Main Image Credit Strong legacy: former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2008. Image: World Economic Forum / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
During his tenure Pakistan’s former president fortified the country’s relationship with the West and came close to securing an enduring peace with India.
The US and UK press have written extensively about the legacy of Pakistan’s former President Pervez Musharraf, who passed away in self-imposed exile on 5 February in the United Arab Emirates. Most, if not all, of the obituaries have cast him in a positive light, focusing on his strategic role in the early days after 9/11, and the Economist went further by calling him one of the better ‘dictators’.
One can argue that the US has had a love-hate relationship with Pakistan’s generals; indeed, Peter Oborne points out in his book, Wounded Tigers, that it is more love than hate, and the only time US presidents have visited Pakistan has been when there has been a general running the country. In his close relationship with the administration of George W Bush, Musharraf was following a long line of military rulers of Pakistan who were close to the US, such as Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s partnership with and Ronald Reagan and General Ayub Khan’s ties with Dwight Eisenhower, John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Despite the deep scepticism that exists in the policy world about the West’s security relationship with Pakistan given the latter’s role in Afghanistan and its iron-clad relationship with China, the generals are able to balance this out by being there when the West needs them, including in the current crisis in Ukraine. The pivot which the US, the UN and NATO rely on to influence Pakistan’s military is the legacy and relationship of the UK and Pakistani armies, and as the Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir visits the UK this week on his maiden trip, he will fortify the West’s reliance on his generals.
UK Soft Power: Guthrie and Musharraf
The UK’s four-stars have enjoyed close personal ties with their Pakistani counterparts, and over the years – especially after the end of the Cold War, when the US sanctioned Pakistan over its nuclear programme – it has been the UK’s generals who have held the torch to keep Pakistan in the Western orbit. A lot of this was led by Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, whose personal ties to Musharraf dated back to their time at the Royal College of Defence Studies. The UK used Guthrie even after his retirement to help calm ties with Pakistan and de-escalate potential war with India. Guthrie regularly defended Pakistan’s actions in the War on Terror, and Musharraf was seen as someone the UK could learn from after terror attacks in the UK.
Musharraf’s greatest legacy might be demonstrated by the outpouring of respect from India following his death
Guthrie would also personally drive to the airport to receive Musharraf, and he sent his son under Musharraf’s watch to spend time in Chitral Valley in the Hindu Kush mountains. The real essence of this relationship was that the UK could persuade Pakistan and India to talk through its military kinship with the former, as well as convincing the US that the West could not do without Pakistan in Afghanistan or much of Russian-influenced Central Asia.
General Richards, Musharraf and the Almost-Peace with the Taliban
Years later, as Kabul fell in 2021, the UK’s then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Sir Nick Carter, went on the BBC to defend Pakistan’s Army Chief, Qamar Bajwa, on the country’s role in bringing the Taliban back to power. Between Carter and Guthrie, for almost 10 years – first as a two-star, then three-star and eventually as CDS – General Lord David Richards prevented a war between US forces and Pakistan after the US killed Pakistani troops. During the height of the Afghan war, Richards did a back-and-forth to calm David Petreaus, Mike Mullen and Jim Mattis over Pakistan’s double game. As commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Richards pursued the Musa Qala peace deal, which could have brought about a negotiated peace with the Taliban when they were at their weakest. Richards told me:
‘I did not coordinate with Pakistan but did ensure that Musharraf understood and supported the rationale behind it. I personally briefed Musharraf after the event. Musharraf kept pressure on the Taliban to respect it, which they did until the US bombed the local Taliban leadership. I also acted as an honest broker between Musharraf and Karzai, but the distrust and antipathy on Karzai’s part made it difficult.’
Former UK diplomat Sherard Cowper-Coles also talks in his book about this Richards-Karzai-Musharraf three-way that almost settled the war, although the Afghans never understood why the UK always favoured the Pakistan Army. I personally witnessed how Richards forged a close relationship with Musharraf’s hand-picked successor Ashfaq Kayani, using everything from cricket diplomacy to carrying on the Musharraf relationship to make sure the US did not go to war with Pakistan. It is this legacy, bequeathed to the current Chiefs, Asim Munir and Patrick Sanders, which keeps Pakistan firmly in the Western camp, with the UK even leaning on Pakistan to deliver weapons to Ukraine.
Indian Peace and a Strong Legacy
Musharraf’s greatest legacy might be demonstrated by the outpouring of respect from India following his death – despite his waging of the Kargil war in 1999. According to many Indian leaders, Musharraf came closest to reaching an enduring peace with his arch-rivals. While no fans of Musharraf, Indian media showed a grudging respect for their former foe, referring to him as the man who could deliver peace despite waging war. And it was the hard-line Bharatiya Janata Party that sat and spoke to Musharraf – perhaps the lasting legacy of his strategic nuance in the region. Musharraf’s favourite protégé, Major-General Isfandiyar Patuadi, former Director-General-Analysis of the Inter-Services Intelligence, said that ‘Musharraf was always open to new ideas from and appreciative of non-traditional thinking. He will be remembered for his four-point formula on lessening tensions between Pakistan and India. It was and still is the only workable mechanism to stabilise our region. It will be his legacy’.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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