Musharraf Steps Down as Head of Pakistani Army

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, visits the armed forces headquarters in Rawalpindi a day before shedding his uniform to help ease a political crisis. (By Anjum Naveed -- Associated Press)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 28 -- President Pervez Musharraf formally stepped down as the chief of Pakistan's powerful army Wednesday morning, reluctantly bowing to international pressure to end his eight-year reign as the increasingly unpopular military ruler of this nuclear-armed Muslim nation of 160 million.

Gen. Musharraf, 64, handed over his post as promised to the vice-army chief and retired from the army at an elaborate ceremony on a vast parade ground inside army headquarters in the nearby garrison city of Rawalpindi. He is now scheduled to take his oath Thursday as Pakistan's civilian president for the next five years.

A military band played, a cleric chanted a prayer, and hundreds of troops stood at attention as officials gathered for the change of command. Musharraf looked grave and dignified as he addressed the audience before relinquishing his post, wearing for the last time the uniform he often called his second skin.

"The army has been my life. The army has been my passion. The army has been my pride. The system has to carry on, there is a time when everyone has to go," he said. "Tomorrow I will no longer be in command, but I am happy I spent these 46 years in very excellent manner. What I am is just because of this force."

Just before 11 a.m., after a lengthy performance of military music, he formally handed over the symbol of army command, a long bamboo stick, to his successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani.

But outside, Pakistan was seething in the grip of emergency rule, imposed by Musharraf on Nov. 3 in what was widely seen as an effort to engineer his continuance in power. For weeks, crowds of protesting political opponents, lawyers and civic activists in cities across the country have been shouting, "Go, Musharraf, go!"

It was unclear how much political influence Musharraf hopes to wield as a civilian president or how parliamentary elections he has announced for January will affect the balance of power. Both of his principal arch-rivals, former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, are back in Pakistan after years in exile and are likely to run for office.

But Musharraf's retirement from the army signals the end of his authority over the most important institution in Pakistan, one that has intervened in the political process repeatedly during the country's 60-year existence but that now, by all accounts, has been badly stung by Musharraf's fumbling and increasingly repressive response to the political crisis.

Musharraf's successor, Gen. Kiyani, is a former military intelligence chief whom domestic and foreign observers describe as a well-regarded professional career officer with no political ambitions.

Privately, Pakistanis close to the army said there was widespread relief that Musharraf, a career army officer who seized power in a bloodless coup against Sharif in 1999, was finally stepping down. Several senior retired officers said there had been growing institutional concern that the country's political crisis -- especially the imposition of emergency rule -- was tarring the army's image and detracting from its ability to fight Islamic extremism and violent insurgency.

"It was very painful to see the constitution suspended and emergency declared. The president is in uniform so the army is blamed," said one officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He made mistakes and got bad advice. He should have left power when he still had moral authority and control. Now he will take off his uniform with less of both."

Musharraf was originally supposed to retire earlier this month, but he postponed his departure and instead took aim at the Supreme Court, which was preparing to hear legal challenges to his October reelection to the presidency by an outgoing legislature packed with his supporters. He declared emergency rule, suspended the constitution and demanded that all senior judges take a new oath.

When most of the justices refused, he fired them and replaced them with other hand-picked judges. Last week, the new high court dismissed all the legal challenges, allowing him to take office as a civilian president. Only then did Musharraf finally agree to step down as army chief.

Musharraf's tenure as Pakistan's military ruler was marked by initial high hopes, gradual disillusionment and recent alarm and anger among the Pakistani public and the government's international backers. He launched a series of economic and political reforms, and after the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001, he quickly sided with the West and became an important U.S. ally.

But Musharraf's star began to fade as his reforms lagged, the country was beset by widening Islamic insurgency, and he intervened in civilian institutions with an increasingly heavy hand. The turning point came last March, when he tried to fire the chief justice of the Supreme Court, unleashing an unprecedented protest movement by Pakistani lawyers that gained wide public support.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company