Between golf and war, Pakistan’s General Kayani’s future is debated

May 26, 2010

kayani profileThe Pakistan Army prides itself on being an institution which rises above politics and personal ambition, committed to defend the interests of the nation. That this has not always been the case is demonstrated by its history of military coups, and a tendency of past military rulers, from General Zia ul-Haq to former president Pervez Musharraf, to impose a very personal brand of leadership.  Where Zia pushed Pakistan towards hardline Islam, Musharraf aimed at “enlightened moderation” in a country he wanted modelled more on Turkey than on Saudi Arabia.

While no one expects the military to launch another coup, some of that historical memory is feeding into increasingly intense speculation about the future of Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who is due to retire in November.

The general who is arguably Pakistan’s most powerful man has given few clues as to whether he might seek an extension in office beyond November.  But earlier this week Pakistani paper The News reported that the army’s corps commanders wanted him to stay on to see through the battle against Islamist militants in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. One theory doing the rounds is that Kayani could be appointed as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, with oversight over the air force and navy as well as the army,  and with the role given enhanced powers to ensure he remains in command.

Kayani has been credited with restoring the army’s image in Pakistan - it had suffered from the popular resentment against Musharraf, who stepped down in 2008 . He has also made it clear the military had no intention of taking over the country, although it continues to call the shots on foreign and security policy.  He has overseen some successful operations in the tribal areas and built a reasonable working relationship with the Americans.

A former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Kayani never gives public interviews and therefore remains somewhat inscrutable for those trying to gauge his attitude to the United States or Pakistan’s traditional enemy India.  That said, he has always made his views clear when it seemed that either the United States or the civilian government were about to over-step the boundary into what the Pakistan Army considers its own domain.  A suggestion floated by President Asif Ali Zardari in 2008 that Pakistan adopt a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons was quickly dropped after raising hackles in the army which determinedly guards its control of the nuclear arsenal. 

Kayani 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 civilian government has given mixed messages about whether it wants Kayani to stay on, but is seen as unlikely to challenge the military or the United States if either or both of them decide they need to keep him in command. In any case, after a rocky start, the civilian government and the military appear to have found – for now at least – an accommodation with each other in which the government relies on the army to fight the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas and knows better than to cross its red lines when it comes to foreign and security policy.

Pakistani analysts, journalists and officials I have spoken to tend to have mixed views on whether Kayani should stay on beyond November – although so far at least the discussion is rarely as animated as it can be on other subjects involving Pakistan.

On one side are those who say that Pakistan needs to build its institutions - from the government to the military to the judiciary – rather than allowing itself to be dominated, as has happened in the past, by a single strong personality.  “Generally speaking we should not rely on people; we should rely on institutions,” argued one senior Pakistani journalist. “Otherwise you get the example of Zia and Musharraf, who took the country from one side to the other.”   Moreover, the power of the army in the past has been blamed for never allowing democracy to mature – behaving as it does as an anxious parent who lets his child learn to crawl, but gets worried when he or she learns to run.

On the other are those who argue that Pakistan, above all, needs continuity right now – and nowhere more so than in the army.   The United States is deeply unpopular in an army which while not Islamicised, is nonetheless manned by Muslims, many of whom are seriously unhappy about American policies following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, including its campaign in Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq. (I once had the experience of having to change the subject from Iraq to Kashmir during a lunch with some Pakistani army officers in order to bring us into calmer territory.)

No one is expecting disgruntled junior officers to rebel against their seniors because of Pakistan’s support for the United States – the army is extremely disciplined, as Anatol Lieven, a professor at Kings College in London, argues in this article for the National Interest. But the army is nonetheless involved in fighting its own people in the tribal areas and – so the proponents of an extension for Kayani argue – would cope with the strains better if he were to stay on.

It seems unlikely we will get an answer any time soon on whether Kayani will stay on after November - the inscrutable general has not in the past behaved like a man who would show his cards before he needed to.  All we can say with near-certainty is what he might do if he were to retire. According to the official biography on the website of the army’s Inter-Services Public Relations wing, he is an avid golfer and President of Pakistan Golf Association.

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