Pervez Musharraf: The Fall of the Former Hero in “War on Terror”

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The Washington Post series on Afghanistan detailed what has been largely apparent for a long time, namely that successive U.S. administrations routinely lied — “failed to tell the truth” is how the Post put it — about the situation in Afghanistan for the past 18 years and pretended that the war there was winnable. To maintain this fantasy, the United States has shelled out roughly $1 trillion. Meanwhile, Afghanistan is a disaster, with about 150,000 of its people killed, more than one-quarter of those civilians. More than 2,000 U.S. soldiers are dead.

During the early years of the “war on terror,” Pakistan’s military leader Pervez Musharraf, was a key U.S. ally. Now he’s living in exile in Dubai and was just sentenced to death in absentia by a special court in Islamabad for treason and illegally declaring emergency rule in 2007, when he locked up around 10,000 political opponents, suspended the constitution and shut down independent media outlets.

The trial was held in a closed anti-terrorism court so I’m guessing there were some due process issues but Musharraf was indisputably brutal, which was not the predominant narrative in U.S. political circles during his years in power. Back then, Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, was generally seen as imperfect but a valued reformer, which was one of a whole web of subsidiary lies that were necessary to maintain the Afghanistan delusion.

The Bush administration larded his government with more than $10 billion in aid between the 2001 and 2008, when he was forced to step down. On his watch Pakistani military and intelligence agencies “committed widespread human rights violations, including the enforced disappearances of thousands of political opponents…and tortured hundreds of Pakistani terrorism suspects,” says this report from Human Rights Watch. “Political opponents including high-profile opposition politicians were exiled, jailed, tortured, and in some instances murdered.”

But Musharraf, like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (before he had Jamal Khashoggi killed), was applauded by foreign policy mandarins, and often the media, because he was seen as a critical ally. The country’s intelligence service, the ISI, played a critical role in crushing internal dissent and during the 1980s had helped the CIA set up its arms pipeline into Afghanistan to support the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union, thereby helping spawn Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

It also helped Pakistan procure foreign nuclear and missile technology, which led to congress to cut off military aid in 1990, but that was resumed as soon as Musharraf agreed to back the U.S. in Afghanistan. It was never clear which side he and the ISI were on, as the spy service had close ties to the Taliban.

(Incidentally, in his memoir, Musharraf said the Bush administration, in the person of then assistant secretary of state Richard Armitage, threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” if it didn’t cooperate with the U.S. in Afghanistan. Armitage subsequently denied using those precise words but not making a threat.)

In 2002 — when Musharraf claimed a 98 percent victory in a presidential referendum — Time magazine named him a “Person of the Year,” saying:

How’s this for a balancing act? In 2002 Pakistan’s President cooperated with America’s war on terrorism while mollifying his fundamentalist Muslim subjects…Washington can only hope the act lasts a long time; if Musharraf were to go, there would always be the chance a hard-line Islamic radical could rule a nuclear-tipped Pakistan.

“President Musharraf is a courageous leader and a friend of the United States,” George W. Bush said at Camp David in 2003 during an official visit with Pakistan’s president. “Today, our two nations are working together closely on common challenges.”

Presidents Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and George W. Bush hold a joint press conference at Camp David Tuesday, June 24, 2003. "Greater economic development is also critical to fulfilling the hopes of the Pakistani people," said President Bush. "Since we met last year, the United States has cancelled $1 billion of debt Pakistan owed our country. And today I'm pleased to announce that our nations are signing a trade and investment framework agreement, which creates a formal structure for expanding our economic partnership."  White House photo by David Bohrer

By 2006, the year he came to the U.S. on an extensive book tour to promote his memoir, In the Line of Fire, the Pakistani leader was widely admired in high-end political circles. Time put him on its list of the 100 people “whose power, talent or moral example is transforming our world.”

“In an era superrich in nightmare scenarios, nothing disturbs the sleep of world leaders more than the prospect of chaos in Pakistan—and jihadists’ gaining control over its nuclear weapons,” said his entry. “Standing between order and that cataclysm, those leaders believe, is General Pervez Musharraf.” The item also mentioned as a selling point that Bush called Pakistan’s leader “my buddy.”

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From Time.

In September 2006, Musharraf had a book event at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he was introduced by Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s former Treasury Secretary and then a Citigroup executive. “The book gives you a sense of a remarkable man and his thinking and his vision on a broad array of issues,” Rubin said. (His admiration for Pakistan’s leader was no doubt deeper given that one of Rubin’s former colleagues at Citigroup had been named as Musharraf’s first finance minister.) During the book tour Musharraf even made a stop on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he was greeted with tea and Twinkies.

Things fell apart quickly for Musharraf after returning home from his book tour. He declared the state of emergency the following year and in 2008, amid steps to impeach him, he took off for London.

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