General Kayani in Washington; Pakistan’s most powerful man

March 21, 2010

kayani profileSo much for democracy. When Pakistan holds a “strategic dialogue” with the United States in Washington this week, there is little doubt that the leading player in the Pakistani delegation will be its army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani.

We have got so used to Americans dealing with the Pakistan Army in their efforts to end the stalemate in Afghanistan that it does not seem that surprising that the meeting between the United States and Pakistan would be dominated by the military. Nor indeed that Dawn columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee would describe Kayani as the most powerful man in Pakistan. Even the grudging admiration granted in this Times of India profile of Kayani by Indrani Baghchi is in keeping with the current mood.

But before taking it for granted that this is a normal state of affairs, do pause to consider how it might seem if Britain, for example, which has worked closely with the United States on both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, sent a delegation to Washington in which the army chief was expected to call the shots. Also in the interests of keeping everyone honest, remember that it was not actually supposed to be this way.

The United States has always preferred to deal with military rulers in Pakistan, but the forced exit of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2008 and the election of President Barack Obama had raised hopes Washington might be about to turn over a new leaf, with policies which encouraged the development of civilian democracy.  Its preference for military rulers in the past has been partially blamed for suppressing democracy in Pakistan (though others blame either the country’s own hapless politicians or the overweening nature of the army, depending on which side of the argument you sit).

So what happened to the change promised by Obama, which encouraged many Pakistanis to hope that for once Washington would “pour money into democracy as opposed to autocracy“?

Inside Pakistan itself, the political parties have been at loggerheads, leaving Kayani looking like the only national figure who remained above the fray.  In a sense he retained the army’s traditional “parental role”, ready to step in if the fighting between the rival politicians got out of hand. A bruising battle between President Asif Ali Zardari and the judiciary also limited the scope for the government to clip the wings of the powerful military.

Kayani, meanwhile, has both vowed to keep the army out of politics while retaining a tight grip on foreign and security policy. He spoke out fiercely against a reported incursion by U.S. ground troops in 2008 and in 2009 condemned provisions in the Kerry-Lugar U.S. aid package which called for greater civilian oversight of military appointments and promotions.

The army also burnished its image by launching operations in Swat and Waziristan to clear out Pakistani Taliban who had become increasingly unpopular in Pakistan, raising Kayani’s profile further. And although Kayani is due to retire in November this year, the one-year extension granted this month to the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, has got everyone wondering whether he too might have his term extended.

Just to be clear, there is no talk of a military coup. And nor is Kayani a new military dictator in the making — he is said to be far more collegiate and far more dependent on the goodwill of his Corps Commanders than his predecessor. His role has been more comparable to one once attributed to Turkey’s own generals, of exercising control from behind the scenes –  giving him a leading position which some argue leaves little space for civilian democracy to grow.

But is Pakistan alone responsible for giving the upper hand to the military? Or has the United States played its usual role of favouring the army over the politicians in its search for the one strong leader who might deliver what it needs from Pakistan?

The war in Afghanistan has proved far more difficult to turn around than it might have appeared during Obama’s election campaign. The attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants in November 2008 also sabotaged Obama’s hopes of finding a regional solution to the Afghan war, and of encouraging peaceful relations between India and Pakistan which might dilute the India-centric thinking of the Pakistan Army.

Obama says he wants to start drawing down troops from Afghanistan in 2011. Seeking help from the Pakistan Army chief who appears to have the power to deliver may appear to be a more useful expediency than encouraging the long-term growth of civilian democracy. Do remember however that Washington has a history of putting expediency first when it comes to its relations with Pakistan.

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