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Musharraf as a Military Ruler

General Pervez Musharraf’s decision to join the US-led coalition to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda was unavoidable.

By Lt. Gen. (R) Talat Masood | March 2023

Among the four generals that have seized power and imposed a dictatorial rule over Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf was relatively the most liberal and outspoken. He was full of zeal, bursting with energy during the earlier years of his taking over to reform Pakistan and had committed that he would hold free and fair elections within two years. But when a military ruler tastes power, he abandons it voluntarily, despite their earlier public commitments to do so. General Musharraf was no exception. I still recall as I wrote an Op-ed for Dawn a few months after his coup that the General should hold elections soon as he had promised. As expected, he did not appreciate my candid advice as he thought he had a major reform agenda to implement that would take a few years to implement.

General Pervez Musharraf, during the early years of coming into power, gave considerable freedom to the press and electronic media. But soon he realized that this policy was undermining his authority and reverted to exercising control over it. More significantly, like his predecessor military rulers he assumed total power to himself. He justified the takeover by citing the prevailing chaotic conditions in the country in which the economy was in a free fall, institutions had been deliberately trampled and the country had to be saved. He also tried to garner support from the armed forces by alleging that the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif was intentionally weakening the armed forces.

In a move to placate any strong movement for reversion to civilian democratic rule General Musharraf like Pakistan’s first military ruler General Ayub Khan introduced the local bodies system, with a view to gain support at the grassroots level and maintain semblance of a democratic culture. To evade any possible resistance to his takeover, General Musharraf did not abandon the Constitution but held it in abeyance, although for all purposes it was never restored in its original form during his period as president. He also brought in a large number of serving and retired military officers in the President Office and various civilian departments, which understandably was not appreciated by the civilian officer class.

The reaction of the world to the coup, especially of the US and of other Western countries was very negative. The U.S. President Bill Clinton, who was on a visit to South Asian countries, cut short his visit to Pakistan and spent only a few hours. Even that he used not to interact with Musharraf but addressed the nation through television.

When Musharraf decided to revert to civilian rule, he appointed Shaukat Aziz as prime minister, who was a banker by profession and stayed in the PM Office from 2004 to 2008. This was not the first time that Pakistan had brought in finance ministers and advisors from abroad, usually the U.S., it has been a huge disappointment. Not that the ones chosen from within country have done any better.

President Musharraf, although the architect of Kargil war, once in the seat of the President realized the importance of having a peaceful relationship with its neighbours especially with India. Driven by this quest, as President, Musharraf travelled to Agra, India where he met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to discuss the relations between the two countries and more importantly the status of Kashmir. Although no progress was made but certainly a thaw was achieved that set the stage for subsequent meetings. But as luck would have it, the war on terror launched by the US changed the entire global dynamic and the Kashmir dispute was relegated to the background. Now with India racing ahead as an economic power, wooed by the US and acquiring strategic importance, the chances of it negotiating with Pakistan on Kashmir and other major issues is remote. So, not much has changed in Pak-India since Musharraf was in power, in fact, relations have become more tense with communication lines cut off.

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