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Pervez Musharraf's Ridiculous Return to Pakistan

Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

If Pervez Musharraf exists at all in the American consciousness, it is as a slightly nebulous, vaguely absurd figure from the early years of the War on Terror. Before the Osama Bin Laden raid and regular drone strikes, there was Our Man in Islamabad: relatively liberal (by the standards of dictators), and relatively secular (by the standards of Pakistani dictators). He gave speeches about the evils of terrorism, and was almost assassinated by suicide bombers. When he traveled to the United States, he sat for interviews with everyone from Wolf Blitzer to Jon Stewart. “Where’s Osama Bin Laden?” Stewart asked him in 2006. “I don’t know,” Musharraf replied. “You know where he is? You lead on. We will follow you.”

By 2008, Musharraf had been defeated in the elections he was forced to hold. He hastily left the country for a posh London exile interrupted mainly by stints on the American speaker's circuit. But last month, he finally made good on his promise to return home. It was a characteristically bold move for the ex-commando. Musharraf had already been warned that he could face a trial for alleged misdeeds in office. He may not have been warned that ordinary citizens were liable to greet his return with a disdainful shrug. On landing in Karachi, the former president was welcomed by a noticeably small crowd—a significant embarassment in a country where pols dispense money to assemble friendly throngs. The former ruler is nearly six feet tall, but his roundish features and baby face made him appear somehow small as he faced the cameras. “I am not scared of anyone but God,” he proclaimed.

He should have been at least a little bit worried: the High Court in Islamabad almost immediately refused to extend his bail on charges that he had illegally meddled with the country’s judiciary. In response, Musharraf and his security detail fled the courthouse and took shelter at his home, which was quickly surrounded by police officers. The next day, he was arrested. (The interim civilian government has declined to charge him with treason, but his legal problems remain nearly endless). 

The Musharraf story is, at first glance, more ludicrous than anything else: the bumbling former dictator ridiculed rather than feared. (“Starting my day with a workout. Feel very energized,” he tweeted after arriving; the attached photo shows him in what looks like a very well-equipped weight room). Musharraf’s humiliating month is heartening for democracy advocates, who are glad to see a former strongman face justice (even when the charges are partially motivated by personal vendettas). But there is a larger irony, one befitting the latest chapter in the biography of a military man better known for tactical successes than strategic triumphs: The two sectors of Pakistani society most energetically tormenting Musharraf—the media and the judiciary—are ones that he strengthened during his near-decade in power. And the pillar of society that created him—the military—is standing idly by.

Last month was not the first time the former general had taken a risky step towards engineering his country’s destiny, and his own. In the early months of 1999, Pakistani soldiers, along with indigenous Kashmiri fighters, crossed the Line of Control that separates the Indian and Pakistani areas of Kashmir, focusing on a district called Kargil. It was a daring maneuver. Musharraf, the lead instigator, initially looked clever, garnering accolades and support from the nationalist media. But strategic thinking was never Musharraf’s forte: India responded, and quickly recaptured the ground it had lost; Pakistan was forced into the humiliating retreat that would likely have appeared predictable to anyone who bothered to think through the long-term consequences of the assault. The discord that the disaster brought about in Pakistani politics did, however, allow Musharraf to orchestrate a coup several months later against the civilian government. After he deposed Nawaz Sharif—the leading candidate in the next election, as it happens—he set about reforming the country as he saw fit.  

One big change: Under Musharraf, private television channels were allowed to flourish, thus expanding the Pakistani media’s reach and influence. “He made it more free and fair,” Aparna Pande, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and an expert on Pakistan, told me. Unfortunately, as dictators have been known to do, he also cracked down on the same media when he didn’t like what it was saying or writing. The response was an outpouring of anger against his rule. “He thought the media would be more grateful,” Pande explained. In helping birth a noisier noisy public sphere, he had unwittingly created another antagonist. The press has covered his return with mockery—or ignored it altogether.

Likewise, Musharraf nominated jurists who pursued their own agendas from the bench. Unfortunately, when the Supreme Court ruled against him, he sacked Chief Justice Iftikar Muhammad Chaudhry, the same man he had appointed to the post. The dismissal sparked the so-called Lawyer’s Movement that eventually led to Musharraf’s undoing. Today, this same empowered judiciary is going after him on a number of fronts, leaving him isolated.

And then there's the military. The one area of policy that Musharraf did not actively alter, at least initially, was Pakistan’s support for the Taliban government next door. After the attacks were traced to Afghanistan, the Bush administration demanded that Pakistan end its open support for the Taliban. This is sometimes misleadingly presented as the United States forcing Pakistan to take sides. In fact, Pakistan was already offering aid—to the opposing side. Now it just had to make some gestures of evenhandedness. Although Musharraf offered full-throated support to the Bush administration, Pakistan continued to abet the remnants of the Taliban, and other extremist groups. But the so-called “double game” was never rigged enough to prompt retaliation from the United States. Extensive aid continued to flow to the Pakistani military—Washington, typically, evinced no interest in Pakistani democracy—but there was some noticeable anger in the armed forces that Musharraf was taking on the Islamic militancy his country had done so much to foment. 

Today, neither the military nor its sometime American sponsor are inclined to do much for Musharraf. Washington may have once seen him as a bendable strongman, but there is no interest in backing an unpopular former general. The military itself, although antsy about the possible symbolism of a former military leader in prison, has little love for its former chief. Anti-Americanism is much stronger in the country today than it was in Musharraf's era, and thus his closeness to the United States is something the military would rather forget. “They would not want him killed,” Pande told me, “but they are not happy he came back.” (Musharraf no longer wants to be called General or President, preferring he be referred to as Syed Pervez Musharraf, i.e. a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.) 

So why on Earth did he return? Part of the reason was certainly the circumstances of his exile in London, where he socializes with yes-men and ex-pats who don’t have a feel for what’s going on in Pakistan. “He has been completely deluded by a small group of sycophants,” Huma Yusuf, a Pakistani columnist, explained. Several years ago, Yusuf added, people might have partially embraced him. But some of the anti-Establishment energy in the country has migrated to Imran Khan, the former cricketer, who is not a member of one of the two largest political parties. And Musharraf hasn’t done anything to mend the ties that were broken by his tenure.

But paramount, as always, is his lack of strategic planning. Musharraf’s return may not have been quite as impulsive as the Kargil venture—he had been planning it for some time, and even went on the lecture circuit to raise money. Still, his adventurousness has never been underlined by any long-term political sense. A writer in Pakistan told me that Musharraf had been telling people that his country’s attitude had changed toward him. The evidence: he had hundreds of thousands of “likes” on his Facebook page. 

Follow Isaac Chotiner on Twitter @IChotiner.