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.


When politicians are too busy making money or too indifferent to care about the average ‘abdul’ in the street, it is no surprise that the army will step in to manage and handle the situation. Do they really have a choice is the question? The answer is No!

Posted by AbdulAzizAnis | Report as abusive

Pakistan is three nations in one – the Military, the Elite who run the corrupt politics and the Jihadi militant groups. The common public are driven around by all the three groups. Out of the three, the military holds the real power because it has international recognition and weapons. The other two are at the mercy of the military. The Jihadi groups have become a division of the military itself for running proxy wars. War on terror has pushed these Jihadi groups and the military to face each other. Most have managed to duck under the table except for groups like TTP. The Americans are too much in a hurry. Everything is a show and publicity stunt for them. They really are not interested in resolving anything. They just like their ratings stay high with their media covering victory marches. Look at their health care euphoria being beamed everywhere. So they go to bed with anyone who can offer them quick results or things that look like results. As soon as the ceremonial gesticulations are completed, they get busy writing books, giving interviews and getting rich. Look at the number of “experts” on Afghanistan there. So far Pakistan’s military seems to be the only institution that offers any path towards that quick resolution to the conflicts created and “solved” by the Americans. Kayani will be there shopping for more equipment and money. Once the Americans get out, it will be back to normal days in this region. Kayani will retire and will be replaced by another general who might decide to run the country himself. And then the drama will start all over again.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Look at Kayani at the Catwalk!

Look at the smile on his face. Does he not know he is part of the joke that a military leader is representing a “democratic” nation.

@So much for democracy.”
–YES, have we not heard Pakistanis saying Oh! India should avail the opportunity because Pakistan has an elected govt and is a democracy. Crap. Each single critical decision is made by PA.

Nothing justifies this TAMASHA.

@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.”

–Thanks for clearing the doubts. This clear case of PA running democratic Pak is confusing the hell out of the world. In fact a coup is a better option.

What a joke!

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

Kayani is in the US to shop for Drones and advanced weapons. The clown from the civil government is there to negotiate nuclear deal similar to the US-India deal. Who gets what will determine who has the clout in Pakistan. To run drones they will need advanced satellite technology and they do not have the capability. I guess they will drop their Mujahideen off their drones wherever they want. Or they’ll take it to China to get them to send a satellite for them. In return China will get to reverse engineer the drone technology. Americans will never learn. The worst mistake they have made is being too benevolent to Pakistan and it has brought them to this war. And they have not realized the mistake they are making.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Sensing problem there could be to sell their nuclear reactors in India, US is playing a dangerous game of initiating nuclear talks with pakistan, which India will oppose and will be pushed to accept US nuclear reactors with ridiculous clauses…this will do nothing but further make a deeper dent into american reputation..
The confused americans strategy is quite clear..not just with this nuclear talks with pakistan but the intention is same behind giving pakistan more F-16s

Posted by Divu | Report as abusive

I agree with Divu.

The USA should start taking some accountability for allowing PA to insult democracy the way it is happening. Whether it is not in US hands or not, they are partners in crime.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

What kinda strategic talk was that ???
It was all about pakistan want that pak want this..
but nothing about what US or the region or the world wants from pakistan !!!!
I would simply put this as a strategic begging.

If India has to follow the so called good politics of world oldest democracy which bans bussines with Iran and N.Korea coz they are trying to gain nuclear access..India should freeze all american money in India and should not allow any american goods including nuclear reactors to be sold in India.coz part of money americans gain from india will be given to pak which in turn will go to fund jihad.

Posted by Divu | Report as abusive

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