The general comes home

He’s back. Pervez Musharraf, former dictator of Pakistan, returned to his homeland yesterday, ending four years of self-imposed exile. He says he plans to run in May’s scheduled election, provided he can stay out of the hands of his enemies for that long.

Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999, ruled until general elections in 2008 brought the Pakistan Peoples Party to power. After a few months of struggling with the new government, Musharraf resigned the presidency and left the country. Since then he has lived mostly in London and Dubai.

In his absence, Pakistan has hardly been a success story. Nonetheless, its government has served a full term – the first civilian government in the country’s history to do so – and this year’s election looks like marking its first real democratic transition of power.

But Musharraf has not lost his taste for politics. The government has kindly granted him bail in absentia on the various outstanding charges against him, allowing him at least to avoid immediate arrest upon arrival. He has promised to again run for president under the “All Pakistan Muslim League”, although there is no evidence that he has much in the way of public support.

Putting it bluntly, Musharraf should be in jail. Even if there is not enough evidence to convict him of complicity in the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, there is an open-and-shut case against him over his original seizure of power and the 2007 state of emergency.

But there are guiltier people in the saga than Musharraf. In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, the Bush administration in the United States decided that Musharraf had to be supported, and from that point on it did everything it could to stymie Pakistan’s democratic opposition. It was a rerun of the support for General Zia-ul-Haq after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – a disgraceful episode that only ended when Zia was killed in a plane crash.

Even after the 2008 elections the US refused to admit that that policy had been a disaster, and continued trying to get the new government to work with Musharraf instead of forcing him out.

And the Americans repeated the pattern across most of the Muslim world: ostensibly trying to prevent the rise of extremists, but in fact just giving the extremists more credibility by helping dictators suppress their secular and democratic opposition. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was another who played this game with great skill.

That’s why, as I pointed out two years ago, there was nothing outlandish in the idea that Musharraf would have conspired to have Bhutto murdered. “Her existence and popularity was a standing reproach to his rule, pointing out to anyone who cared to notice that he was not the bulwark against extremism that he claimed, but just a bulwark against democracy.”

To be fair, there have been many worse dictators than Musharraf; his rule was relatively mild, and he did ultimately allow a return to democracy. And he is clearly not lacking in personal courage. At the age of 69 he could easily have continued to live in comfortable exile, but he has chosen to return to face his enemies – not just political rivals and the judiciary, but also the Pakistani Taliban, which has threatened his assassination.

But for all its troubles, Pakistan has been better off without Musharraf, and it will not be a bad thing if he decides that, on reflection, a quiet retirement is the best option.

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