Musharraf: From Commando to 'Soft Dictator'

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is all smiles as he attends a tea party organized by the Pakistan High Commission on the occasion of his landmark visit to India 14 July 2001.

ISLAMABAD, Sept 18 (AFP) - Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's battle for political survival will see the former commando draw on every lesson learned during a political and military career spanning nearly 40 years.

Born in August 1943 and a graduate of Pakistan's prestigious Command and Staff College (CSC) in Quetta, Baluchistan, Musharraf was commissioned in 1964 as an artillery officer and fought in the 1965 conflict with India.

According to his official biography, he subsequently served in several self-propelled artillery regiments and spent seven years in various commando battalions of the Special Services Group (SSG).

The bespectacled and mustachioed general has also commanded an infantry division and a strike corps, has served on the faculty of the CSC and the war wing of the National Defense College, and has been awarded a number of military decorations.

Musharraf was appointed Pakistan's army chief by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1998 following the resignation of General Jahangir Karamat, who quit amid an uproar in Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League over his criticism of Sharif's government.

But the relationship between Sharif and the by then pillar of Pakistan's military establishment remained tense, particularly over the government's handling of the Kashmir conflict with India.

Musharraf and other senior military men were especially angered by Sharif's decision -- the result of strong US pressure -- to end a two-month conflict by recalling Pakistan-backed Islamic fighters from Indian Kashmir.

Despite lingering differences between the civilian and military leadership, however, Sharif extended Musharraf's tenure as army chief and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC) until October 2001.

But Sharif then quickly did an about-face, dismissing Musharraf when he left the country on an official visit to Sri Lanka in early 1999. The general struck back, returning to Pakistan and ordering the army to surround the prime minister's residence and seize control of airports and other key installations.

Sharif was then accused of trying to stop Musharraf's plane from landing at Karachi even though it was low on fuel. Musharraf retaliated by dismissing his government and placing the prime minister, along with several cabinet colleagues and aides, under "protective custody".

The general subsequently imposed a nationwide state of emergency, suspended parliament and the constitution, and declared himself "chief executive".

Sharif was convicted on hijacking charges in April last year, sentenced to life imprisonment, and barred for 21 years from holding public office for corruption.

But after the intervention of the Saudi royal family, Musharraf pardoned the former prime minister last December before ordering him into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The pardon, however, indicated that unlike the late General Zia ul-Haq -- who ruled Pakistan with an iron fist for 11 years when he became president after ousting prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1978 -- Musharraf is open to compromise and may well deserve his reputation as a "soft dictator."

Although Musharraf assumed the title of president in June ahead of a landmark summit with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, unlike Zia he has not gagged the press.

And although he stands accused of restricting opposition political activities, the general has not allowed opposition figures to be detained indefinitely.

His government has also launched a tough anti-corruption campaign but allowed the National Accountability Bureau to release people who agree to refund plundered money.

Non-party elections have seen 178 local level chiefs and their deputies elected since December last year, and last month Musharraf unveiled a "road map" for democracy which committed his administration to holding elections in October next year.

But last week's events in New York and Washington -- and the subsequent tensions they have created between Pakistan's military and religious leadership -- means that both President Masharraf and his plans for a return to democracy are now under serious threat.

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