Pakistan's Most Powerful Man: The General in His Labyrinth

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Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty Images

Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, center, sits between Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, right, and Lieut. General Ahmad Shuja Pasha of the ISI on June 11, 2011

It has been a grim seven weeks for Pakistan's powerful generals. The unilateral raid on Osama bin Laden's compound opened them up to charges of complicity abroad and a sense of deep embarrassment at home. The criticism sharpened after a major terrorist attack on a naval base in the southern port city of Karachi, with many critics unfavorably contrasting the privileges the military enjoys against its recent failures to provide security. And then long-standing suspicions of the security establishment's darkest side were heightened by the murder of journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, who had warned of threats to his life from the military's leading spy agency. All that foreboding seemed to be affirmed by a chilling video showing paramilitary rangers shooting dead a youth in Karachi in broad daylight.

"It's amazing the level of criticism that the military leadership is facing," says Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general turned analyst. "It's clearly the worst in its history," he adds, reflecting on the decades since he joined the Pakistani army in the 1950s. For General Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani army chief, the current mood is particularly galling. Since being elevated to the most powerful office in Pakistan, Kayani has carefully worked to rebuild his institution's image after the ruinous final years of President cum General Pervez Musharraf's military rule. At home and abroad, he won plaudits for renewing a commitment to fighting Islamist militancy, with successful military operations in the Swat Valley and much of South Waziristan. While he has made a series of interventions backstage, Kayani has shunned an overtly political role.

Now, Kayani's stock is in free fall as he finds himself embattled on at least three fronts. Washington has seized on the bin Laden raid as a moment to apply fresh pressure. Leveraging Pakistan's humiliation, it has issued more aggressive demands to help capture al-Qaeda's remaining leaders and move decisively against the pro–Afghan Taliban militants Pakistan has obstinately refused to touch in the past. Tensions have risen again in recent days as the CIA complained that intelligence passed on to the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was used to tip off the very militants it was supposed to be targeting. At the same time, the CIA has raised concerns about the ISI's arrests of five Pakistani informants it used to gather intelligence on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, the garrison town where he was hiding. U.S.-Pakistani relations are now said to have plummeted to a fresh nadir.

The U.S.'s unilateral raid has also left Kayani vulnerable to competing pressure from within his own ranks. The indignity of being invaded by an ally crowns a narrative of accumulating grievances. The army's middle ranks have long been angered by a sense that the U.S. has not been sensitive enough to their sovereignty or loss of nearly 3,000 lives; a perceived refusal to address concerns about Kashmir; Washington's proximity to New Delhi; and even conspiracy theories suggesting U.S. support for the Pakistani Taliban. "In the top ranks there are real concerns about whether soldiers will obey orders in some circumstances," says a senior Western diplomat.

Kayani is also faced with fears of extremist infiltration of his ranks. On Tuesday, the Pakistani army announced that it was holding Brigadier Ali Khan, a senior officer working at the General Headquarters, on suspicion of links to the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). For the past 15 years, the group has tried to surreptitiously recruit army officers in an attempt to effect a military coup that would pave the way for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. After the bin Laden raid, HT had been distributing leaflets exhorting army officers to rise up in revolt against their leadership, the Wall Street Journal reported. "It is a slap in the respected officers' faces that on May 2 American helicopters intruded in the dark of night and barged into a house like thieves," the pamphlet read. "It could not have been possible without the acquiescence of your high officials." Khan's arrest comes just weeks after widely voiced suspicions that the May 22 naval-base attack had support from inside.

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