A General Stays On, Solidifying the Army's Power in Pakistan

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Anjum Naveed / AP

Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani

The speech may have lasted just three minutes, but it spoke volumes about where power lies in Pakistan. Late on Thursday, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani suddenly appeared on national television to address the country. Pakistan is passing through a critical phase, he said, reading intently from a script on his desk and stealing only furtive glances at the camera in front of him. He praised the Pakistani army for its successes in military operations against Islamist militants and singled out its commander, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, for his "excellent military leadership qualities and pro-democracy views." For those reasons, Gilani said, despite the fact that Kayani's term in command of the army was about to expire, Pakistan's civilian government had decided to keep him on for another three years.

There was little enthusiasm in the Prime Minister's voice. It had been widely expected that Kayani would be granted an extension if he sought one, because the civilian government is too unpopular and too weak to resist a powerful army chief's whims. But what did surprise many was the length of the extension: Kayani had been due to retire this November; now, underscoring the military's enduring clout, he will remain in his post until 2013, establishing himself as the most powerful man in the country.

Since assuming the top post in November 2007, Kayani has done much to efface the ignominious record of his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, who ruled Pakistan for eight years as a military dictator. In the battle against militants in South Waziristan and the Swat Valley, the army's fresh resolve has been rewarded with significant success and popular support. Relations with the Pentagon and NATO have improved, and Kayani is well regarded by senior Western military officers. By shunning the overtly political role claimed by his predecessor, Kayani has also done much to rebuild the army's public image.

"I think it's a good decision for Pakistan," says Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general and military analyst. "General Kayani has shown that he's professionally very competent, has leadership qualities and has generally stayed away from politics. He has influenced foreign and defense policy but has done so discreetly. And he has established good relations with the U.S. and NATO forces. Even if they disagree with him, the respect is there."

But many Pakistanis question the wisdom of granting Kayani an unprecedented three-year extension and raise concerns about its implications for democracy and civilian control over the military. "It's completely wrong, and I'm aghast that the civilian government has done it," says Kamran Shafi, a prominent commentator and a former soldier. "It augurs badly for democracy in this country. The last time a civilian government gave a military chief an extension, it was General Ayub Khan. Later, he took over, ruled the country as a dictator for a decade, in the first of four military dictatorships. It's been downhill ever since."

Kayani may have avoided interfering in the affairs of government, but he has left no doubt as to who calls the shots in Pakistan. In 2008, when President Asif Ali Zardari, in a gesture aimed at India, suggested that Pakistan might stand down on its first-strike nuclear capability, he was severely admonished by the generals. Later that summer, a government attempt to bring the military's controversial Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency under civilian oversight collapsed in less than 24 hours. After the November 2008 Mumbai massacre, Prime Minister Gilani's decision to dispatch the ISI chief to New Delhi was reversed under similar pressure. Kayani also intervened in March 2009 to avert a political crisis by pressing a reluctant government to restore deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to the bench. And last summer when the civilian government cheered the prospect of U.S. legislation tripling nonmilitary aid, the generals stepped in to denounce its conditions as humiliating.

"When it comes to policy in regards to the U.S., Afghanistan and India, it is General Kayani who is calling the shots," says Najam Sethi, the editor-in-chief of the Friday Times. Last week's failed peace talks between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers underscored the influence of hawkish elements in both countries. And domestically, efforts to beef up the counterterrorism capability of civilian law-enforcement agencies have suffered as military-controlled intelligence agencies retain their preeminence.

Washington and its allies, however, are likely to embrace Kayani's extension, given the critical state of the Afghan war. Believing that the U.S.-led war effort next door is doomed, Kayani and his top lieutenants have opened direct communication with the government in Kabul and are maneuvering to broker a peace agreement with the Taliban and its allies. Washington has not publicly supported these back-channel efforts, but local analysts believe these moves have tacit backing from the Obama Administration. "If they fail," says Masood, "then the U.S. can exert pressure on Pakistan to take action against [Afghan insurgent] elements [on its soil]." Amid such delicate maneuvers, any change in the Pakistani high command would be seen as an unnecessary risk.

For Pakistan, however, the episode repeats a familiar cycle, in which the geopolitical agendas of others inevitably put military men in power.