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Ex-Pakistan leader Pervez Musharraf, who aided U.S. war in Afghanistan, has died

FILE - Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Nov. 10, 2001, at the United Nations headquarters in New York. An official said Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan military ruler who backed US war in Afghanistan after 9/11, has died.
Beth Keiser
/
AP
FILE - Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Nov. 10, 2001, at the United Nations headquarters in New York. An official said Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan military ruler who backed US war in Afghanistan after 9/11, has died.

Updated February 5, 2023 at 5:00 AM ET

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pervez Musharraf, who was Pakistan's military ruler for nearly a decade, has died in Dubai after a long illness. The 79-year-old four-star general was a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, and a controversial figure at home.

Pakistan's military immediately issued a statement of condolences, as did many politicians, who remained steadfastly loyal to Musharraf despite his rise to power in a military coup in October 1999, when he overthrew an elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Musharraf's time in power was shaped by the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. The attacks were masterminded by al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden, who the Taliban were sheltering in Afghanistan, a country that shares a long border with Pakistan.

"America was sure to react violently, like a wounded bear," he wrote in his autobiography. "If the perpetrator turned out to be al-Qaida, then that wounded bear would come charging straight toward us."

The following day, the then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Musharraf that Pakistan would either be "with us or against us" while Musharraf alleged that another American official, whom he did not name, threatened to bomb Pakistan "back into the Stone Age" if it chose the latter, according to The Associated Press.

Musharraf joined the American War on Terror that was initiated after 9/11.

For a brief period, America and Pakistan became very closely aligned, says Omar Waraich who covered the final years of Musharraf's rule for Time Magazine. At the time, "there was a very good relationship that actually worked very well between the two intelligence agencies. They picked up lots and lots of Al Qaida leaders and they picked up lots of other people who ended up in Guantanamo Bay."

FILE - Then U.S. President Bush, right, shakes hands with then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf at a news conference at New York's Waldorf - Astoria Hotel, on Nov. 10, 2001.
ED BAILEY / AP
/
AP
FILE - Then U.S. President Bush, right, shakes hands with then Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf at a news conference at New York's Waldorf - Astoria Hotel, on Nov. 10, 2001.

Pakistan was used as transit for NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And Musharraf tolerated attacks launched by U.S. forces against suspected militants in Pakistan's rugged border areas.

That didn't stop him from playing what some in Washington called a double game, says Madiha Afzal, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, "cooperating with the US on counter terrorism, while allowing the Taliban to have sanctuary in Pakistan."

She says Pakistan led by Musharraf essentially hedged its bets – looking to a future where the US would depart the region. Pakistan was also hoping that friendly relations with the Taliban would provide it with a buffer against its neighbor and rival, India. Even so, Musharraf also tried to make peace with India, nearly reaching a deal over the disputed territory of Kashmir, the AP reported.

In an interview with NPR in 2015, Musharraf tried to explain Pakistan's thinking on the Taliban: that it wanted to counter India's influence in Afghanistan. "Obviously, Pakistan starts looking for elements who would support Pakistan, who would play our game."

The Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, and Afzal says that was partly a result of Musharraf's policies. "The fact that the Taliban had sanctuary in Pakistan... Musharraf was the one who began that policy."

That has left another legacy: the deep mistrust that exists between Washington and Islamabad until today as a result of that so-called "double game."

Musharraf also grappled with another scandal under his rule, when it was revealed that a famed Pakistani nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, was selling centrifuge designs and other secrets to countries including Iran, Libya and North Korea. Those designs helped Pyongyang to arm itself with a nuclear weapon, while centrifuges from Khan's designs still spin in Iran.

Musharraf also became a controversial figure at home. His troubles came to a head in 2007. Pakistan was grappling with growing extremism, including a local offshoot of the Taliban seizing power of the scenic Swat Valley, about six hours drive from the capital, Islamabad. Militants then seized control of a radical mosque in the heart of the capital – just a short distance from Pakistan's notoriously powerful military intelligence wing, known as the ISI.

He was accused of complicity in the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. And the trigger for his downfall was when he sacked chief justice Pakistan's Supreme Court. That ultimately fermented a movement for the restoration of democracy.

Amid nation-wide protests, Musharraf "doubled down," Waraich recalls. "He imposed an emergency. And he banned journalists. He arrested opposition politicians."

Finally, in 2008, Musharraf stepped down. He was later charged with treason for imposing emergency rule, and fled Pakistan in 2016, spending his final years in exile. He tried a comeback in 2012, which failed. While in exile, his former political party announced he was diagnosed with a rare disease, amyloidosis.

Pervez Musharraf was born in New Delhi, India, in 1943, the son of a diplomat. He fled with other Muslims to the new state of Pakistan during after partition in 1947. He joined the army at 18 and made a career there during Pakistan's three wars with India. Just before taking office in 1999, Musharraf made his own attempt to seize part of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

Despite the upheaval surrounding Musharraf's years in power, he has his defenders. The economy grew during his leadership, while the country was seen as strategically important. Musharraf, a former special forces commando, was the last military dictator to rule Pakistan.

But the military remains Pakatan's most powerful institution, and critics say its generals still hold enormous sway over civilian governments – although it is now thinly veiled.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diaa Hadid
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Abdul Sattar