In a timely though perhaps overly dramatic move, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of Pakistan announced last night on national television the extension of army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani for another three years beyond November this year, when his first term was to end. Timely, since any further delay in announcing it would have led to further speculation and confusion about what was to happen. Dramatic, since the normal manner would have been a press release from the Inter Services Relations Directorate.
But then this is Pakistan and anything to do with the army chief makes headlines. And this announcement further strengthens the view that the army continues to be a key player even as democracy struggles to establish itself in a country that has been ruled for more than half its life by the military.
This is the first time a civilian government has extended an army chief for a full term. In the past, extensions have been either short, given by military rulers to themselves or, in the case of the first military ruler, Ayub Khan, to an ineffectual army chief with no independent power base. Benazir Bhutto sought to break with tradition when she offered an extension to General Abdul Waheed in 1996 but he refused it. Kayani took pains to convey the impression that he would not seek an extension nor negotiate for one. It appears that the government made him an offer he could not refuse.
Kayani is widely regarded as a quiet, professional soldier, who has helped transform the army in his tenure from a largely conventional force to one that is effectively fighting an irregular war inside its own borders. His new tenure gives him a rare opportunity to continue the transformation of the Pakistan into army into a professional body ready to fight insurgencies and conventional enemies equally well. He maintains a low public profile and is seen as a thinking general. Compared with his predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf, who was tempestuous and rarely had time to read, Kayani is deliberate. From the outset, he stated a policy of keeping the army out of politics, a policy that he tried to maintain even while selectively intervening in political squabbles as a referee. In recent months he has played a key role in moving the United States-Pakistan strategic dialogue onto a higher plane in terms of content and action.
While many inside and outside the country have welcomed the move as providing continuity and stability at a time of a raging insurgency and the rise of militancy inside Pakistan, others view it as a retrogressive move away from institutionalizing the selection and promotion system by linking it to personalities. Above all, it is a political move since the final decision was made by a politician. The United States has studiously avoided taking a public position but conversations with U.S. diplomats and military officials over the past few months indicated their deep interest in the future of General Kayani and a noticeable desire to see him remain at the helm of affairs in Pakistan. Yet Kayani on his part has showed no signs that he is or even is willing to be painted as "America’s choice."
What are the implications of this extension? In the near term, it opens up the possibility of a routine promotion for the next senior most army general to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee when that position falls vacant in October 2010. There may well be an opportunity also to elevate one of the other service chiefs, from the air force or navy, to bolster inter-service cohesion. Within the army there has been some talk of a Vice Chief. This may make sense for such a large army but runs against the grain, since the Pakistan army has a steep pyramid structure. Authority rests in one man: the chief. When I suggested to my own brother, General Asif Nawaz, when he took over as Army chief in 1991 that he appoint a deputy chief to help manage the administrative details of his work, his reply was crisp: "Command is indivisible!" While not supported by historical evidence, this mantra has taken hold in Pakistan and was echoed by General Pervez Musharraf for different and perhaps political reasons, even though he appointed a Vice Chief of the Army Staff. But Musharraf made all the important decisions himself.
In the longer run, the career paths of many senior generals will be affected by this decision. Nearly a dozen operational three-stars (Lieutenant Generals) will retire before Kayani’s new term expires in November 2013. These include a number of very bright and highly trained officers whom he has promoted to three star rank in April this year. As a result, the age and service gap between Kayani and his corps commanders in another two years will be quite large, as he digs down into the ranks order to promote new commanders. The nature and quality of the exchanges between him and his commanders will necessarily be affected, as was the case for General Zia ul-Haq and General Musharraf before him. Few junior officers will be willing to challenge the views of such a senior chief. Yet, he has exhibited a certain collegiality in his exchanges with fellow officers. If he can maintain that approach it will serve him in good stead. Politically, the country will of necessity see another election during Kayani’s extended term, unless things deteriorate so dramatically internally or in relations with Pakistan’s fractious neighbors that the army, under public pressure, mounts another coup. Here, Kayani will fight against historical precedent: in the past, an extension or the dismissal of a chief and replacement by a new chief invariably led to a coup, as mutual suspicions between the civilians and the military was compounded.
A positive spin-off from the extension in the eyes of some may be that a slew of Musharraf promotees will also retire between now and 2013 reducing the tension between them and others vying for the next rung. Some of these are strong professional officers but the taint of having been favored by Musharraf may remain. After all, Kayani too was a Musharraf choice. A major advantage that might accrue is that the certainty provided by the new term for the army chief will allow the civilian government to become confident in asserting itself in policy matters, knowing that the army chief will not overtly intervene in its affairs. This may help strengthen political institutions. At the same time, civilians must resist the temptation to turn to the army to lead the battle against militancy (a national endeavor not purely a military one) or to arbitrate differences on the political field.
These three years should also give Kayani time to assess the present Higher Defense Organization of Pakistan and perhaps come up with a more devolved structure for the army and a better system of command and control at the center. One possible scenario may include regional and centralized commands at four-star rank, appointed by the same authority who selects the service chiefs, and a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs with real powers to regulate all the services while acting as the main military advisor of the government. This approach has been taken by the United States and many other modern militaries, so it would hardly be unprecedented. Without having a stake in the chairman’s position in 2013, Kayani may be able to provide a dispassionate plan for the government to decide, well in advance of the next round of promotions in 2013. Any proposal that he presents as a disinterested party will have credibility and will also help override the parochial concerns of the army relative to the other services in Pakistan.
All this will be against the backdrop of Pakistan’s traditional rivalry with emerging superpower India to the east. Kayani would be key to any effort to reduce hostility and to open the eastern border to trade and traffic. He has already played a role in opening up to Afghanistan and perhaps positioning Pakistan to play a role in the reconciliation efforts of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The United States, as a key ally, must also understand that the army chief in Pakistan will think foremost about Pakistan’s interests. To the extent that they have an interlocutor who knows them well, from his extensive U.S. training and contacts, the U.S. will benefit from a clear dialogue. Removing years of mistrust will take a major and longer-term effort. Officer exchanges will help. But most important will be steady provision of the best possible equipment to the Pakistani forces in their battle against insurgents and militants, with no underlying threats or overhanging waivers accompanying those transfers. That is what trust means.
Key to this entire enterprise is the man who will continue to head the Pakistan army beyond President Barack Obama’s first term and into the term of the next elected government in Pakistan: General Kayani, truly now a man for many seasons.
Shuja Nawaz is Director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council.