vendetta aimed at maligning his achievements and a conspiracy to keep him out of politics.

"I helped build a lot of roads and dams. I promoted telecommunication and information technology and vastly enhanced Pakistan's defense capabilities and made it very strong," Musharraf said. "I brought an industrial and agricultural revolution and helped propel the country's economy into one of the top 11 global economies."

Declining Health

Would-be assassins continued to try to kill Musharraf in the midst of the lengthy court proceedings against him. He narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in April 2014 while being transported in a convoy from an army hospital to his home.

But even with the treason charge hanging over him, in 2016, Pakistan's government allowed to travel abroad for medical treatment. He left his country and reportedly took up residence between London and Dubai, still vowing to clear his name and return to Pakistan.

Musharraf continued to appear on a controversial weekly television show on which he opined on Pakistani politics and current affairs.

A year later, a Pakistani antiterrorism court in Rawalpindi declared Musharraf a fugitive for "absconding" amid the ongoing charges in the Bhutto assassination case and ordered his assets seized.

In 2019, senior officials from his All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) party disclosed that he had been hospitalized due to a "reaction" from amyloidosis, a rare condition that can lead to organ failure.

Later the same year, a closed trial in Islamabad convicted him in absentia of high treason and other wrongdoing over the 2007 suspension of the constitution, and sentenced him to death.

Pakistan's powerful military responded publicly to condemn the verdict and accused the courts of ignoring due process.

Less than a month later, in January 2020, the Lahore High Court agreed with Musharraf's appeal and declared the trial in the capital case against him unconstitutional and politically motivated.

Reports said a special flight would travel from Pakistan to Dubai to repatriate Musharraf's body, according to the wishes of Musharraf's family.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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