Islamabad — Gen. Pervez Musharraf, whose role as Pakistan’s military ruler at the time of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the U.S. made him a household name, has died at the age of 79.
A spokeswoman for the Pakistani Consulate in Dubai confirmed his death to The Associated Press. While his cause of death wasn’t immediately clear, he was hospitalized last year in Dubai with an incurable condition related to bone marrow cancer. Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the Pakistani military also confirmed his death and offered condolences to his family.
Although Musharraf only really became known on the international stage after backing the U.S. in its “war on terror” following the 9/11 attacks, he first grabbed the limelight with a coup that he launched in mid-air.
His military takeover of Pakistan began in 1999, when he was chief of army staff. He launched the takeover against the country’s democratically elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, while aboard a flight returning from Sri Lanka. (Shehbaz Sharif, the current prime minister, is Nawaz Sharif’s brother.)
Relations between Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf, whom Sharif himself had appointed as head of the military, had been deteriorating for months over how to handle relations with neighboring India. The two countries have long been adversaries, and Musharraf and other Pakistani military commanders viewed Sharif’s overtures to India’s Hindu nationalist government with extreme suspicion, even hostility.
Incensed by rumors, many of which proved later to be factual, Sharif tried to assert civilian control by firing Musharraf while he was flying back to Pakistan after his visit to Sri Lanka. To add insult to injury, Musharraf’s plane was ordered to divert to India after being refused permission to land in Pakistan.
But Musharraf wasn’t having it. He retaliated by ordering his troops to seize control of the airport where his plane had been due to land, and subsequently remove Sharif from power.
Musharraf’s troops remained loyal to him. Sharif was deposed, and Musharraf installed himself as Pakistan’s new de facto president.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Musharraf issued a strong condemnation of the attacks and very publicly threw his country’s weight behind U.S. efforts to destroy al Qaeda and remove the group’s Taliban hosts from power in Afghanistan.
Musharraf had developed strong relations with several senior U.S. military figures while he was head of his own country’s armed forces, including Gens. Anthony Zinni, Tommy Franks and John Abizaid. Joint U.S.-Pakistani operations on Pakistani soil after 9/11 led to the arrests of dozens of leading al Qaeda figures, including ringleader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Pakistan also became the main supply route for the NATO operation in Afghanistan, saving the military alliance billions of dollars by allowing it to avoid supplying its troops via a longer route through Central Asia.
Musharraf survived multiple al Qaeda assassination attempts, but was continually criticized for not doing enough to purge Islamic extremists from Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Domestically, Musharraf’s policies of liberalizing the economy and media helped more moderate forces in Pakistani society assert themselves over the religious right, who had dominated the country’s politics for decades.
However, after ruling Pakistan for almost a decade, Musharraf’s popularity declined sharply after a series of scandals. He resigned as president in 2008 to avoid impeachment and went into self-imposed exile, first in London and then in Dubai.
Defying death threats, he dramatically returned to his country in 2013, hoping to reenter politics.
It didn’t go as he’d hoped. Musharraf left again, embroiled in a legal battle, and then in 2019, he was sentenced to death in absentia on charges of high treason, stemming from his actions after the 1999 coup and for failing to provide adequate security for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007.
The death sentence was later annulled.
Musharraf was hospitalized in Dubai in May 2022, suffering from a rare condition called amyloidosis which can lead to multiple organ failure because of a build-up of a dangerous protein in the body.