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Soldier Musharraf loses this fight

Times Staff Writer

Pervez Musharraf always considered himself first and foremost a soldier, a onetime commando who believed he could shoot his way out of almost any fight.

Not this time. But the Pakistani president, who resigned Monday rather than face imminent impeachment proceedings, nonetheless displayed a flash of his former battlefield sensibilities, refusing to acknowledge the victory of his political enemies.

“Whether I win or lose, the nation will lose,” he said of the prospect of an impeachment fight. Bidding farewell to an honor guard a short time later, he was as stiff-backed in a business suit as he had once been in uniform.

Military life molded Musharraf, though he ostensibly left it behind nine months ago when, under intense international and domestic pressure, he finally relinquished his post as army chief of staff to become a civilian president. For the previous eight years, he had enjoyed near-absolute power in Pakistan, holding the post of president as well as military leader.

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Even after his farewell to arms in November, Musharraf clung to the military milieu. He played regular rounds of golf with his handpicked successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. When he celebrated his 65th birthday last week, the guests were his old comrades-in-arms, without so much as a nod to the new civilian power structure.

His authority significantly curtailed after his party’s landslide loss in February’s parliamentary elections, Musharraf continued to live in the army chief of staff’s designated quarters, and maintained his offices at military headquarters in Rawalpindi, the garrison city adjacent to Islamabad, the capital.

Retreating into a figurehead role in the new civilian government, he kept a careful public silence about the country’s new leaders. But he privately expressed to associates his contempt for what he saw as the bumbling, disorganized ways of the ruling coalition, led by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

During decades of army life, climbing through the ranks to the level of senior command, Musharraf displayed a shrewd ability to manipulate subordinates and superiors alike, sometimes presenting a convincing show of loyalty to conflicting causes. Through decades of honing what became an extraordinary set of political survival skills, he displayed the ability to move decisively at critical junctures. When pushed to do so, he was capable of severing longtime bonds without once looking back.

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In 1999, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sought to force him from his post as army chief, Musharraf staged a bloodless coup -- orchestrated from aloft, as his plane was running out of fuel -- and packed Sharif off into exile.

And days after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the Bush administration told him in no uncertain terms to choose sides in the battle against the Taliban, Musharraf renounced the fundamentalist Islamic movement that Pakistan’s secretive intelligence agencies had nurtured and signed on as a key U.S. ally.

Both of those actions would come back to haunt him. Sharif, now a dominant force in the new government, has been unrelenting in his drive to dislodge Musharraf from the presidency. He still wants him put on trial for treason.

And the public pledges to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the linchpin of Musharraf’s all-important relationship with the United States, proved far more ambiguous and murky in practice. Domestic anger built over what was perceived in Pakistan as a fratricidal war against Islamic militants, even as the Bush administration began turning a jaundiced eye on the general who had been touted as a loyal ally.

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Through it all, Musharraf retained a certain aloofness of demeanor -- a product, perhaps, of the outsider status that marked his youth and childhood. Born in India, he immigrated to Pakistan with his family during the wrenching partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

The officer class of Pakistan’s army is made up largely of the scions of elite military families, primarily from the Punjab, the country’s most populous province. Musharraf did not fit that profile, but hard work and determination -- together with an unwavering self-confidence that bordered on hubris -- carried him forward.

Assassination attempts against him, including a pair of narrow escapes weeks apart at the end of 2003, helped fuel a sense of invincibility, some associates said.

Throughout his military rule, Musharraf promised repeatedly to stand for election and restore the country to civilian rule. But a 2002 popular vote and a 2007 endorsement by the outgoing parliament were both regarded by critics as rigged and illegitimate.

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As a commander, Musharraf was accustomed to being obeyed. So he was both astonished and infuriated when the country’s activist chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, defied him when Musharraf tried to push the jurist aside in the spring of 2007.

Lawyers and intellectuals rallied to Chaudhry’s defense, a grass-roots campaign that quickly burgeoned into a full-fledged pro-democracy movement. Musharraf temporarily thwarted his enemies late last year with a declaration of emergency rule, akin to martial law, suspending the constitution and jailing thousands of opponents. But that authoritarian display helped propel his political foes to an overwhelming election victory Feb. 18, and many analysts had considered Musharraf to be on borrowed time ever since.

His critics also believe Musharraf, the lifelong soldier, never grasped the principles of democratic rule or accountability in government.

“Gen. Musharraf never understood that subverting the constitution is a crime,” said Abida Hussain, a onetime ambassador to the United States. “He did it -- and that’s what dictators do.”

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laura.king@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Rise and fall

Key dates in Pervez Musharraf’s tenure as Pakistani army chief and president:

Oct. 7, 1998: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appoints Musharraf chief of army staff.

May 1999: Pakistani and Indian troops clash in the Kashmir region. Sharif later orders Musharraf to withdraw.

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Oct. 12, 1999: Musharraf ousts Sharif, seizes power in a coup.

June 20, 2001: Musharraf appoints himself president while still army chief.

Sept. 11, 2001: Al Qaeda terrorists attack New York and the Pentagon. Musharraf pledges Pakistan’s support to the U.S., abandoning Taliban militants and enraging many devout Muslims.

April 30, 2002: Musharraf holds a widely criticized referendum to secure support for a five-year term.

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Oct. 10, 2002: Elections that observers consider flawed install a pro-Musharraf parliament.

Dec. 30, 2004: Musharraf reneges on promise to resign as army chief, gains support of parliament to stay until 2007.

Oct. 6, 2007: Parliament elects Musharraf to a new five-year term in a vote boycotted by the opposition.

Nov. 3, 2007: Musharraf declares a state of emergency, suspending the constitution and dismissing independent- minded judges as the Supreme Court is set to rule on the legality of his election.

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Nov. 28, 2007: Musharraf steps down as army chief, becomes a civilian president.

Dec. 15, 2007: Musharraf lifts the state of emergency.

Feb. 18, 2008: Musharraf’s foes win parliamentary elections.

Aug. 7, 2008: Ruling coalition leaders announce they will seek Musharraf’s impeachment.

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Aug. 18, 2008: Musharraf announces his resignation.

Source: Associated Press


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