Musharraf Seizes Power in Pakistan Coup

While Pakistan’s chief of army staff Pervez Musharraf was out of the country, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif replaced him with Lieutenant General Ziauddin Butt. In response, the army took control of the country by arresting Sharif and his family and by establishing military rule.

Summary of Event

In October, 1998, the prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, appointed Pervez Musharraf as the chief of army staff of the Pakistani army, the most powerful military position in the country. The relationship between the two men, however, was strained. The Pakistan military considered itself to be the backbone of the nation and the guarantor of peace and stability in the country. It demanded that a very large amount of the country’s wealth be spent on the military, including the purchase of advanced weapons from overseas and the development of nuclear weapons. It also considered itself to be the source of political stability. The politicians, on the other hand, believed that the source of Pakistan’s instability and economic weakness was the military itself. Consequently, there had long been tension between democratically elected politicians and the military establishment. Revolutions and coups;Pakistan
[kw]Musharraf Seizes Power in Pakistan Coup (Oct. 12, 1999)
[kw]Seizes Power in Pakistan Coup, Musharraf (Oct. 12, 1999)
[kw]Pakistan Coup, Musharraf Seizes Power in (Oct. 12, 1999)
[kw]Coup, Musharraf Seizes Power in Pakistan (Oct. 12, 1999)
Revolutions and coups;Pakistan
[g]South Asia;Oct. 12, 1999: Musharraf Seizes Power in Pakistan Coup[10500]
[g]Pakistan;Oct. 12, 1999: Musharraf Seizes Power in Pakistan Coup[10500]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 12, 1999: Musharraf Seizes Power in Pakistan Coup[10500]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 12, 1999: Musharraf Seizes Power in Pakistan Coup[10500]
Musharraf, Pervez
Sharif, Nawaz
Sharif, Shahbaz

This tension between Sharif and Musharraf became acute over the Kargil War, Kargil War (1999) fought between India and Pakistan from May to July, 1999. Kargil is a town some 16,000 feet high in the Himalayas in the disputed region of Kashmir and 120 miles from Srinagar, the capital of India-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. Kargil lies on the Line of Control, a de facto cease-fire border established between Pakistan and India as part of the Simla Accord in 1971. Troops from the elite Special Services Group of the Pakistani army, along with paramilitary forces of the Northern Light Infantry, a regiment trained by but not then part of the regular Pakistani army, crossed the Line of Control in “Operation Badra” and occupied a number of mountain peaks, a few as high as 18,000 feet, and some 130 small army posts centering on Kargil. This was achieved before the Indian army became aware of the invasion. The posts were supplied from the Pakistani town of Skardu, 108 miles from Kargil. India responded to this incursion, resulting in a showdown between the nuclear-equipped neighbors that alarmed the world.

Pervez Musharraf.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

India mobilized the Indian air force and some 200,000 troops in “Operation Vijay” and sent some 30,000 troops to the Kargil front amid talk of nuclear war. U.S. president Bill Clinton pressured Pakistan to withdraw, prompting Sharif to visit Washington for consultations. On July 4, Sharif agreed in the Washington Accord to withdraw Pakistani forces from the Kashmir region. On July 26, India recovered the last of the posts captured by Pakistan, fighting stopped, and the day became celebrated as Kargil Vijay Diwas (Kargil Victory Day).

Sharif claimed that he had not been informed of the Pakistani incursion until after it had taken place, and he learned of it in a telephone call from Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Sharif blamed Musharraf for the planning of the invasion and for the resulting fiasco, domestic and international condemnation, and diplomatic isolation. Musharraf and the army took great exception and felt affronted, claiming that Musharraf had informed Sharif of the attack weeks before it took place, and, more important, that the Kargil conflict forced India to the negotiation table over the Kashmir dispute and preempted any invasion of Pakistani territory by the Indian army.

Tensions between Sharif and Musharraf ran high in the months after the summer of 1999. Musharraf and the Pakistani army seethed with indignation at criticism of the war and especially of their performance in the fighting, but Musharraf, in his low-key manner, continued with his army duties. Sharif, however, feared that Musharraf would stage a military coup, abrogate the constitution, declare military rule, and even imprison him as previous military rulers had done with former prime ministers. As a result, Sharif, his brother Shahbaz, and a small group of followers devised a plan to fire Musharraf while he was out of the country and replace him with Lieutenant General Ziauddin Butt, Butt, Ziauddin director-general of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

On October 12, 1999, Sharif acted while Musharraf was returning to Pakistan by plane, and Butt was promoted to a four-star general and appointed the chief of army staff. The promotion and appointment of Butt was broadcast repeatedly on television and over the radio in special bulletins so that the military understood Sharif’s intentions. Musharraf’s pilot was informed that his plane would not be allowed to land in Pakistan. When the pilot informed the control tower at Karachi that they did not have enough fuel to fly anywhere outside the country, he was given permission to fly more than one hundred miles north of Karachi to Nawabshah. At that moment, however, Musharraf’s loyal supporters in the army acted to prevent this humiliation. Generals broke into the airport, took over the control tower, and gave permission for the plane to turn around and land at Karachi. It landed with just a few minutes of fuel left. Musharraf gave orders for Sharif to be arrested, and no one was to be allowed to leave Pakistan.


The coup established military rule in Pakistan for the fourth time in the nation’s history. Musharraf maintained the fiction of a democratic system and did not establish military law, as had been the practice in previous takeovers. However, the military assumed power in the land either directly or indirectly. The result, once again, was that the economy was geared toward benefiting the military to a greater extent than it had before 1999. Military and retired military personnel were appointed to lucrative civilian jobs. Sharif was imprisoned and in 2000 was tried and convicted of terrorism, hijacking, and several other crimes for which he received two life sentences. On December 11, 2000, however, he and his family were allowed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia. On June 20, 2001, Musharraf assumed the title of president. Revolutions and coups;Pakistan

Further Reading

  • Musharraf, Pervez. In the Line of Fire: A Memoir. New York: Free Press, 2006. Written soon after the events of 1999 and while Musharraf was still in power, the book provides his vivid impressions of key events. A valuable primary source for an account of his life, the coup, and his presidency.
  • Talbot, Ian. India and Pakistan. London: Arnold, 2000. Britain’s most renowned historian of Pakistan offers a comparative history of India and Pakistan in the modern period. On pages 213, 214, and 217, he provides a critical assessment of Sharif’s populist prime ministership and of his manipulation of the constitution to acquire dictatorial powers.
  • Ziring, Lawrence. Pakistan at the Crossroads of History. Oxford: Oneworld, 2003. Political scientist Ziring of Western Michigan University, who has written numerous books on Pakistan and Bangladesh and has visited Pakistan regularly since the mid-1950’s, covers the history of Pakistan from its preindependence roots through the presidency of Musharraf. Ziring is an expert on the military in Pakistan politics, and the book is a knowledgeable guide to military-civilian relations in Pakistan.

Bangladesh Secedes from Pakistan

India Joins the Nuclear Club

Zia Establishes Martial Law in Pakistan

Pakistan Hangs Former Prime Minister Bhutto

Bhutto Becomes the First Woman Elected to Lead a Muslim Country

India Conducts Nuclear Tests