(Bloomberg) -- Pervez Musharraf, the former four-star Pakistani army general who governed the South Asian nation for nearly a decade after coming to power in a 1999 bloodless coup, has died. He was 79.
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He died after a long ailment in Dubai, said Raza Bokhari, a former spokesman and close aide.
Musharraf, who was Pakistan’s fourth military leader, was a polarizing and divisive figure. He ruled through the turbulent period after Sept. 11, 2001 and attempted to appease American demands during the war on terrorism. Yet in interviews after stepping down, he confirmed that Pakistan supported proxy forces, including the Taliban in Afghanistan, to counter fears of being circumscribed by a hostile India.
“India has a strategy of strangulating Pakistan economically, isolating it internationally and weakening its army — we have to counter that,” he said in a 2018 interview in his penthouse apartment in Dubai, where he lived in self-exile for most of his life after being forced to resign the presidency in 2008.
Some in Pakistan praised the former army chief and president for ushering in a level of economic stability, helped by American debt waivers and aid in return for military support. Many, however, saw him as a puppet of the US. Musharraf also drew criticism for constitutional and human rights violations and was blamed for failing to tackle widespread violence in the later years of his rule.
Born on Aug. 11, 1943, in Delhi, Musharraf emigrated to Pakistan with his family to the port city of Karachi after the British partition of the subcontinent in 1947. From 1949 to 1956, he lived in Turkey, where his father was a diplomat.
After joining Pakistan’s army at age 18, he was commissioned in the artillery regiment in 1964 and later became a commando. Decorated for actions during two wars with India, and despite his rambunctious and hot-headed style — which led to multiple disciplinary actions — he became a general in 1991.
In 1998, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif surprised the top brass by elevating Musharraf to chief of army staff after forcing General Jehangir Karamat to step down over a disagreement about security policy. Sharif believed Musharraf — who wasn’t from Punjab province, the traditional recruiting ground for officers — would be a pliant army chief.
It was not to be. In 1999, Pakistani troops infiltrated Kargil, an Indian-controlled district in the disputed region of Kashmir — provoking fighting and nearly a full-scale war before Sharif ordered a climbdown in the face of US pressure. Sharif maintained that the operation was ordered without his knowledge. Musharraf disputed that, and the conflict led to an irreparable strain between the pair.
In October that same year, Sharif sacked Musharraf as he was returning from a visit to Sri Lanka. The military leadership defied Sharif’s orders and led a coup that toppled his government.
Musharraf claimed Sharif didn’t allow his plane to land in Pakistan. The general refused to let the pilot fly to nearby India, and the aircraft touched down in Karachi with barely seven minutes of fuel left. Musharraf declared himself the country’s leader, and Sharif was later sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, which was commuted when he was exiled to Saudi Arabia.
In contrast to Pakistan’s previous military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq — who elevated strict conservative Islamic laws in the country — Musharraf was a relatively secular figure, fond of whiskey and cigars in a nation where alcohol is banned for the country’s Muslim majority.
Economically, the military-led government sought to reduce overseas debt. In the last Asian default before Sri Lanka’s delinquency in 2022, it froze repayments, forcing a downgrade of Pakistan’s credit rating to D. Musharraf also used his newfound US support to get loans and grants from Western countries and international lenders.
Under intense pressure from Washington, Musharraf’s regime arrested and killed numerous al-Qaeda operatives following the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, and it cracked down on some other militant groups that operated on Pakistani soil. That made Musharraf a target of extremists, and he survived multiple assassination attempts. At the same time, during his tenure the US accused Pakistan’s military of harboring and supporting insurgents that launched cross-border attacks in Afghanistan and India — complaints that continued after Musharraf left office.
He repeatedly reneged on his pledges to restore legitimate democracy. Musharraf was sworn in as the 11th president of Pakistan in November 2002, following a controversial referendum in April that year in which he got 98% of the vote. Sharif and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan Peoples Party were barred from contesting the poll.
As head of the military, Musharraf arguably was the Pakistani leader who got closest to settling the country’s long-running disputes with India. He traveled there for a series of talks with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a bid to reach a reconciliation between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
According to Musharraf, Vajpayee had in principle agreed to a four-point solution to settle claims to the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, which was split during partition. Musharraf later blamed the Indian cabinet for failing to ratify it after the agreement broke down hours before a planned signing ceremony.
In the later years of his rule, Pakistan’s economy and security deteriorated and Musharraf faced increasing calls to step down and allow democratic elections to take place. He succumbed to Western pressure to allow Bhutto and Sharif to return to Pakistan in 2007 and contest the upcoming ballot.
The campaign was marred by widespread violence, including Bhutto’s murky assassination in December that year in the military garrison city of Rawalpindi, where her father, former premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed in 1979 after being overthrown by General Zia.
Facing impeachment, Musharraf finally stepped down in August 2008 after Bhutto’s party came to power. He made a one-hour televised speech defending his nine-year rule and then left Pakistan that November.
After US forces killed Osama bin Laden in a 2011 raid on his hideout in a Pakistani city, Musharraf faced allegations that he’d been complicit years earlier in allowing the al-Qaeda leader safe haven in the country.
The former general tried multiple times to re-enter politics. When he last returned to Pakistan in 2013 he was eventually placed under house arrest. The government allowed him to leave in 2016 to seek medical treatment abroad. Facing numerous legal issues, Musharraf was barred from contesting Pakistan’s elections in July 2018.
Frail and recovering from an unspecified illness, Musharraf said in the October 2018 interview in Dubai that it was unlikely he’d return to Pakistan any time soon to face what he called “politically motivated” criminal charges.
Those included treason charges for suspending the constitution and a murder charge in the assassination of Bhutto. Musharraf failed to show up for her murder trial in 2017.
In December 2019 the former army chief was sentenced to death in absentia by a special court in Pakistan over the constitutional charges. The ruling was challenged by the military, which it said had caused “pain and anguish” among the rank and file. Musharraf appealed the verdict and it was annulled by the Lahore High Court the following month for being unconstitutional and politically motivated.
Musharraf was diagnosed in February 2018 with multiple myeloma, a type of cancer, and a multi-organ progressive disease called amyloidosis. The cancer was under remission but the disease survival rate is reported as zero after five years, said Bokhari.
Musharraf married his wife Sehba in 1968. They had a daughter, Ayla, and a son, Bilal.
--With assistance from Faseeh Mangi.
(Updates with details from aide in second and penultimate paragraphs.)
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