Back in 1999, in the aftermath of the coup coordinated from a cockpit, I found myself among a tiny minority of compadres and confrères who were appalled by the nature and inclinations of the second Nawaz Sharif administration, but nonetheless perturbed by the prospect of a fourth military dictatorship. Given the Sharif government’s drift towards religious law under a purported amirul momineen, it’s not surprising that many of those inclined towards a liberal outlook saw someone who might end that. “Enlightened moderation” sounded like something they could live with.
The preceding four decades should have rung a few alarm bells, though. More than half of that period had involved military rule, and none of those historical phases had ended well. The second had concluded with the nation’s bifurcation; the third had begun with the persecution and eventually the execution of its first democratically elected prime minister. What were the chances that Pakistan would be fourth time lucky?
Pervez Musharraf came across as someone who represented a break with the proclivities of his uniformed predecessors. He was clearly no Zia. But was that likely to be enough? Wasn’t repeated military rule one of the country’s biggest problems? What were the chances of someone from that ilk proving to be a panacea?
Sure, the Sharifs deserve some credit for that perception. And they are not alone. Popular disenchantment with the preceding Pakistan Peoples Party administration had been so profound that in 1996 all too many of the party faithful saw no sense in voting. The result was a massive majority for the Pakistan Muslim League (N) based on a minuscule turnout. It was nonetheless a mandate, and ignoring it was a constitutional violation.
There is no way of knowing how the post-Zia era might have proceeded without constant military interference. What if Benazir Bhutto had not been obliged to accept holdovers such as Ghulam Ishaq as president and Sahibzada Yaqub as foreign minister? Sadly, some said she might have been willing to coexist with Zia, if necessary, and later Musharraf as a conduit back to power. A case, apparently, of exploding mangoes slayed the first possibility, and her own tragic assassination put paid to the second. By then she was sadly parading herself as a more reliable partner for Washington than Musharraf.
Not for the first time, the US saw Musharraf as a military dictator they could do business with. And he was happy to reciprocate, including by offering up for Guantánamo Bay. Billions of dollars poured into the country, all too many of them going straight to the military. Sure, there was more than a bit of irony in the fact that Pakistan’s military regime in 2001 was supposed to combat precisely the sort of insurgents it had backed, again at America’s behest, through the 1980s.
Among those thrilled by the advent of Musharraf was Imran Khan. He later changed his mind when the military ruler laughed off the ex-cricketer’s idea of a route to prime ministership. Musharraf’s successors eventually proved less sensible, before they saw the folly of their ways.
Throughout his nine years in power, Musharraf frequently criticised his civilian predecessors but hardly mentioned the fallow tenures of previous military dictators. After all, despite ersatz electoral exercises, the military was his primary constituency. He spoke often of ‘real democracy’, but never acknowledged that he was part of its antithesis.
His turbulent tenure was packed with a broad range of contradictions, but it ultimately adds up to the conclusion that, whatever the problems (and they are legion), military rule – or, for that matter, interference from the sidelines – is never a solution. The plethora of politicians who have sought to guide Pakistan’s destiny since 1947 have by and large fallen short. We’ll never know the extent to which they might have performed better without the Army assuming the role of the final arbiter.
Ayub Khan took over the reins a dozen years after independence, and held sway for 11 years. Thankfully, Yahya’s tenure was much shorter, but Zia’s ascendancy lasted for another torturous 11 years, and Musharraf’s first coup came 11 years after the military plane carrying Zia momentarily lit up the skies. Musharraf could manage only a tumultuous nine years – a desperate coup in 2007 against his own untenable regime proved to be the last straw, exacerbated by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination a few weeks later.
The polity has never been entirely independent of the military high command since the supposed return of democracy in 1988, evidenced by the rapid turnover in the years before and after Musharraf – who, in his quest for legitimacy, sucked up the crassest opportunists in the political class – many of whom were later corralled into Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf for a second chance.
Inevitably, there are many aspects of Musharraf’s rule that I have failed to mention but, overall, it’s unlikely history’s verdict will be kind.
This article first appeared in Dawn.