How long will Pakistan’s army chief sit on sidelines?

How long will Pakistan’s army chief sit on sidelines?
by Rick Westhead
March 19th, 2009
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NEW DELHI – Here’s what diplomats across much of the Western world know about Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, arguably Pakistan’s most important public figure: he’s a plain-talking and dour chain-smoker with a fondness for golf who started his military career in 1971 as a lowly infantryman. But this is what many are now anxious to find out about the reclusive 56-year-old: how long will he be content to sit on the sidelines, observing the uneasy peace agreed on this week between humbled Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, Zardari’s arch-nemesis?

Several Western diplomats and Pakistan analysts said in interviews that even after a deal between Zardari and Sharif to defuse tensions and return Pakistan’s deposed chief justice to his former position, peace remains fragile in Pakistan. And while no one can say with certainty, Kayani, former head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, may be prepared to seize power if Zardari proves unable to maintain law and order.

“It’s always in the cards, always a possibility,” said Satish Chandra, India’s former ambassador to Pakistan, adding Kayani would likely have widespread support if he seizes power since “Zardari has made a fool of himself.”

Besides losing face by agreeing to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry as chief judge, Zardari’s information minister quit on the weekend to protest threats of censorship on Geo, one of Pakistan’s main TV channels.

Some say it doesn’t matter whether Kayani organizes a formal coup because he’s effectively already in charge.

“There’s a saying that most states have militaries,” one Western diplomat said yesterday. “Pakistan is a military that happens to have a state.”

Zardari agreed to return Chaudhry only after he was pressured by both the American government and after sitting down with Kayani.

“I think the whole episode goes to prove that the real power in Pakistan doesn’t (rest) with the president,” said Ajay Behera, a Pakistan expert and professor at Jamia Malia Islamia University in New Delhi.

“Right now, I think Kayani sees himself as an arbitrator – one who will not allow the country to slip into a crisis.”

Kayani was named Pakistan’s top military officer in November 2007 after president Pervez Musharraf was pressured, again by the American government, to surrender the post.

By now, the 165 million residents of this nuclear-armed country have become well acquainted with military coups. In 1999, Musharraf grabbed power from Sharif, then Pakistan’s prime minister.

At the time, Musharraf was 58 and had been a military officer for 35 years. Stephen Cohen, an expert on Pakistan’s military at the Brookings Institution in Washington, called Musharraf an unexpected coup maker.

“I suspect he is going to want to get out of power as quickly as he can,” Cohen said at the time. “This is not his kind of thing.”

Analysts now are using similar terms to describe Kayani’s alleged distaste for politics.

Kayani served Benazir Bhutto as her deputy military secretary during her first years as prime minister in 1988-89. In September 2003, he was appointed commander of the powerful X Corps in Rawalpindi, the military city neighbouring Islamabad and was awarded the Hilal-i-Imtiaz, the “Crescent of Excellence,” for hunting down terrorists who tried to murder Musharraf in December 2003.

If anyone knows Kayani’s political aspirations, the Americans should.

Kayani was trained in Fort Benning, Ga., and graduated from the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

He also attended a 13-week executive studies course at the Asia Pacific Center of Security Studies in Hawaii in the 1990s.

But the American government also has reason to be wary of the Pakistani general.

In The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power, journalist David Sanger alleges the Bush administration heard Kayani in an intelligence intercept describing Taliban warlord Jalalludin Haqqani as Pakistan’s “strategic asset.”

Haqqani is blamed for introducing suicide bombing in the region.

Sanger wrote that Haqqani later helped orchestrate the bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul, an attack that killed 60 people, at the insistence of Pakistan’s ISI security force, which Kayani headed before he became army chief.
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