General, you've stepped in during challenging times," was all I had to say when I had first met the newly-appointed chief of army staff, Gen Pervez Musharraf, on the serene and lush green lawns on the estate of former MNA M.P. Bhandara. The lunch was an opportunity for Bhandara's neighbour to meet a cross-section of people including senior diplomats.
"I've been trained to face challenges," he'd replied. Little did he know his greatest challenge would come when he would be airborne and that the same man who only a few years ago hand-picked him over his seniormost general, General Ali Kuli, would be trying to get rid of him. Bored with him, Sharif was negotiating with another general.
"Musharraf was my director-general of military operations. He wasn't a cleric. He was a professional soldier and I thought he was very courageous and brave. He'd been a commando and one who is a commando can take tremendous risks and think afterwards," was what Benazir Bhutto had to say when she heard about the army coup.
Musharraf has this once certainly taken a huge risk even though there is till now tremendous sympathy for the work that lies ahead of him. Eyebrows had been raised when word went out after his appointment that he'd spent 10 years as a commando. "Sharif better watch out as this general is capable of commando action if the prime minister oversteps," was one comment heard at that time.
Born in New Delhi in August '43, Musharraf joined the army in '64 after his family migrated to Pakistan and made Karachi their new home. "A soldier's soldier" is how he has most often been described as. And no other chief of army staff had so many meetings with Sharif than Musharraf had.
Tongues had started wagging when Musharraf readily agreed to all the tasks given to him by Sharif, the most controversial being taking over the water and power development authority. "People take this as a sign of weakness. It is not so. The chief is a great believer in nation-building and he strongly feels that if the army can help in any way without neglecting its professional duties then they should not hesitate," ispr director-general Brig Rashid Qureishi had told Outlook last month. But the camaraderie didn't last too long.
Musharraf's closest aides right now are his chief of general staff Lt Gen Muhammad Aziz and commander, 10 Corps, Lt Gen Mahmood Ahmed. In fact, it was with the help of these two and the corps commander, Karachi, that Musharraf-sitting thousands of miles from general headquarters in Rawalpindi-deployed the special services group within hours all over Pakistan. His successful coup squashed theories that the Punjabi corps commanders had been bought over by Sharif and that they would never remove him. This was the lifeline Sharif apparently relied on and which ultimately deserted him.