Pervez Musharraf, former leader of Pakistan who became America’s ally in the ‘war on terror’ – obituary

General Pervez Musharraf in his office in Rawalpindi, 2004 - REUTERS/Stringer
General Pervez Musharraf in his office in Rawalpindi, 2004 - REUTERS/Stringer

General Pervez Musharraf, the former President of Pakistan, who has died aged 79, was the third military ruler of his country since its formation in 1947.

As chief of Pakistan’s armed forces, he assumed power in a bloodless military coup in 1999 and in 2001 named himself President. After two years in power, he was thrust into the critical role of America’s strategic ally in the campaign against Islamic extremists that followed the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 2001.

The military leader – whose name Governor George W Bush, when he was the Republican party’s presidential candidate, famously could not remember in a surprise quiz on foreign affairs sprung on him by a TV reporter – thus became the cornerstone of what the White House called the “global war on terror”.

Though the urban economy boomed and press freedom flourished under Musharraf’s rule, as popular opposition increased – from Islamists on one hand, and from secular modernisers on the other – he struggled to maintain political legitimacy.

He ruled with a lighter touch than previous military leaders, but was only partly successful in implementing the policies of what he called “enlightened moderation” which would have reduced religious involvement in politics. The ideals of democratic reform that he propounded in a 2006 memoir, In the Line of Fire, did little to change Pakistan’s chaotic political culture.

Musharraf staked his political survival on the alliance with the US, arguing that doing so would yield substantial economic benefits to Pakistan and strengthen its position against the perennial enemy, India.

In opting to join the American-led military campaign against the strongholds of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and in his own country – a move which he called a “recourse to sanity” – however, Musharraf made an abrupt reversal of 20 years of policy.

Pakistan had consistently supported Islamists in the region since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Sympathy for Islamist radicals was deeply rooted at all levels in the Pakistani armed forces and its powerful intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

By temperament Musharraf had no taste for the Islamists or their political objectives. He called himself a “soldier’s man,” a “moderate Muslim,” and enjoyed a glass of whisky, though he was careful never to be seen drinking it in public.

Certainly, the strategy brought immediate benefits to Pakistan: the lifting of economic sanctions that were imposed when the country tested nuclear weapons in defiance of an international outcry, and the re-scheduling of nearly half a billion dollars in American debt.

Musharraf’s announcement of the policy, however, sparked bloody riots in several Pakistani cities, led by Islamic radical parties, and rumours flew of a coup in progress against him.

Musharraf with Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street, January 2008 - Shaun Curry-Pool/Getty Images
Musharraf with Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street, January 2008 - Shaun Curry-Pool/Getty Images

Musharraf responded by tightening his grip on power, and sacking a number of senior army officers in his military government whose pro-Taliban and pro-Islamist sympathies were well-known – though the process of uprooting supporters of Islamic radicalism in the Pakistan armed forces and intelligence agency was never complete.

By 2007 Musharraf’s hold on power looked increasingly shaky, as he faced a series of crises including street protests, court challenges and spiralling Islamist violence.

He responded by seeking to safeguard his position at all costs. His attempt, in March, to fire the activist chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, backfired when thousands of lawyers protested. The Supreme Court subsequently voted unanimously to reinstate Chaudhry.

Then in October, in an attempt to shore up his position prior to a vote to decide his re-election by an electoral college of the national and provincial parliaments, Musharraf concluded a deal with Pakistan’s exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, quashing corruption cases against her and her husband Asif Ali Zardari and paving the way for a power-sharing arrangement, with him as president and Bhutto as prime minister.

But a day after the agreement, Pakistan’s Supreme Court threw Musharraf’s re-election bid into doubt by ruling that the winner could not be declared before legal challenges against the vote were resolved.

The election, which took place on October 6 2007, was boycotted by the opposition; other candidates withdrew and 80 opposition members had resigned from Parliament, complaining that Musharraf was running for re-election while remaining head of the army. He secured 98 per cent of votes cast.

On November 2 the Supreme Court reconvened to hear challenges as to whether Musharraf had been eligible to stand for re-election and the following day Musharraf declared a state of emergency, in response, he said, to Islamic militancy and to the “paralysis of government by judicial interference”.

He suspended the constitution, dismissed the chief justice, reconstituted the Supreme Court, arrested opposition political leaders and imposed restrictions on the press and media. As a result Benazir Bhutto repudiated the earlier power sharing deal and called on Musharraf to resign.

With the legal challenges to his reelection out of the way, Musharraf resigned his military post to become a civilian president, ended the state of emergency in mid-December, and restored an (amended) constitution.

A general election, scheduled to take place on January 8 2008, was postponed by Pakistan’s electoral commission after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27 – a killing suspected of being the work either of Islamic militants or elements of the Army and intelligence service. In 2010 a UN report would accuse Musharraf’s government of failing to give her adequate protection.

President Musharraf acknowledging the crowd in Thatta, April 2002 - EPA PHOTO AFPI/AAMIR QURESHI
President Musharraf acknowledging the crowd in Thatta, April 2002 - EPA PHOTO AFPI/AAMIR QURESHI

The elections eventually took place on February 15 and yielded a coalition of Musharraf’s opponents headed by the man he had ousted, Nawaz Sharif, and Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower. Citing grave constitutional violations, the coalition moved in early August to begin impeachment proceedings on grounds of incompetence and corruption against Musharraf, and rather than face the charges he announced his resignation on August 18.

Pervez Musharraf was born on August 11 1943, in New Delhi, the second of three sons of a career diplomat. After the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, his family moved to Karachi, though many of his relations remained in India.

When Musharraf was six, his father was posted to Turkey, where the family spent the next seven years. The boy learned to speak Turkish fluently, and later cited Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, as his political model.

He was educated at St. Patrick’s High School, Karachi, and Forman Christian College, Lahore.

In 1961 he joined the Pakistan Military Academy and in 1964 was commissioned in an artillery regiment. He was, by his own account, an undisciplined soldier, and narrowly escaped a court martial. In the 1965 war with India he won a medal for gallantry, and after the war was transferred to an elite commando unit, the Special Service Group.

In the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war (which resulted in the establishment of Bangladesh) he commanded an infantry brigade, and later a division. After the war he studied for a year at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London.

From 1993 to 1995 he was Pakistan’s Director General of Military Operations, a post at the front line of the confrontation with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir, making a weekly telephone call to his Indian counterpart, an exercise intended to reduce tension on Pakistan’s eastern border.

With his middle-class background, and roots outside the Punjabi elite that made up the Pakistani top brass, Musharraf would have remained a respected but little known career soldier had he not been raised from comparative obscurity by the civilian prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who promoted him to the rank of general and Chief of Staff in 1998, ahead of better-known candidates.

In elevating Musharraf, Sharif was hoping to weaken the political influence of the army, and probably believed that in Musharraf he had found a pliable general. Certainly, no other Chief of Staff had as many meetings with Sharif.

Their alliance ended only a few months later, when Pakistani soldiers entered vacated Indian positions in the icy peaks of Indian-held Kashmir, an episode that threatened to escalate into a new war with India.

The incursion was widely believed to have been orchestrated by Musharraf; Sharif was kept in the dark about the plan. Under pressure from President Bill Clinton, Sharif ordered the troops to withdraw, a step that was regarded as a national humiliation for Pakistan. Musharraf maintained that the incursion would have strengthened Pakistan’s military position had it been allowed to stand.

Sharif sacked Musharraf and a number of senior generals, barely a fortnight after Sharif had given him a public vote of confidence.

Musharraf was returning from an official visit to Sri Lanka at the time Sharif announced the dismissals. To prevent Musharraf returning to Pakistan, the prime minister sought unsuccessfully to order the commercial airliner on which he was travelling to land in India – enemy territory where he would be sure to be arrested.

While Musharraf’s plane was still in the air, army officers opposed to Sharif arrested Sharif and took control of the state. With the majority of senior army officers supporting him, Musharraf declared himself chief executive of the country.

Sharif was charged with criminal conspiracy to hijack the airliner. He was held in prison in Pakistan, sentenced to life in prison, until under a deal forged by the United States he was sent into exile in Saudi Arabia in 2000.

Musharraf took pains to show the world that his seizure of power was unlike previous military coups d’etat in Pakistan. Institutions of the state remained in civilian hands, martial law was not declared, and he promised a return to democracy within two years, after a rigorous programme of “nation-building” and the rooting out of corruption had been completed.

To show that he was a new kind of military ruler, he invited journalists to interview him and his family at home, and posed for photographers in casual clothes, proudly showing off his pair of Pekinese dogs.

Within a month he had ordered the arrests of over 30 prominent politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen on charges ranging from corruption to tax evasion to defaulting on bank loans. His popularity soared. The most conspicuous abuses of the Sharif years immediately disappeared. Policemen in Islamabad stopped demanding bribes from motorists, and the customs check-points known as “mobile extortion posts.”

In June 2001 he consolidated his power by appointing himself President, while remaining head of the army, then met the Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for talks on reducing tensions over Kashmir.

The talks represented a genuine diplomatic opportunity, but Islamist groups and his own senior military officers opposed any reduction in support for militants fighting Indian forces in Kashmir. The talks ended in deadlock.

Pakistan’s elevation to a key role in fighting Islamic extremism after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 coincided with an escalation of tension with India over Kashmir, and once again the two countries were at the brink of war.

Musharraf’s response was a further crackdown on Islamic militant groups – over 2000 activists were detained– balanced by a public assurance to Pakistanis that he continued to support the Kashmiri independence struggle.

De-escalation was only achieved later by intervention from Washington, though Musharraf’s participation was seen as a betrayal by Islamic militants. Their response was the high-profile kidnap and murder of an American journalist, Daniel Pearl, in Karachi.

With the risk of war with India still high, in April 2002 a referendum was held to grant Musharraf a further five-year term as President. Musharraf won the referendum, though the vote was blatantly rigged.

Before and after elections held later that year, Musharraf ensured that the outcome would solidify his hold on power. Nevertheless, Islamic parties won 62 out of 342 National Assembly seats, and formed the third-largest party bloc.

Prince Charles, as he then was, meets General Musharraf at the President's Palace in Islamabad during his visit in 2006 - Tim Graham/Corbis via Getty
Prince Charles, as he then was, meets General Musharraf at the President's Palace in Islamabad during his visit in 2006 - Tim Graham/Corbis via Getty

Musharraf hammered out a deal with the Islamic parties. In exchange for their support, he promised to relinquish his military position (a promise he would later break) and to introduce strict Islamic social and cultural measures such as the closing of cinemas and the restriction of co-education.

But these measures were not enough to mollify the extremists. In December 2003 there were two attempts on his life. In both cases, militants tried to ram his motorcade with vans filled with explosives as he made his way from his home in Rawalpindi. Most of the conspirators were members of the Pakistan Air Force.

In October 2005 an earthquake struck northern Pakistan and Pakistani- controlled Kashmir; tens of thousands died. Musharraf’s government mobilised troops to co-ordinate the rescue effort, but members of banned Islamist groups were often more effective in providing aid to the survivors. Musharraf was criticized for his government’s slow response.

After leaving office and a period of self-imposed exile, in October 2010 Musharraf announced the formation of a new political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, and vowed to return to Pakistan in time for the 2013 national elections.

He did so in March 2013, but on April 18 a Pakistani court disqualified him from standing because of an ongoing investigation regarding his suspension of the constitution in 2007.

He was placed under house arrest the following day, and in June the prime minister, Musharraf’s old adversary Nawaz Sharif, announced that he would be put on trial for treason for his actions in 2007. Subsequently, in August 2013, murder charges were filed against him in connection with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto – charges dismissed as absurd by most western commentators.

In 2016 Musharraf was allowed to leave the country for medical treatment in Dubai, where he remained.

In December 2019 a special court in Islamabad found him guilty, in absentia, of high treason and sentenced him to death. The next month, however, the proceedings against him were ruled unconstitutional by a high court in Lahore, and his conviction was overturned. Musharraf always maintained that the charges against him were politically motivated.

He and his wife, Sehba, who were married in 1968, had a son and a daughter.

Pervez Musharraf, born August 11 1943, died February 5 2023