Gen. Pervez Musharraf (1943-2023): The Life And Legacy Of Pakistan's Last Military Dictator

Gen. Pervez Musharraf (1943-2023): The Life And Legacy Of Pakistan's Last Military Dictator
Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler from 1999 to 2008, passed away in Dubai on Sunday 5 February 2023, aged 79. According to close sources, he had been suffering from a rare disease called 'amyloidosis' for some years. He departed Pakistan in 2016, under intense scrutiny and controversy, for medical treatment in the UAE.

News of his death has drawn the usual condolences and remembrances, while some are quick to recall the excesses of his regime and blame him for many of the problems Pakistan faces today.

Spokespersons at Pakistan’s consulate in Dubai and embassy in Abu Dhabi confirmed the news. A "special flight" will be made to Dubai on Monday to bring the former president's remains back to Pakistan for burial.

Early life of a soldier

Musharraf was born in Delhi on 11 August 1943, and his family migrated to the newly established Pakistan, following the partition and decolonisation of British India in 1947.

He joined the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) in 1961. He fought in the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, as well as in 1971 as a company commander. He was part of the Pakistan Army's Special Service Group (SSG), the military's vaunted commando units and special forces regiments.

He also served at senior command positions in the military operations directorate, reportedly drawing up plans for conventional operations in contested regions of Jammu and Kashmir. He served multiple tours training junior batches of SSG commandos and special operations field commanders.

From army chief to military dictator

Musharraf unexpectedly landed the job of commanding a nuclear-armed Pakistan Army in 1998, when his predecessor Gen. (retd) Jehangir Karamat resigned a few days after some of his remarks irked then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Musharraf was also made chairman of the tri-services joint chiefs of staff committee.

Sharif appointing Musharraf implied that his political power had reached its zenith, and he could secure the long-term future of his civilian administration – with Musharraf as 'his man'. This could have been a welcome sign for Pakistan's young and teetering democracy if the experiment had played out. But the Kargil conflict of 1999 would expose the rifts between Nawaz and Musharraf, especially in terms of relations with India.

Nawaz wanted rapprochement and found a perfect partner in then-prime minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, while Musharraf remained hawkish and wanted a military solution to the Kashmir dispute – under a nuclear overhang, or perhaps even risking a nuclear conflict.

In May 1999, the Pakistan Army risked war with India as irregulars occupied heights in the Kargil-Dras sector of the Kashmir line of control (LoC). After a standoff, including artillery bombardment and aerial strikes, intervention by then-US president Bill Clinton averted an all-out conflict and facilitated de-escalation between India and Pakistan.

The incident left a 'bad taste' between then-PM Nawaz Sharif and his hand-picked army chief, and the former remained apprehensive of a military coup that eventually transpired a few months later. On 12 October 1999, fate would end the Pakistan's last tryst with democracy in the 20th century.

While Musharraf was on his way back from an official trip to Sri Lanka, Sharif and his cabinet removed him from his post and appointed then-DG ISI, Lt. Gen. Ziauddin Butt, as the army chief.

But this backfired, as the army's corps commanders – specifically those in and around Islamabad – reacted to the development and 'took matters into their own hands'. Armed troops were dispatched to all government buildings and sensitive installations. Soldiers deployed to protect the prime minister held him hostage, and the entire civilian leadership was 'taken into custody'. State television PTV stopped its regular broadcasts, while military personnel took position outside airports to turn people away.

When Musharraf's plane finally landed in Karachi – with only 12 minutes of fuel left, according to many reports – he had a country to address, because reversing the military's actions would have 'destroyed the prestige and power' of the army.

'Chief executive' of Pakistan

As the dust settled, Musharraf addressed the nation through the state broadcaster PTV, in what we today know was a hurriedly arranged and oversized commando jacket. He said that the Constitution was a body, and democracy was an organ which had cancer, so he would be performing 'surgery' to fix that organ and remove the cancer.

This, according to him, was justification for holding the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan 1973 'in abeyance for the time being'. He issued provisional constitutional orders and legal framework orders, enjoying power and command over a nuclear-armed country in ways that Julius Caesar or Napoleon could only dream of.

Musharraf forced judges to take a new oath, and those who did not were then forced to resign. The reconstituted Supreme Court of Pakistan allowed him to rule the country as chief executive for three years, and amend the Constitution at will. The courts also tried deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif for the 'terrorist act' of 'hijacking' the army chief's plane, and sentenced him to life in prison.

Sharif would later be bailed out by the Saudi royal family, with additional guarantees from the al-Hariri's of Lebanon, and he would depart Pakistan with his entire household – except for Hamza Shehbaz, the current prime minister’s son, who would remain in Pakistan as a 'guarantee'.

President and army chief

Musharraf attempted to stabilize the country – indebted and corrupt, reeling under sanctions after its nuclear tests – at the turn of the century and manage it with technocrats and generals as administrators. This attempt to bully the judiciary and civil bureaucracy into subservience would effectively emasculate them forevermore.

Musharraf made himself president in June 2001, after Rafiq Tarar vacated the head of state's office. He held a referendum in April 2002 which was poorly managed and generated the expected 97% result in favour. This meant that the dictator was now 'elected president' for a five year term, even though the Constitution had prescribed an electoral college for the head of state.

It must be noted that Musharraf became president while concurrently serving as the army chief – a subordinate officer – in the footsteps of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, Gen. Yahya Khan, and Field Marshal Ayub Khan. However, he did not officially declare martial law or abrogate the Constitution: he, in fact, developed the systemic capability to overcome or neutralise its provisions, and its ultimate effectiveness as a social contract for Pakistan.

His first act as president would be to hold a summit with Indian PM Vajpayee in July 2001 in Agra, to initiate a breakthrough in bilateral relations that he was accused of sabotaging when Nawaz was Pakistani premier. This effort made no progress, despite a military leader promising that diplomatic headway could be made with a 'traditional adversary' whose threat had actually ensured the national primacy of his institution.

After the Indian parliament was attacked in 2002, and the perpetrators were blamed to be from Pakistan, a standoff ensued between the two nuclear-armed neighbours once again, but was thankfully resolved without a shot being fired.

Musharraf tried to make peace with India and resolve the Kashmir dispute bilaterally yet again in 2004 and, according to many observers, came very close in 2007. But despite all the progress he made in the bilateral relationship, it was conditions at home that prevented him from achieving this unprecedented détente and a place in history as a peacemaker.

War on terror

Musharraf's 'big break' came when Al Qaeda, a hitherto unknown jihadi organization based in Afghanistan, managed to infiltrate over a dozen of its terrorists into America and orchestrate the 9/11 attacks. This turning point in global history, after the deadliest attack on the US homeland since Pearl Harbor, put Afghanistan – and of course Pakistan – in the global spotlight.

The Taliban's refusal to hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden resulted in the modern American military juggernaut descending upon the landlocked, wartorn country to 'hunt terrorists', and try their hand at 'nation building' as well.

Western military ingress into Taliban-run Afghanistan in 2001 would have been impossible without Pakistani support – what nationalists would have you believe as 'approval' or 'permission', and not threats of being bombed 'back to the stone age'. All of a sudden, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and then-US president George W. Bush became best friends.

It was Western support and largesse for the Musharraf regime that led to a windfall of financial assistance, as well as much needed legitimacy for the military ruler. Pakistan became a 'major non-NATO ally' and could access the best of American and NATO equipment. Financial aid from multilateral institutions was also easily forthcoming during his reign.

Hybrid democracy

While Musharraf earned the ire of the country's conservative religious right, he attempted to modernise if not secularise the country, and move towards more global integration and technological advancement. He coined the phrase 'enlightened moderation' as an antidote to extremism and intolerance that led, among other things, to terrorist violence. However, the Musharraf era witnessed an unprecedented mainstreaming of Islamists and religious conservatives who 'toed the party line' or were not deemed to be 'too extreme' in their views.

His regime held general elections in 2002 which brought his manufactured Muslim League, today's PML-Q, to power as the 'kings party'. A significant chunk of the opposition seats in the legislature – and the provincial governments of Balochistan and erstwhile North West Frontier Province (today's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) – went to the religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). Its secretary general, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, became opposition leader in the National Assembly: after narrowly losing the prime minister's seat to PML-Q candidate Zafarullah Jamali by just one vote.

The rise of lawlessness and terrorism in Pakistan's sensitive western provinces after the MMA provincial governments, but under the Musharraf regime, will be proven by history as another ploy of the Pakistani deep state to collude with religious extremists while simultaneously presenting itself as a responsible member of the comity of nations.

The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) did have parliamentary representation, but suffered the kind of state-sponsored repression and control that today's PTI could not even dream of.

Imran Khan won his first tenure in the National Assembly in the 2002 elections, and was the sole parliamentarian of the fledgling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) at the time. Khan had also campaigned for Musharraf in the presidential referendum, but later claimed to have 'parted ways' after the dictator did not give him a significant role in the new government.

This parliament passed the 17th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, recognising the president not only as head of state but also as the head of cabinet. It also passed an Act so Musharraf could hold two offices – the office of army chief, since the head of state was forbidden from holding an 'office of profit' – at the same time.

This belittled the head of state's constitutional authority as a symbol of the unity of the federation and a part of the parliament. But now, Musharraf could feel comfortable ruling Pakistan as a president with a prime minister and an elected parliament, even though everyone knew his real power and authority was increasingly contained in the uniformed office he held as Chief of Army Staff.

Over time, this would neuter the authority and trustworthiness of the Pakistani state, especially its civilian leaders, at home and in the international community. It would also 'overburden' the military with all affairs of state, as it neglected security and imposed its will on the economy and rest of society.

Fictions of economic development

As the parliamentary setup sanctified his rule and powers, Musharraf sought to improve the country's economic conditions. He tried to bring more freedoms to the media and academia, while building up the military's entrenched power and creating new inroads for the 'establishment' to monopolise control over various sectors.

With a cabinet of technocrats and economists, and some degree of administrative improvements, Musharraf was able to stabilize Pakistan's economy and create prospects for strong, sustainable growth.

A modicum of prosperity ensued with job creation, trade liberalisation and export promotion, while remittances also began to play an important role in the economy's financial flows. Western support meant capital, financing and investment would be earnestly directed towards Pakistan, since stabilising the region was a top US priority.

However, the stories of economic growth and all-round development proved to be fiction, as none of that growth was sustainable. Most of the financial inflows from Pakistan's 'military allies' was either expropriated by the elites or by those occupying powerful offices in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

As a result, the economic growth 'miracle' under Musharraf unraveled quickly, and the dominos fell as the war on terror began to be fought in Pakistan's streets and cities, while the judiciary and legal community revolted against his regime. He would declare an emergency to restore his authority and hold general elections, but would not be able to save his uniform or his presidency.

Downfall of Musharraf regime

In 2006, he published his autobiographical memoir, titled after the 1993 Clint Eastwood action film 'In the Line of Fire'. In it, he documented how he had surrendered Pakistani citizens as 'terrorists' to US custody, to be held in Guantanamo Bay without trial.

2007 would prove to be Musharraf's 'annus horribilis' because of two major incidents: the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) siege, and the removal of the chief justice twice over.

The assault on the Red Mosque in Islamabad led to the creation of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a Pakistani Taliban movement which declared war on the state, attacking soldiers and bombing civilians for a decade afterwards.

Musharraf also tried to impose his will on the-then chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, failing which he ordered his removal and detained him. When the procedure was followed and he was restored by the Supreme Judicial Council, Musharraf relented for some time, only to impose emergency rule and remove the chief justice once again. This sowed the seeds for a revolution led by the Pakistani lawyers' movement.

At the same time, Musharraf's intelligence apparatus was engaged in back-end negotiations for 'cutting a deal' with PPP and Benazir Bhutto. It was a coup de grâce in his attempt to drive a wedge in the democratic opposition to his rule – two coalitions of Pakistani political parties, the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD) and the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM), at the time.

This deal, the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), envisioned a blanket pardon and amnesty for all 'politically motivated' cases registered in Pakistani courts from 1988 to 2007. Other options considered in the negotiations, but rejected, were allowing Musharraf to continue as president 'in uniform' (that is, as army chief as well), or a constitutional provision prohibiting a third term as prime minister. One would have constitutionally formalised the military's role in politics, while the other would have prevented Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif from becoming premier once more.

Benazir Bhutto assassination

2007 was also an election year, and Musharraf expected former premier Bhutto to participate and come to power, granting him legitimacy the same way she did for president Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1988.

However, disagreements turned into disputes, and a coordinated bomb attack welcomed Benazir Bhutto on her return to Karachi. Musharraf wanted her to be more acquiescent, while Bhutto resisted and called for him to cease his autocratic ways.

President general Musharraf imposed an emergency on 3 November 2007, suspending the Constitution to 'restore the writ of the state' but essentially to clamp down on the independent judiciary and free media. On 28 November, he handed over his beloved position of army chief to Gen. (retired) Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, a consensus candidate who had been his intelligence chief and Benazir's military secretary earlier.

Musharraf lifted emergency rule as civilian president on 15 December, but irreparable damage had already been done. And despite everything that had already happened by then, Pakistan was in for a catastrophic shock of historic proportions.

Benazir Bhutto would be assassinated on 27 December 2007 in Rawalpindi, after she delivered a rousing speech at Liaquat Bagh – the historic grounds of the garrison city, named after Pakistan's first prime minister at the place where he was assassinated. Musharraf tried to control the damage and reassert the promises he had made with the PPP, but it was too little too late. He would no longer be trusted, and would soon be irrelevant because he was not Chief of Army Staff anymore.

Pakistan restores its democracy

Since Musharraf had concentrated all state powers in the army chief's position, and in the army in general (no pun intended), he believed he could sustain himself effectively as a president empowered by the 17th Amendment. He also thought that even after retirement, the army was his institution, and its chief is – and would always be – 'his man'.

General elections were postponed after Benazir's assassination, but were held in early 2008. The PPP swept the polls on a sympathy wave, while Musharraf's arch nemesis Nawaz Sharif's PML-N took legislative control of the Punjab.

President Musharraf administered the oath to Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani as prime minister of Pakistan and, in a sign of changing times, was startled when PPP slogans were raised at the oath-taking ceremony. The PPP and PML-N joined forces to form the federal cabinet, with some ministers wearing black armbands in protest as they swore their oaths of office, repeating them after Musharraf.

Business as usual resumed, but under a tense standoff as a recalibration would soon be required. Musharraf continued for some time as a 'lame duck' president until he faced the pressure of impeachment in July 2008. After exhausting all avenues of support, he resigned 'in national interest' on 18 August 2008.

Benazir's widower Asif Zardari succeeded Musharraf to the all-powerful presidency. But in support of the 18th Amendment, Zardari surrendered all presidential powers that Musharraf enjoyed, to the office of prime minister and the institution of parliament.

Musharraf was naive to believe that Pakistan's transition to democracy could take place with him in the fray. In fact, democracy could only be deemed restored if his regime, including he himself, was no longer in power.

With the removal of Musharraf and most of his laws, Pakistan was formally cleansed of military rule: while behind the scenes, the actual levers of power and control remained in Rawalpindi.


Musharraf left the country for self-imposed exile in 2008, only to return later in 2013 expecting a raucous welcome that never materialised. He was tried, and then convicted, under Article 6 of the Constitution of Pakistan for treason, and remains the only Pakistani dictator to be charged with subverting the democratic order. In 2016, he was allowed by then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif to proceed to the UAE for medical treatment.

Pakistani social media is rife with a multiplicity of opinions and viewpoints on the life and death of Pervez Musharraf. Many have issued the standard condolence messages, praying for the departed and offering sympathies for the bereaved family and friends.

However, others are quick to remember that all was not well when Musharraf was in power. Most of the detractors blame him for the scourge of terrorism that has plagued Pakistan for the past two decades, while some are parroting the PTI narrative of his NRO being a compromise with corrupt politicians. Even the banned TTP has called him an 'enemy of Islam'.

Foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto, while offering his condolences, put an image of his slain mother Benazir with Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti – an influential Baloch leader whose death in 2006 ignited the latest bout of insurgency in Balochistan province – as his Twitter profile picture.

Prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, who was arrested when the Musharraf coup took place in 1999, also offered his condolences to the departed general's family.

Younger Pakistanis are quick to remember the 'good times' under Musharraf, conveniently forgetting (or never being told about) the horrors that Javed Hashmi, Rana Sanaullah, Pervaiz Rashid, Umar Cheema, and so many others endured.

It was under Musharraf's rule that the Pakistani deep state actually turned its fangs on its own people, with no remorse or recompense. Anyone who would challenge the power of the dictator, or the institution that held him at the top, would be given no quarter and shown no mercy.

President general Pervez Musharraf instituted the Pakistan Army's overarching role across the length and breadth of Pakistani society, not just at the expense of other armed services, but at the cost of a strong bureaucracy, an independent judiciary, a representative democratic leadership, an innovative economy, a progressive academia and an industrious youth.

The military's economic empire also grew phenomenally in the Musharraf regime. Military-run defence housing authorities (DHAs) began cropping up across the country, with housing societies favoured or supported by senior military officers also littering the land. Many of the exorbitantly wealthy military-owned organizations enjoy state subsidies and tax exemptions, making it illogical for any local or foreign commercial entity to compete with them.

Serving and retired military officers became a fixture in the bureaucracy, police, banks, corporations, and even in the news media as army-sanctioned 'defense analysts'. The tentacles of the military's official mouthpiece, the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), across mainstream media, entertainment industry, as well as social media, are seen and felt even today.

During the Musharraf era, the political classes were vilified as 'corrupt thieves', and civil society members who protested for democracy and human rights were demonised as 'enemy agents' of whichever boogeyman the deep state wished to connect with them. Much of this narrative has been co-opted and revitalised by the PTI over the past decade. In fact, since April 2022, this recipe for popularity in Pakistan has been weaponised by Imran Khan against the army itself.

Even though the judiciary, and especially the lawyers, put their foot down at Musharraf's autocratic rule and the military's overreach, the judiciary could not sustain its independence and functional autonomy for long: the symbiosis between these two powerful organs of the state started becoming apparent again in 2015. This time, the partnership would ensure the success of 'project Imran Khan', and in the process, remove Nawaz Sharif from power once again.

The protest movements that united the country in opposition to Musharraf did not serve any greater purpose, except to lay the foundations for the bitter divisions within Pakistan that have only exacerbated over the past decade.

Musharraf sacrificed his power in order to preserve the Pakistan Army as a sacred institution transfixed at the core of the nation. Over a decade later, Imran Khan has sacrificed this 'holy cow' at the altar of his politics, and his supporters have been repeatedly whipping its carcass since the summer of 2022.

It appears that Pervez Musharraf tried to please everybody, but ended up pleasing nobody. May Almighty God forgive his sins, offer him peace, and grant solace to those who were wronged and victimised during his rule.