Musharraf’s life story tracked Pakistan’s struggle with the US
Pervez Musharraf, one-time military dictator of Pakistan, was buried on Feb. 7 in the port city of Karachi after dying in exile in the United Arab Emirates on Feb. 5. A headline in the Wall Street Journal described him as a “key U.S. ally.” Well, up to a point, to borrow the disbelieving jargon of British journalists who have read “Scoop,” the literary classic by Evelyn Waugh.
Yes, it’s true that Musharraf sided with the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda hijackers who had been sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan, with whom Pakistan was allied. But as Musharraf himself records in his 2006 memoir, “In the Line of Fire,” then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had telephoned on Sept. 12 and said, “You are either with us or against us.” The message was reinforced by Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage, who told the head of Pakistan’s feared ISI intelligence service, then visiting Washington, that “…we had to decide whether we were with America or with the terrorists, but if we chose the terrorists, then we should be prepared to be bombed back to the Stone Age.” (At Washington’s insistence, the intelligence chief, until then a key ally of Musharraf, was sacked.)
The public platitudes of Foggy Bottom clearly mask a steely candor.
I doubt whether Washington ever particularly trusted Musharraf. It shouldn’t have done so. But forced into a corner, he was amenable to deals, such as being prepared to exclusively blame the late Dr. A.Q. Khan for proliferating nuclear technology to countries including Libya, Iran and North Korea, so absolving the military of guilt. Other examples of his deviousness include that Musharraf was eventually forced from power in 2008, which would have been two years after Osama bin Laden is thought to have taken refuge in Pakistan. Did Musharraf know? Almost certainly. The Pakistan military, and in particular the ISI, was essentially the al Qaeda leader’s landlord. When killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011, bin Laden was living less than a mile from the Pakistani equivalent of the West Point military academy.
Musharraf’s funeral provided an opportunity to monitor the status of the military-civil relationship in Pakistan, where civilian governments come and go while the military remains the most powerful party. His exile in the United Arab Emirates had been a solution, albeit untidy, to the problem created by a civilian government putting him on trial for treason for violating the constitution and then sentencing him to death. The military was not prepared to allow the precedent to be established and Musharraf’s health provided the excuse for flying him off to Dubai.
According to Reuters, the funeral was conducted “with military protocol.” The current notional most senior officer, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee attended, even though General Asim Munir, the more powerful chief of army staff (Musharraf’s one-time position) was absent on an official visit to Britain. Others reported to be there included the inscrutable General (retired) Ashfaq Kayani, who was in charge when the SEALs killed bin Laden, and General (retired) Aslam Beg, whose autobiography published in 2021 revealed details of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the military’s ties with Iran, including Qasem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander killed in a U.S. drone strike.
At the subsequent burial in the military cemetery, Musharraf, who had overthrown an elected prime minister, was given full military honors, including a rifle firing salute. Ironically, this was the same level of honor given by the military to otherwise disgraced nuclear scientist Dr. Khan when he died of COVID in late 2021. Go figure. At one level, it suggests an arrogance by the Pakistan military and a contempt for the notion of civilian government.
With former prime minister Imran Khan actively trying to undermine the present government of Shehbaz Sharif — whose brother Nawaz was overthrown in Musharraf’s initial 1999 coup — it can be difficult to work out Pakistan’s imminent future. Arguably the greatest threat is economic. On Feb. 6, the editorial of the Financial Times was entitled “Pakistan is on the brink” and the sub-head read, “The nuclear power and its creditors face stark choices if it is to default.” A couple of weeks ago, the whole of the country suffered a 12-hour electricity blackout.
One hope may be that Saudi Arabia will write an even larger check than currently half-promised. At best that would be a temporary solution. Musharraf’s life story encapsulates Pakistan’s struggle to relate to the U.S. and stop the nation from spiraling downward.
Simon Henderson, a one-time BBC correspondent in Pakistan, is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.
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