Parvez Musharraf, ex-Dictator, landed in Karachi today, amid much fanfare(and while wearing a suicide jacket). He was ousted democratically on 18th August, 2008 and left the country. Pakistan has successfully completed transition from an elected government to a caretaker setup without direct intervention of the Military for the first time in its history. This does not mean we forget the history of military interventions and the disastrous consequences. To commemorate the arrival of Musharraf, we are posting account of his coup in 1999, in the spirit of the great Urdu Poet, Momin.
(Hamain Sab hai yaad zara zaraa, tumhen yaad ho kay na yaad ho)
This is an excerpt from Owen Bennet-Jones’ excellent book “Pakistan: Eye of the Storm”
On the morning of 12 October 1999, Nawaz Sharif finally made up his mind. His army chief would have to go. Like many Pakistani leaders before him, Sharif had surrounded himself with a tightly woven cocoon of sycophants. Family relatives and business cronies filled the key posts of his administration. The chief of army staff, General Pervez Musharraf, did not fit in.
Sharif had appointed Musharraf in October 1998 and quickly came to regret the decision. He regarded his army chief with distaste. The origin of the antagonism, which was mutual, lay in the snow-clad, Himalayan peaks of Kashmir. In the spring of 1999 Musharraf gave the final order for Pakistani troops to cross the line of control that separates the Indian and Pakistani armies in Kashmir. The soldiers, posing as divinely-inspired Islamic militants, clambered up the snowy passes that led to one of Kashmir’s most strategic locations: the dusty, run-down town of Kargil. Having caught the Indians off guard, the Pakistani troops made significant territorial gains. Tactically, the operation was a success. Politically, it was a disaster. As India cried foul, Sharif found himself in the midst of a major international crisis. And while General Musharraf had sent the troops in, Prime Minister Sharif was left with the unenviable task of getting them out. For three decades the Pakistani people had absorbed a steady flow of vitriolic propaganda about the Kashmir issue: Sharif ’s decision to withdraw seemed incomprehensible and humiliating. As the man who had defied world opinion and tested Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, Sharif had been acclaimed as a national hero.
As the man who pulled out from Kargil, he was denounced as a supine coward. Sharif ’s sense of resentment was acute. General Musharraf, he complained, had marched his men to the top of the hill without considering how he would get them down again.
The generals, though, were also unhappy. By deciding to pull out of Kargil without negotiating any Indian concessions in return, they argued, Sharif had squandered a militarily advantageous position and caused a crisis of confidence within the Pakistan army. After the Kargil withdrawal Musharraf faced a surge of discontent within the army. As he toured a series of garrisons he repeatedly faced the same question: ‘If Kargil was a victory then why did we pull back?’ Musharraf told his men that it was the prime minister’s fault and that the army had had no choice but to obey his order. It was a disingenuous response. Musharraf had been fully consulted on the withdrawal order and had raised no serious objection to it.
Sharif was never in any doubt that removing Musharraf would be a high-risk exercise. In 1993 Sharif ’s first government had been forced out of office in part because the military high command lost confidence in him. He was determined to avoid a repeat performance. Indeed, from the moment he took over as prime minister again in 1997, Sharif had devoted himself to making his political position impregnable.
On 8 and 9 September 1999 Sharif and Musharraf travelled together to the Northern Areas. They were to preside over a ceremony to reward the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) for its role in the Kargil campaign. Previously a paramilitary force answerable to the Ministry of Interior, the NLI was to be inducted into the regular army. The trip got off to a bad start when Sharif noticed the absence of the commander of the 10th corps, Lt. General Mehmood Ahmed. In the previous few weeks Sharif and Musharraf had undertaken two other trips to the Northern Areas and on both occasions Mehmood had been present. On this third occasion his absence was especially striking as the Northern Light Infantry was to be transferred to his command. Sharif knew that Mehmood would be a key figure in any coup against his government. Clearly, he should have attended the induction ceremony. As far as Sharif was concerned, there was only one explanation for Mehmood not being present: Musharraf was afraid he might be arrested by Sharif and wanted Mehmood away from the scene so that he could organise a response if the need arose.
On the evening of 8 September Sharif revealed his anxiety. General Musharraf was in the lobby of the Hotel Shangri-La outside Skardu showing off a new Italian laser-guided pistol to the information minister, Mushahid Hussain. As Musharraf was explaining how the pistol could never miss its target, the prime minister walked into the lobby. Aware of his fondness for high tech gadgets, Mushahid Hussain called Sharif over. ‘Have you seen this new pistol?’ he asked Sharif. ‘It’s remarkable.’ Uncharacteristically, Sharif did not ask how the pistol worked, but he did put one question to the army chief. ‘General’, he asked, ‘who are you aiming it at?’
As he considered the possibility of mounting a coup, Musharraf realised he would not be able to move without the support of all his corps commanders. He called them together in mid-September and raised the question of Sharif ’s competence. Although there was wide agreement that Sharif was not performing well, the generals decided that the army could not move without clear justification. But if Sharif tried to sack Musharraf, the corps commanders agreed, then they would act: to lose two army chiefs in the space of a year would be unacceptable. With this qualified backing Musharraf went back to Sharif and said he wanted to be given the full chairmanship of the joint chiefs of staff (at the time he was only acting chairman) and, to demonstrate his seriousness, he put the 111 Brigade on standby. It was an unmistakeable signal. 111 Brigade had been used for carrying out every previous coup in Pakistan. Three hundred troops, with a squadron of tanks, were posted at the army’s GHQ in Rawalpindi, just 10 miles from Islamabad. The troops were outside the normal chain of command and answerable only to General Musharraf himself.
Sharif ’s fears were confirmed by one of his few allies in the army leadership, the corps commander from the Baloch capital Quetta, General Tariq Pervez. The two men knew each other well: the general’s cousin, Raja Nadir Pervez, was Sharif ’s communications minister. A few days after the corps commander’s meeting, General Tariq Pervez warned Sharif that if he moved against Musharraf, the army would strike. Thoroughly unnerved, Sharif sought the help of his most trusted political ally, Senator Saif ur Rehman. The energetic senator had organised the triumphant corruption investigation into Benazir Bhutto and had blackmailed and bullied countless other government opponents. He now concentrated his efforts on Musharraf, putting a tap on his phones and monitoring his movements.
Sharif was furious that his few allies in the military were being sacked and demoted. It was now just a question of timing. The prime minister knew that Musharraf was due to be out of Pakistan in October to attend the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s army. The army chief was due to return on 12 October; since he would be airborne for four hours, Sharif calculated, the army would be caught off-balance and left unsure how to react to his sacking. By the time Musharraf touched down, his removal would be a fait accompli and a new army chief would have taken his place. Sharif was relying on the element of surprise and felt constrained by his fear that he was being bugged. On 10 October he arranged a flight to Abu Dhabi ostensibly for a meeting with Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Nahyan. He took a very limited group consisting of his son Hussain Nawaz, his speechwriter Nazir Naji and the man he wanted to succeed Musharraf, the ISI chief General Ziauddin. Confident that any conversation on the plane could not be overheard, Sharif spent the entire flight talking to Ziauddin: the final plot was being hatched.
On the fateful day, Sharif knew he had to give the appearance of conducting business as usual. At 10.00 a.m. on 12 October he left Islamabad to make a routine political speech in the town of Shujaabad, near Multan. Before leaving, Sharif gave instructions that he wanted his defence secretary, Lt. General (Retd.) Iftikhar Ali Khan, to meet him on his return. He also scheduled an appointment with President Rafiq Tarar for that afternoon, giving instructions that the meeting should not be reflected in his official programme for the day. The prime minister again took a small group with him: Hussain Nawaz, Nazir Naji and the chairman of Pakistan Television (PTV), Pervez Rashid. When the plane landed in Multan, Sharif told Nazir Naji that he should remain on board for a discussion with his son and Pervez Rashid. All the crew, Sharif said, had been told to leave the plane and they could talk in confidence. Once the aircraft door was closed the three men sat down and Pervez Rashid asked Nazir Naji for his mobile phone. Sharif, he explained, could not afford any of the information he was about to divulge to be leaked. Naji was then shown a speech written in Hussain Sharif ’s handwriting that his father planned to give on television that evening. Although the punch line – the dismissal of Musharraf – was not included in the draft, it was clear that the speech would announce that decision. Naji then worked on the draft, translating it into Urdu.
Two hours later the prime minister’s plane was heading back towards Islamabad and when he touched down at the military airbase at Chaklala his defence secretary, as arranged, was there to meet him. As the two men were driven to the prime minister’s residence, Sharif declared his hand. The sacking of Lt. General Tariq Pervez, he said, ‘has started creating the impression that there is a gap between the government and the army which is not good for the security of Pakistan . . . I have decided to appoint a new army chief.’ The defence secretary was shocked: he could guess the army’s likely reaction. He suggested that the prime minister might want to discuss the issue with Musharraf but Sharif was adamant. ‘The time for this discussion’, he said, ‘is over.’
As the prime minister’s car drew up outside his official residence in Islamabad his principal secretary Saeed Mehdi was, as ever, on hand to greet him. Mehdi was already aware of the prime minister’s plans and Sharif now told him to prepare the official papers for the handover of military power. As he walked into his office, the prime minister confirmed that the new army chief was to be none other than the man he had wanted to appoint twelve months before, Lt. General Ziauddin.
As Sharif ’s officials got to work, General Musharraf had already completed his official programme in Sri Lanka and was preparing to board flight PK 805 which would take him back to Karachi, along with 197 other passengers and crew, including the pilot, Captain Sarwat Hussain. Because the army chief was on board there were extra security checks and the plane took off forty minutes late at 4.00 p.m. At the very moment Musharraf ’s plane was climbing into the sky, the man who confidently expected to replace him was reaching the prime minister’s residence. By the time Sharif went to see him at 4.20 p.m., Saeed Mehdi had completed drafting the official notification. It stated that:
“It has been decided to retire General Pervez Musharraf, Acting Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of the Army Staff with immediate effect. Lt. Gen. Ziauddin has been appointed as the Chief of Army Staff with immediate effect and promoted to the rank of General. Before orders to this effect are issued, President may kindly see”.
By 4.30 p.m. Sharif had signed the document. The deed was done.
He told Ziauddin to assume his command and went to the president’s residence to show him the notification. Perhaps aware that the army might not accept the change, and that Sharif ’s days might be numbered, Tarar displayed some of the political cunning that had enabled him to achieve high office. Rather than writing the word ‘approved’ on the notification, he employed the more neutral term ‘seen’ and signed it. With the formalities completed Sharif told Pakistan Television (PTV) to broadcast the news of Musharraf ’s sacking. It did so on the 5.00 p.m. bulletin. PTV was also told to take pictures of Ziauddin receiving his badges of rank.
Ziauddin was now the de jure army chief, but he knew that to become the de facto leader as well he would have to move fast. Rather than waste time by driving back to the ISI headquarters, he stayed in the prime minister’s residence and started making phone calls from there. He thought two men, the chief of general staff Lt. General Aziz Khan and the commander of the 10th corps Lt. General Mehmood Ahmed, were likely to offer him the stiffest resistance. Both were Musharraf loyalists who, within army circles, had been outspoken in their criticism of Sharif. Ziauddin decided to remove both of them. He called an old engineering corps friend, the quarter-master general Lt. General Akram, and offered him the job of chief of the general staff. Excited by his promotion, Akram said he would come straight round to the prime minister’s house. Ziauddin then called the man who had recently been removed by Musharraf, General Saleem Hyder. Hyder was playing golf and was not immediately available. Eventually the two men spoke and Hyder was offered General Mehmood’s job: 10th corps commander.
Having sorted out the two key posts, Ziauddin called round other corps commanders. Most were non-committal. They were in an awkward position: they did not want to repudiate the new army chief but were also aware that Musharraf loyalists might resist him.
While Ziauddin was trying to shore up his new position, the two men best placed to stop him, Lt. Generals Aziz and Mehmood, were playing not golf but tennis. They realised that there was a problem when both their mobile phones started ringing on the side of the court. The man who called them was the Peshawar-based Lt. General Syed uz Zafar. As the longest-standing corps commander, he was serving as the acting chief of army staff in Musharraf ’s absence. Consequently, Ziauddin had called him to tell him about his own elevation and Musharraf ’s sacking. But rather than simply accept Ziauddin’s statement as a fait accompli General Syed uz Zafar called Aziz and Mehmood in Rawalpindi. The second they were told what was happening Aziz and Mehmood held a brief conversation and decided to act. As one eyewitness put it, ‘I have never seen two senior officers move so fast.’ They sped to GHQ and, as they changed out of their sports kit, considered their options. One thing, they decided, was beyond doubt: they could not permit a change of army chief while Musharraf was out of the country. The first priority, then, was to get the news off PTV. The two generals dispatched Major Nisar of the Punjab Regiment, together with fifteen armed men, to the PTV building in Islamabad. He was ordered to block any further announcement about Musharraf ’s sacking. As the major set off, Aziz called a meeting of all available corps commanders and other senior officers at army headquarters in Rawalpindi. Some already knew what was up: they had received the telephone calls from Ziauddin. And with Mehmood and Aziz determined to resist Ziauddin’s appointment, the corps commanders decided to implement the decision they had taken in principle in September: Sharif had to go. Within minutes, the infamous 111 Brigade was ordered to do its job.
Unaware of the growing crisis, PTV continued to put out the news of Ziauddin’s appointment. The station’s managers first became aware of a problem when Major Nisar and his men rushed past the guards on the gate and stormed into the control room. The major ordered the PTV staff to block the news of Musharraf ’s dismissal. ‘Take it off ! Take it off !’ he yelled. Faced with fifteen armed men and a screaming major, the staff complied. At 6.00 p.m. Nawaz Sharif was sitting in the TV lounge of his official residence waiting for the news bulletin. But when it came on, he was dismayed that there was no mention of Musharraf ’s sacking. He told his military secretary, Brigadier Javed Iqbal, to go straight to the TV headquarters and find out what was going on. Sharif was now convinced that he had to prevent General Musharraf ’s plane from landing. Ziauddin agreed. He advised Sharif that if Musharraf were kept out of the country the army would have to accept his removal.
The prime minister picked up the phone and made a desperate attempt to save his administration. First he spoke to Aminullah Choudhry, the Karachi-based director general of the Civil Aviation Authority. A classic civil servant, Choudhry could be relied upon to execute the prime minister’s orders without hesitation. Sharif told Choudhry that flight PK 805 should not be allowed to land in Pakistan. Choudhry immediately called the air traffic control tower at Karachi: ‘Which international flights do you have coming in at this time? Is there any coming in from Colombo?’ he asked. Having learnt that PK 805 was due to land within an hour, he ordered the closure of Karachi airport. Minutes later, the runway lights were switched off and three fire engines were parked on the landing strip – one at each end and a third in the middle. Choudhry also ordered the closure of PK 805’s alternate destination, a small rural airport in Nawabshah, 200 miles east of Karachi.
Back in Islamabad, Sharif ’s military secretary, Brigadier Javed Iqbal, an excitable man at the best of times, was manically preparing for his mission to the TV station. As he left the prime minister’s residence, he noticed a group of men from the Punjabi Elite Police at the gate. They were Shahbaz Sharif ’s personal bodyguards. He took the men with him and made the short journey to PTV headquarters. He arrived at 6.15 p.m. and went straight to the control room where he found Major Nisar with his fifteen men. ‘Disarm yourself immediately!’ the brigadier yelled.12 Major Nisar refused. The brigadier then drew a pistol and pointed it at Nisar’s chest. The Punjabi Elite Police and the Punjabi Regiment were moments away from a shoot-out. Nisar blinked first. He handed his gun to the brigadier and told his men to lay down their weapons. Within minutes the major and his men were locked in a room with an armed guard at the door. The jubilant military secretary ordered the Elite Police to shoot anyone who offered resistance and headed back to report his success to the prime minster. (Later, Brigadier Iqbal was to rue his actions. On 13 October he was arrested and charged with drawing a pistol on a fellow officer.)
With the TV station back under civilian control, the news about Musharraf ’s retirement was rebroadcast at the end of the 6.00 p.m. bulletin. Encouraged by this turn of events, Sharif renewed his efforts to keep Musharraf out of the country. He called a long-time political ally, the chairman of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), Shahid Abbasi, and repeated his order that PK 805 should not land in Pakistan but be sent to Muscat or anywhere else in the Middle East. He did not give a reason but, having just seen the news bulletin, Abbasi wasn’t in much doubt about the prime minister’s motivation.
Both Choudhry and Abbasi, though, soon realised that a disaster was in the making. Officials at PIA’s operations department told Abbasi that the plane was 50 miles away from Karachi and lacked sufficient fuel to reach the Middle East. Choudhry’s staff at the Civil Aviation Authority had already reached the same conclusion. The plane would have to land in Pakistan. Aminullah Choudhry called the prime minster and told him.But, Choudhry subsequently claimed, Sharif was adamant: the plane must not land in Pakistan. Back at PTV headquarters, Major Nisar and his men were still being held under armed guard. When army officers at GHQ saw the news of Musharraf ’s sacking being replayed at the end of the 6.00 p.m. news bulletin, they realised something had gone wrong. A second army unit was despatched to PTV. At 6.45 p.m. another major, this time with five armed soldiers, asked the guards at the gate if they could enter the building. With the Punjabi Elite Police breathing down their necks, the guards refused to let the major through. Half an hour later, the major returned with a truckload of troops. Again he was refused entry, but this time he would not be denied. With a flick of his wrist the major ordered his men to clamber over the PTV gate. Journalists who had gathered at PTV filmed the pictures that within hours were leading news bulletins all over the world. The Elite Police, realising they were outnumbered and outgunned, offered no resistance; some even put their weapons on the ground and sat on them. By 7.15 p.m. PTV was off-air. By then the coup was well underway. The first soldiers to reach the prime minister’s residence had arrived at around 6.30 p.m. Having secured the gatehouse, a major took fifteen men over the extensive lawns an and headed for the building’s main entrance. As the porch came into view, the major saw General Ziauddin on the steps with six plain clothes ISI officers. The major ordered the ISI men to lay down their weapons. They refused and General Ziauddin tried to persuade the major to back down. The major started trembling. He was, after all, disobeying an order from the duly appointed army chief. Beads of sweat poured down his forehead. ‘Sir’, he threatened Ziauddin, ‘it would take me just one second.’ Ziauddin, recognising that resistance was futile, told his men to lay down their weapons.
Once inside the prime minster’s residence, the soldiers soon found all the key figures of Sharif ’s administration. The prime minister, realising that he was about to be ousted, had gone to his private quarters to shred some documents. That done, he gathered with his brother Shahbaz and his son Hussain Nawaz to await their fate. General Ziauddin, his new chief of staff Lt. General Akram and other Sharif allies were also there. Having heard about Musharraf ’s sacking, Sharif ’s trusted ally Saif ur Rehman had gone to the residence. So had his brother, Mujib ur Rehman, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, who had turned up with his young son to congratulate Sharif on getting rid of Musharraf. With the residence secured, Lt. General Mehmood himself arrived and confronted Nawaz. ‘I was praying and hoping’, the general said, ‘that it wouldn’t come to this.’