Musharraf's Ambiguous Legacy

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation brings to an end one of the more interesting curiosities of subcontinental politics: for more than four years, Pakistan had a president who was born in India, while India had a Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) who was born in Pakistan. Since the two countries’ separation is now more than six decades old, that anomaly is unlikely to be repeated. But it is not the only reason Indians are greeting Musharraf’s exit with mixed feelings.

Musharraf was someone who was easy to hate across the border. He had, after all, risen to the top of the military on the back of the Pakistani army’s Islamist elements, who came into their own (in what had previously been a rather Anglophile, British- and American-trained officer corps) during the decade-long reign of a fundamentalist military ruler, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

Indeed, though Musharraf displayed an urbane image, enjoyed his Scotch, and admired Turkey, he was not one of the Pakistani secularists so admired by Indian liberals. Instead, he cultivated a reputation as an anti-Indian hardliner. The fact that his family had fled India upon Partition gave him an additional chip on his shoulder: it was widely said that he saw relations with India as a series of opportunities to wreak vengeance for what his family had suffered in the refugee upheavals of 1947.

As Chief of the Army Staff, Musharraf directed the disastrous Kargil invasion of 1999, when Pakistan sent its soldiers surreptitiously across the cease-fire lines to capture strategically vital heights overlooking a key Indian road. Musharraf was recorded by Indian intelligence boasting about the action on an open telephone line during a visit to Beijing. Because the invasion was manifestly illegal and provocative, Pakistan denied that official soldiers were involved, with the result that when they were repulsed, at great cost to both sides, Musharraf refused to accept his own soldiers’ bodies. It was a low point in Indo-Pakistan relations, and no one in Delhi was prepared to trust Musharraf ever again.

Within months, however, Musharraf had conducted a coup against the hapless Nawaz Sharif, and a year later declared himself president, a title meant to enhance his stature when he visited India for peace talks in July 2001. But Musharraf had come to power as the patron of the jihadis his army was financing, equipping, and training for their forays into Indian territory, and few in New Delhi thought genuine peace could be made with such a duplicitous man.

Then came 9/11, when – under intense pressure from the United States to support American retaliation in Afghanistan or face the consequences – he was forced to disown his protégés. The Taliban, under whose rule Osama bin Laden had found a safe haven, had been created (and, in crucial battles, led) by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Now, Musharraf, in order to preserve his country’s alliance with the world’s sole superpower (and his country’s largest donor), had to betray his own.

For at least two years, though, Musharraf tried to have it both ways, cracking down at America’s behest on the Islamists on Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan while sponsoring them on the eastern border with India. A Pakistani-sponsored jihadi attack on India’s Parliament in December 2001 nearly provoked all-out war.

But the double game proved unsustainable: the Islamists were less inclined than their now-ambivalent patron to draw sophistical distinctions between one kind of enemy and another. The result was two assassination attempts against Musharraf in December 2003. If Musharraf had previously been unwilling to choose sides, the attempts to kill him finally showed him which side he had to be on.

From then on, Musharraf seems genuinely to have tried to clamp down on the Frankenstein’s monster that he had sustained as an instrument of Pakistani policy. For roughly four years, he represented the best that the West and India could hope for in a Pakistani leader – someone with military authority, who seemed convinced that his own survival, and the interests of his state, demanded a clampdown on terrorism. “I never thought I’d say this, one senior national security figure in New Delhi said to me, “but Pervez Musharraf . may be India’s best hope for peace with Pakistan.

It could not last indefinitely. The first problems arose in the lawless “federally administered tribal areas (FATA) in western Pakistan. Musharraf, concerned at all costs to avoid any military action that might provoke a tribal rebellion against his forces, tried to buy himself more political space by cutting deals with insurgent leaders in the FATA, signing peace agreements with the very chiefs his army should have been pursuing.

Meanwhile, internal difficulties worsened. As anti-Musharraf sentiment grew within Pakistan, and repressive measures aimed at the judiciary and the press cost him ever more support among the intelligentsia, his hold on power began to slip. His effort to cut a deal with Benazir Bhutto was a final attempt to remain in office through the election of a civilian leader acceptable to the public (and the West). Her assassination by Islamist elements foreclosed that option. Musharraf’s fraying authority made him less effective and, indeed, less useful: the Taliban re-emerged in strength on Pakistan’s Afghan border, and his own ISI was proved to have been involved in the bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul.

By the summer of 2008, both the West and India were facing a Pakistan again in the grip of chaos, its border areas in Islamist hands and its ISI out of the control of the elected civilian government. The prospects of an implosion of effective governmental authority in Pakistan are strong, and the consequences would be dire. But, by the time Musharraf resigned, he had already lost the ability to do anything about it.

Shashi Tharoor, an acclaimed novelist and commentator, is a former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. This article is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate.

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