THE CONSPIRACY – IN THE LINE OF FIRE
I have no compunction about admitting that the army was caught unawares by the prime minister’s sudden action of dismissing me and following it up virtually simultaneously with sudden and abrupt changes in the military high command. His was the coup. It was a gross misuse and misapplication of the law: you cannot summarily dismiss the army chief, a constitutional appointee, without giving him just cause and affording him due process. Sharif intended it to be the final act before he assumed all power in the office of the prime minister.
The army’s response was the counter coup.
With hindsight I can say that there had been scattered signs of what was coming, which failed to register. Mrs. Ziauddin, the wife of the officer who was supposed to replace me, asked another officer’s wife about the deportment expected of a chief’s spouse. In the presence of the wife of a major general, one of Ziauddin’s relatives asked about the difference in the ranks worn by a full general as compared with a lieu-tenant general. But no one took such signs seriously.
I had felt comfortable going to Colombo because after months of tension with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over the Kargil issue, the two of us had finally arrived at a truce-or so I imagined. I had convinced him that we should display unity in public instead of making a spectacle of ourselves, with the prime minister blaming the army and its chief while shirking his own responsibility by denying his role in the affair. It was not credible for a prime minister to claim that something like Kargil could happen without his knowledge. Nawaz Sharif had not only strained credulity, he weakened his own position, for his opponents began saying openly that in this case he was not worthy of being prime minister. I thought we had agreed to move on.
Another reason why the army and I were relaxed was that the prime minister had recently elevated me to the additional position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee concurrent with my existing position as chief of the army staff Frankly, after that it didn’t cross my mind that the prime minister would exploit my absence abroad to launch a coup against the army and myself.
Why Nawaz Sharif attempted the coup remains a matter of speculation. It cannot be said with certainty why he did so until all the actors involved from his side have spoken, and spoken truthfully. But how the army reacted to defend its honor is a study in presence of mind. Every-one worked together toward the common goal of stopping the prime minister’s coup. The army was still smarting from the forced resignation of my immediate predecessor, General Jahangir Karamat, and was determined not to let another humiliation befall it. I had already conveyed an indirect warning to the prime minister through several intermediaries: “I am not Jahangir Karamat.” My predecessor had retired quietly, and I did not want the prime minister to think he could violate the constitution so easily again. As it is, the Supreme Court later found that my dismissal was indeed illegal and unconstitutional.
The prime minister wasn’t deterred. He was waiting for the right time to strike. I am inclined to believe, from the evidence I have gathered, that even though the prime minister had decided to remove me and my senior commanders, he and his cohort were at pains to make it look as if a sudden action had been forced on them. To their minds the right time was when I would be completely inaccessible to the army and thus unable to lead it, flying at 35,000 feet (10,000 meters) in foreign air-space.
Slowly but surely Nawaz Sharif was being fed disinformation to make him paranoid about me by people who stood to gain from my exit. He was constantly being told that I planned to remove him.
It is all very well to imagine that by cutting me off from all manner of communication they could successfully complete their coup before my plane landed, but the question still remains why they did it in such a clumsy and reckless manner: not allowing my plane to land, nearly letting it crash, and even suggesting that it go to India. I believe this had to do with the two fortuitous delays of my flight, first in Colombo and then in Male. Had my plane arrived on schedule, the army would not have had enough time to react and take Karachi Airport to prevent my arrest. Nawaz Sharif became nervous, indeed hysterical, when he realized that the army might in fact have time to strike back while my plane was still in the air.
To understand the prime minister’s thinking, it is necessary to backtrack a few weeks. In the third week of September 1999, Nawaz Sharif’s father-in-law died, and he went to Lahore for the funeral. As he was about to get into his car at the airport, his attorney general took him aside. Standing in the hot sun, the attorney general said that the army was going to remove Nawaz Sharif that very night. He would not tell the prime minister his source; he said only that he had foolproof inside information. Obviously, Nawaz Sharif had to take his attorney general seriously. In fact, the attorney general caused him so much worry that on reaching his in-laws’ house Nawaz Sharif confided in his principal secretary, Saeed Mehdi, telling Mehdi to reassure the attorney general that while the prime minister had not divulged the substance of their conversation at Lahore Airport to him, he wished to know the source of the information. The attorney general responded by asking Mehdi to reassure the prime minister that his information was from a very important and credible insider and was absolutely reliable. This added to Nawaz Sharif’s paranoia.
As is our custom, I too ‘went to Lahore later that evening to offer my condolences to the prime minister. He could have taken this opportunity to discuss his attorney general’s assertion with me, but he did not. Of course there was no army takeover that night, as none was intended, then or later.
A few days later, back in Rawalpindi, the prime minister’s younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who was also chief minister of Punjab province, came to meet me regarding the tension with his brother, played up in the media in the wake of Kargil. I told him to tell his brother two things. One, I would not agree to give up my present position of chief of the army staff and be kicked upstairs as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JSJC) before my term was up. As far as I was concerned, he could make anyone from the navy or air force chairman of the JCSC; I didn’t care. Two, I was recommending the retirement of the corps commander in Quetta, Lieutenant General Tariq Pervez. He was ill-disciplined, and I suspected him of plotting against me. The problem was that TP, as he was known in the army, was the brother-in-law of one of Nawaz Shard’s ministers and was using his relative’s influence to bring about a premature change in the army’s high command so as to position himself for promotion in the future.
“Give me one day,” replied Shahbaz. The next day I was with the prime minister at his lunch for Admiral Bukhari, the navy chief. Sure enough, the prime minister took me aside and said, “I am also making you chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. Are you happy?” I said I was, now that I was staying on as army chief as well. But I told him that TP had to go and that I was going to recommend his retirement, as he was undermining military discipline. Nawaz Shard feigned ignorance of who TP was, though I knew he was pretending. Yet he agreed to retire TP. Later I sent TP’s dismissal papers to the prime minister, who promptly approved them.
Soon after that, the prime minister invited my wife and me to accompany him and his wife to Mecca for a pilgrimage in August 1999. He said that we would be leaving from Lahore early in the morning. I thanked him and said that we would arrive in Lahore the evening before, since it was an early-morning takeoff. He replied that in that case we should have dinner with his family at their new estate at Rai-wind in Lahore.
In retrospect I am inclined to believe that all this was planned. He was certain that I would not refuse an opportunity to go to Mecca, and an early-morning takeoff meant that I would have to reach Lahore the evening before. And when he invited me to dinner, I could hardly refuse. He was lulling me into a false sense of security. I must say that it worked, because what the prime minister did on October 12 felt like an ambush.
Dinner was presided over by the patriarch of the family, the prime minister’s father, known as Abbaji, which means Daddy. We were joined by Shahbaz. Throughout the meal, Abbaji kept up an uninterrupted monologue about his life and experiences. Neither son dared to interrupt him or offer an opinion of his own. Respecting elders is a most commendable Asian tradition, but these were no ordinary sons: one was prime minister and the other a chief minister. But so domineering was Abbaji’s personality that both Nawaz and Shahbaz sat demurely at the table, like little children trying their best to remain in their father’s good graces, speaking up only to help him remember things that he might have overlooked. Their sole aim was to try to please him. They behaved more like courtiers than sons. There was no question that Abbaji was the real decision maker in the family.
After dinner Abbaji turned to me and proclaimed grandly: “You are also my son, and these two sons of mine dare not speak against you. If they do they will be answerable to me.” I was most embarrassed, but that was the way of the old man. Nawaz Sharif wore his usual expressionless face.
As it turned out, the dinner with Abbaji was quite a charade. The old man had already made up his mind that his son should dispense with me. He said to some people that he did not like the look in my eyes!
On October 9, 1999, while I was in Colombo, a news item appeared in an English-language newspaper stating that the corps commander in Quetta-TP-had been retired, for the absurd reason that he had met the prime minister without first seeking my permission. Obviously, the story had been planted by people who wanted to drive the prime minister crazy with apprehension that I might be plotting against him.
To this day I remain suspicious of TP. It could be that he wanted me out in order to reverse the decision to retire him. He was scheduled to retire just a few days before my fateful flight, but he had come to me and asked for an extension till October 13, to enable him to complete all his farewell dinners, which we in the army call “dining out.” He also said that he bore me no ill will for retiring him: I was the chief and it was my decision, which he accepted as a soldier. Did he do this to buy enough time to hatch his own conspiracy against me? His brother-in- law, the cabinet minister, was an ally of the prime minister. Also, TP rated himself highly, and was convinced that he could fit into my shoes. He nearly gave the game away when a small news item appeared on the back page of the Rawalpindi edition of a mass-circulation Urdu-language newspaper, quoting TP as saying that after he took his uniform off in a couple of days he would reveal all about Pervez Musharraf and Musharraf’s role in the Kargil affair. It was the kind of comment that could lead to a court-martial.
Nawaz Sharif was extremely upset by the newspaper story about TP’s early retirement that ran on October 9, and he asked my spokesman to issue a denial on my behalf. The spokesman replied that he could not do so without clearance from me, and I was in Colombo. This infuriated the prime minister, because he felt that his request should have been honored whether or not I was in the country. He felt insulted and humiliated and said that he would talk to me on my return home. But my spokesman was only following the usual procedure. In my absence, the prime minister asked the Ministry of Defense to issue a clarification, which, quite properly, it did.
Later that afternoon the prime minister was to go to Lahore. Just before his departure, TP’s cabinet minister brother-in-law, who had rushed back from a foreign tour, came to see him and gave him a file. As they came out of the room, the minister, walking behind the prime minister, gave the thumbs-up signal to the prime minister’s principal secretary, Saeed Mehdi, who was waiting in the lobby.
When the prime minister asked what was in it, Mehdi said that he had spent the whole night writing a note to him and requested that he read it during the flight. Mehdi claims that in the note, he said he could sense what was on the prime minister’s mind but warned the prime minister to be very cautious and not be led astray by bad advice. He also suggested that before making any extreme decisions, the prime minis-ter should get to know me better by meeting me more often, and that we should meet each other’s families. But Nawaz Sharif’s paranoia had reached a level where sensible advice bounced off his head.
Paranoia had made Nawaz Sharif so secretive that a day after his arrival in Lahore he flew off to Abu Dhabi with one of his sons and some of his closest cronies, presumably in search of a safe place to talk. It was October 10. Accompanying him, in civilian clothes, was Lieutenant General Ziauddin Butt. Zia is an engineer by profession and at the time was not only a lieutenant general but also director general of the Inter Services Intelligence agency. He was close to the prime minister, and Sharif was ready to hand over the reins of the army to him. Also on the flight to Abu Dhabi were Nawaz Sharif’s speechwriter and the chair-man of Pakistan Television (PTV), who was a member of the National Assembly. Although the decision to remove me had already been made, it seems that during the flight to Abu Dhabi, some of the finer details of the conspiracy were worked out.
They returned to Islamabad the same day, after calling on the president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and lunching with the crown prince.
On the morning of October 12, Nawaz Sharif flew to Multan and drove to a nearby to, Shujabad. Multan is a large city in southern Punjab, famous for its mosques, mystics, and mangoes. By going there Nawaz Sharif was perhaps trying to suggest that it was a normal day-business as usual-to create the impression that my sudden removal could have been triggered only by information suggesting that I was about to attempt my own coup. Of course, the trip to Shujabad was a feint. He took one of his sons and his speechwriter with him. His son gave the speechwriter some points for a speech and asked him to start drafting it in the plane as it waited in Multan, while the others drove off to Shujabad. When the speechwriter looked at the points, he remarked that it seemed that General Musharraf was going to be removed. The prime minister’s son told him to just get on with it and not speak to anyone. They had hoped to remove me while I was out of reach of the army. Because of the two delays of my flight, however, everything changed. They had to improvise. Apparently the only thing they managed to decide was that my plane should not be allowed to land in Pakistan. Somehow, they thought that the leaderless army would sit still in the face of treachery.
While Nawaz Sharif was attending a rally in Shujabad, he received a telephone call. I don’t know to this day who made the call or what the caller told the prime minister, but immediately after the call Nawaz Sharif quickly wound up his business in Shujabad and rushed to Multan airport to fly back to Islamabad. I cannot help thinking that all this was staged, and he would have claimed later that that call had alerted him to my supposed plans for a coup. He asked that the defense secretary and his principal secretary, Saeed Mehdi, meet him at the airport at three PM, when he was due to land at Chaklala Air Force Base in Rawalpindi. He was trying to consolidate his power, but he failed to understand that he was actually about to lose power. This happens to people who don’t understand the dynamics of power or its extent and limits. When he took off from Multan for Islamabad, he set himself on a course of political suicide. The defense secretary was groggy that day. He had undergone an endoscopic procedure that morning and had still not recovered from the effects of the general anesthetic, when his phone rang. His wife said that he was sleeping and could not be wakened. According to the defense secretary, that first call was made to him as early as eleven thirty AM, before what now increasingly seems Shard’s staged phone call in Shujabad.
After warding off the caller many times, the defense secretary’s wife was told that the prime minister urgently required her husband’s presence at the airport. It was then that she reluctantly called him to the phone. He wondered what was so important that he was being forced out of bed in his groggy condition, but he went.
The blown-up bridge, after the assassination attempt of December 14, 2003
The blown-up gas station,
after the assassination
attempt of December 25, 2003
The recovered face of one bomber provided a key break in the investigation
When Nawaz Sharif landed in Islamabad at three PM, he asked the defense secretary to accompany him in his car to the prime minister’s house, about twenty minutes’ drive away even with the traffic stopped. On the way he told the defense secretary what was on his mind-he wanted the secretary to issue a notification that General Pervez Musharraf had been dismissed and Lieutenant General Ziauddin Butt appointed in his place. The defense secretary kept asking him why he was doing this. As a recently retired lieutenant general and a former chief of general staff, he knew the army well. He advised the prime minister that another removal of the chief in this unconstitutional manner would grievously damage the morale of the army. But the prime minister remained adamant and insisted that his orders be carried out immediately.
When they reached the prime minister’s house, the defense secretary told Nawaz Sharif that, as this was a very serious matter, he could not issue the notification unless he was ordered to do so in writing. Nawaz Sharif slapped him on the thigh and said angrily, “You are a coward!” The prime minister was met by Mehdi. Nawaz Sharif mockingly told him that the defense secretary was under the weather. He then asked the defense secretary to wait in another room.
When they had taken off from Multan, Nawaz Shard’s son had forbidden the speechwriter to draft the rest of the speech on the flight back to Islamabad, lest anyone in the entourage notice what he was doing. But once they got to the prime minister’s house, the son took the speechwriter to the back lawn and told him to get on with it. Soon, the chairman of PTV came to assist him. Before they could get started, however, the chairman was told to get to his station in Islamabad immediately. Left alone, the speechwriter told the prime minister’s son that he could not write like this and was at his best when he could dictate. The son told him to dictate and he himself would take down the dictation.
The prime minister proceeded to his office with his military secretary and Saeed Mehdi. As soon as they got there, the military secretary pulled all the telephone wires out of their sockets to ensure that no one was listening in case the phones were bugged. The prime minister then told the military secretary to pull out the order of my predecessor’s removal, change the date, substitute my name for his and Lieutenant General Ziauddin’s name for mine, and bring it to him for signature. It is as if they had a ready-made template to force an army chief out of office whenever they wished.
The prime minister asked whether he should make a speech. His military secretary said that he must explain his action to the nation, but Mehdi advised against it. Nawaz Sharif irritably told Mehdi to go and get on with preparing the removal order so that it could be given to the defense secretary. As soon as the order was ready, the prime minister signed it and took it personally to the president, whose house is a couple of minutes’ drive away. All that the president noted on the order was the word “Seen.” Through a constitutional amendment, Nawaz Sharif had made the president’s office largely ceremonial, except that certain orders needed his authentication before they could be issued.
Back in the prime minister’s house, the television cameras were waiting for Nawaz Sharif He took two pips (rank insignia) off the shoulder straps of his military secretary, a one-star brigadier general (though in the Pakistan Army we call him only “brigadier”), and placed them on Lieutenant General Ziauddin, bestowing on him the rank of a full general and the title of chief of the army staff. So desperate was he to give a sense of finality to his deed that he placed the pips with his own hand, in order to have it shown on television. In a lighter vein, the military secretary remarked to Zia: “Sir, you have become a general but I have been demoted to a colonel.”
Left alone to himself and his thoughts, the defense secretary was greatly agitated. He knew that the prime minister was set on a highly dangerous course. His agitation was compounded by the fact that he is a smoker but could not smoke in that particular room; also, he was still suffering from the lingering effects of the anesthesia. Despite being ordered to stay put, he went looking for a place to smoke. First he went to the deputy military secretary’s room. Finding it empty, he proceeded to the military secretary’s office. On the way there he saw walking toward him a group that included Ziauddin, the military secretary, and Mehdi. He noticed that Ziauddin was wearing on his uniform the insignia of a full general and an army chief.
They all gathered in the military secretary’s room, and at five PM heard on television the Urdu-language news, announcing that General Pervez Musharraf had been removed and “General” Ziauddin had been appointed chief of the army staff. Zia moved forward and started shaking hands with all those in the room, including the defense secretary, and accepting their congratulations. But the defense secretary also knew that he had issued no notification and that the announcement did not carry the force of law.
The news traveled like wildfire. Phone lines were, jammed. Nawaz Sharif’s supporters gloated that they had scalped yet another army chief The more pragmatic counseled caution. They were not sure that the army could stomach yet another insult. They had no idea how much worse was to come.
Soon after the broadcast, Saeed Mehdi gave the order for my removal to the defense secretary and told him to go to his office in the Ministry of Defense in Rawalpindi and issue the notification, so as to make my removal and Ziauddin’s appointment legal. The defense secretary recalls that as he went toward his car, his brother, a member of Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet, came running with the prime minister’s brother Shahbaz, in a state of high agitation. “What has happened? at have you done? This is disastrous,” they said. The defense secretary told them that he had nothing to do with it. If this is correct, then either they really were not privy to Nawaz Sharif’s plot or they were faking it. Or, possibly, the defense secretary was simply protecting his brother. Not surprisingly, I can find hardly anyone today who admits knowing of Nawaz Sharif’s plan or of having had anything to do with it!
The drive to the defense ministry took about thirty minutes. As his car reached Flashman’s Hotel in Rawalpindi, the defense secretary received a call from Shahbaz Sharif on his cell phone saying that some soldiers had blocked the gate of the prime minister’s house. “Which army is this?” asked Shahbaz. The defense secretary realized immediately that, as he had feared, the army had reacted. He also replied that there is only one army: the Pakistan Army.