The Legacy of Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf

Written by Allan Millward

February 11, 2023

Former President and Pakistani General Pervez Musharraf has died at the age of 79. He had been living in self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates at the time of his death. Although considered controversial, his life and legacy are worth reviewing.

Born in Delhi in 1943, Pervez and his family would move to Pakistan in 1947 as a result of its partition with India. He went on to join Pakistan’s military in 1961 where he slowly rose up the ranks reaching the status of Army Chief in 1998. On October 12, 1999, he overthrew and arrested then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Following a questionable referendum, he became President of Pakistan in 2001 while retaining his command of the army. After the 9/11 terror attacks, he served as a key ally of the US war on terror. Musharraf opened up Pakistan as a land route into Afghanistan, housed US airbases, and sent his own troops to northern tribal areas to combat Al Qaeda. He also pushed hard to liberalize the country supporting the rights of women and girls, local government reforms, an improvement of relations with India, and the creation of dozens of private TV channels.  He was, for a time, a darling of US media. He even appeared on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show where he ate Twinkies. However, he did much to anger the US and its allies as well. While his military aided the US in hunting down some militants and suspected militants for money and support, they also protected militants deemed useful to Pakistan’s strategic interests. Furthermore, it is believed by many that Pervez was completely aware of Bin Laden’s presence within Pakistan.

Nevertheless, Pervez’s policies did much to anger Pakistanis too. The militants they handed over for millions of dollars, some of whom turned out to be completely innocent, were sent to Guantanamo Bay. His decision to align so closely with the US caused serious long-term domestic unrest that bordered on civil war. His regime was known to engage in the forced disappearances of students, political activists, and suspected armed fighters. Numerous internal blunders in 2007 led to his downfall. He fired Pakistan’s Chief Justice which contributed to the rise of the lawyer’s movement. His decision to end the siege of Lal Masjid (the Red Mosque) with a military operation that killed around 100 people was the event that ensured the rise of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), the Pakistani equivalent of the Taliban. In November of that year, he declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution, and blacked out independent media outlets. Internal protests were widespread, the West disapproved of his actions, and he was forced to backtrack and call for elections. The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto at a political rally sealed Pervez’s fate, as he was blamed for not providing her adequate protection. His party performed poorly in the February 2008 elections, and he subsequently stepped down and left Pakistan after the governing coalition moved to impeach him in August 2008. While he would attempt to make a return to power, he would never again hold a leadership position in Pakistan.

Pervez often made the claim he was a “tightrope walker” attempting to balance the many opposing forces within and outside of Pakistan. It is an apt self-assessment, but if he was a tightrope walker then it was of his own choosing and his decision to play all sides has seemingly done little to benefit Pakistan in the long term. The many issues Pakistan currently faces are of his making. Adil Najam, a professor of international affairs at Boston University, summed it up perfectly when he said, “today’s Pakistan is the product of Musharraf the forces that shape the country today were unleashed during his time in power, but I don’t think he intended it that way.”

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