Pakistan's Striving Son: His Mom Says Pervez Musharraf Was Never Much of a Student, but He's Always Been a Leader. Now He's in Charge of a Nuclear Power and Wants to Set a New Course for the Muslim World. Can He Do It?
Nordland, Rod, Hussain, Zahid, Newsweek
Byline: Rod Nordland and Zahid Hussain
The course of history can seem very arbitrary--a messy procession of near misses and unexpected tragedies. When the family of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf gets together to reminisce about his rise to power, for instance, talk turns to bad airplane moments. So it was one night last week when Musharraf entertained visitors at Army House, the official residence of Pakistan's Army commander, where Musharraf has remained since seizing power in 1999. In a large living room carpeted with Persian and Chinese rugs, family and friends traded tales as uniformed servants, wearing golden turbans with tall green cock's combs, delivered tea and Lebanese sweets.
Musharraf himself, dressed in an Armani suit and nestled in a sofa, recalled a trip in a Fokker that ran into a thunderstorm over Pakistan's Karakoram mountains as his worst flight ever. ("It was jerking about like anything," he says.) But for his wife, Sehba, the scariest moment came aboard a Pakistan International Airways flight returning from Sri Lanka in 1999. Musharraf was Army commander at the time, and the civilian prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had dismissed him and then ordered his plane not to land. Sehba was "screaming silently" with her face in her hands, she recalls, after her husband explained what was going on. ("He said I had to stay calm so I wouldn't panic the passengers," she says.) Musharraf used the cockpit radio to contact fellow generals, and orchestrated a coup. With only seven minutes of fuel left, Musharraf directed the PIA pilot to land at Karachi, where soldiers loyal to him had taken over the airport. Sharif was ushered to prison, and Musharraf took charge, becoming Pakistan's first military ruler in 11 years.
Inevitably, the family conversation about airplane scares and politics turns to September 11. It was 6 p.m. in Islamabad when Qaeda hijackers slammed their planes into the World Trade Center. Within four hours Musharraf announced on national television that his government would abandon its longstanding alliance with Taliban rulers in Afghanistan who had sheltered Osama bin Laden--and join America's coalition. Only later did Musharraf consult his advisers and fellow officers. "I took a fast decision. But I did think about it--very carefully," he says now. "I keep to Napoleon's view that two thirds of the decision-making process is based on analysis and information, and one third is always a leap in the dark."
Nobody has taken greater political risks in the last four months than Musharraf. Joining the war on terror and supporting the United States was just the beginning. Last week his government launched a series of dramatic policies that, if successful, will mean a real about-face for Pakistan. They will be the biggest changes since President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in 1981 turned the country into an Islamic republic, with Sharia courts and limited civil rights for women.
Not only does Musharraf want to move Pakistan away from its long and troubled drift into theocracy, but he says he hopes to set an example that other Islamic countries with fundamentalist undercurrents will follow. In the past week he has banned all extremist and terrorist groups and arrested 1,900 activists. He announced elections next October for a National Assembly that would guarantee women at least a fifth of the seats. He granted non-Muslims full voting rights for the first time since 1978. He also says he's determined to make peace with India and solve the dispute over Kashmir that has pushed them yet again to the verge of war.
Colin Powell visited both countries last week to try to ease the tensions. "I don't think there can be war--unless there's some mad action," Musharraf told NEWSWEEK after the Powell visit. But, he added, "that's always a possibility." India has deployed the bulk of its forces along the border in a high state of alert, furious over a Kashmiri suicide attack on its Parliament on Dec. 13. Both countries have nuclear weapons, and Musharraf admits that Kashmir makes the Subcontinent the world's most worrisome nuclear face-off.
Supporters and opponents alike have compared Musharraf to Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian leader who made peace with Israel and later was assassinated. Musharraf exhibits similar daring and vision, and also similar hubris. Many Pakistanis fear, and some of them wish, that he may yet meet Sadat's bloody fate. "He is the leader who can deliver," says his son, Bilal, an actuary in Boston. "Like any Pakistani, I am concerned about his safety and security."
Does Musharraf have the charisma and political smarts to hold Pakistan together while following through on his plans? Two NEWSWEEK correspondents and a photographer spent three days with him in Islamabad last week--at work and at home--to explore that question. Security precautions were daunting, with commandos in every hallway and an elaborate shell game of three separate presidential motorcades whenever he sallied out. Many of his aides were shocked at having journalists around so much, but the president himself was approachable and easygoing. He enjoyed the limelight--as you might expect from a second son who, his own mother says, was never quite as smart as his elder brother.
Pervez was the second of three sons in a middle-class family that fled to Pakistan during India's partition in 1947. (He's the first Pakistani president to come from the ranks of the mohajir, or Muslim refugees from India, rather than from natives like the Punjabis who dominate Pakistan's military.) His father was a diplomat who died in 2000, and his mother, Zohra, was a rarity for her era, an educated woman from a Muslim Indian family. She had a long career herself as an official in the International Labor Organization, retiring in the 1980s. "His mother is his main inspiration," says Javed Jabbar, a personal friend and former cabinet minister.
It's clear that Zohra, who lives at Army House with Pervez and Sehba, is a powerful influence still. Asked if it were true that she pushed Pervez toward the military because his brothers were much stronger academically, she agrees with a laugh. "Never in my wildest of dreams did I imagine him president," she says. Pervez seems shocked at first by his mother's comments. "I wouldn't call myself bad in studies," he starts to say. His mom cuts him off: "You were average!" When the president counters that he "used to be third or fourth in my class," his mother looks at him quizzically--and for a moment a small boy seems to shine through. "My grades went down in university--too much extracurricular activity," he says, sparking knowing laughter around the room.
The young Pervez had a lot to live up to. His older brother, Javed, was a Rhodes scholar who went on to work at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. "I was a year behind him at college and the teachers were always saying, 'You're the brother of Javed Musharraf, [and yet] you can't answer the question--what's wrong?' " the president recalls now. "So sometimes I used to get hold of his old essays and I would [rewrite] one and get very good marks." His younger brother, Naveed, was very bright, too, and later became an anesthesiologist; he practices today in the United States.
The future president "had the quality of leadership with him all the time," says his mother. "Even as a child, his friends would always wait for him before starting anything. He is still my favorite; he always was." Musharraf smiles with embarrassed pleasure, then gets a last word in on his academic prowess. He was "very good in mathematics," he insists, and still is quick with numbers. Asked what 67 times 73 is, he thinks only a moment before responding: "4,891."
Sehba likes to tell the story of her long engagement to the dashing young captain. His first present during their courtship was a hair dryer, and she still laughs about it. "What's wrong with that?" he says in a defensive but good-natured way. "It was a pistol-grip type. In those days they were very unusual." Although their marriage was a traditional one, arranged by their parents, Pervez and Sehba come across as a relatively modern couple. "The Quran," she says, "guarantees women equal rights." She herself worked for 10 years as a teacher, and even now she's a little apologetic that she had to give that up to raise their two children. "Someone had to stay home, and it was me."
By dint of seniority, Musharraf was one of three generals eligible for promotion to chief of Army staff when Prime Minister Sharif forced out his Army commander in 1999. The other two contenders had powerful political backers, however, and Sharif chose Musharraf as a compromise. As Army chief, Musharraf's routine didn't change much; the squash and badminton courts in his backyard got plenty of use, and there was still lots of time for friends. Then came his decision to invade Indian-held Kashmiri territory in Kargil. It was, says a fellow general and friend, "tactically brilliant," but strategically it was "poorly thought out." The Indians suffered a severe setback, but international reaction was firmly with India, and Sharif felt compelled to order a humiliating pullout. In doing so, he infuriated the military by blaming them for acting unilaterally; the military says Sharif was in on the decision to invade. To placate the generals, Sharif assured Musharraf he would keep him on. But just in case Sharif reneged, Musharraf quietly prepared a contingency plan for a coup. "We used to say the previous Army chief had brains but no balls, and the one before him had balls but no brains," says a retired general. "Finally, this was someone who had both."
Musharraf also has a sense of destiny. (His wife says it comes with surviving plane mishaps.) Musharraf himself says he had laid plans to steer Pakistan in a new direction from the moment he took office, and had been nudging it that way when September 11 happened. Within a few weeks of the attacks, he swept aside Taliban supporters in the Pakistani government, including five of his 13 top generals. "The critical elements of strategy are timing, space and strength," he says. No democratically elected government, he adds, could have moved so quickly.
Musharraf, formerly spurned as a military dictator, quickly became a valued friend to the West. American sanctions, imposed because of Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998, were lifted. Last week Musharraf made a surprise telephone call to the White House. "Mr. President," he said, "I'm concerned about your fall." (He was referring to Bush's pretzel-induced fainting spell.) The two went on to discuss Indian-Pakistani tensions, and the steps Musharraf had announced to halt terror attacks. The White House tentatively expects Musharraf to visit next month. "He's made the hard decisions," says a Bush aide. "But there is a lot to do, and the problems are enormous."
Will the same sort of esteem he enjoys abroad hold at home? Musharraf has made his share of missteps since taking power. Proud of his fluent Turkish--which he learned as a child, when his father was a diplomat in Ankara--he provoked an uproar when he seemed to praise Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey's military-guided secular society, as his own role model. He does admire Ataturk, he says, but Pakistan is a much more Muslim-minded society than Turkey. He says his real role model is Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder, who envisaged a modern, secular Muslim state. Yet last year, when Musharraf tried to overturn Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws, often used by Muslim fundamentalists to silence liberals, he had to back down. "Yes, I backtracked on it, because I want to bring economic stability and didn't want to open too many fronts," he says. "These are very, very sensitive issues."
Musharraf is touchy when his democratic credentials are challenged. He pledges to hold parliamentary elections in October, but also plans to remain in place as president. "I have to do it not just for my sake, but for the sake of the nation," he says (echoing a line dear to many a dictator). He says the corruption-plagued civilian governments that preceded his were not "correct democracy," which is what he hopes to nurture. Many Pakistanis agree that the Sharif regime, and before that the government of Benazir Bhutto, were disastrous. And Musharraf's autocracy comes with many of the trappings of democracy: a free press, wide-ranging debate and a great degree of government transparency. But when asked about future elections for the presidency, he seems genuinely taken aback. "It's right that I'm there, that I remain there," he says.
Musharraf is clearly a man of many qualities. But he'll have to be careful not to overestimate himself. ("What's the difference between God and Musharraf?" goes a Pakistani joke. "God doesn't think he's Musharraf.") Cooling down after a tennis match on his klieg-lit clay courts, he gestures with a sweep of his arm to point out the servants standing around. "They all told me that 'You said a very right thing' [after his speech announcing the crackdown on militants]. They understand, all of them, my drivers, my waiters, they understand." Well, yes, of course they do. But pulling the rest of his country along will be tougher. He'll need his balls, his brains and, most of all, perhaps, he'll need his willingness to laugh at his own foibles.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Pakistan's Striving Son: His Mom Says Pervez Musharraf Was Never Much of a Student, but He's Always Been a Leader. Now He's in Charge of a Nuclear Power and Wants to Set a New Course for the Muslim World. Can He Do It?. Contributors: Nordland, Rod - Author, Hussain, Zahid - Author. Magazine title: Newsweek. Publication date: January 28, 2002. Page number: 18. © 2009 Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Any reuse, distribution or alteration without express written permission of Newsweek is prohibited. For permission: www.newsweek.com. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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