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THE TIMES OF INDIA
By Indrani Baghchi
March 22, 2010
Those who know him say he is a brooder. But those who know him well will tell you that’s just one of the layers to the deeply complicated and thinking mind of Pakistan army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The bluster that marked Musharraf has been dumped for quiet gravitas as the man from Rawalpindi goes about turning friends like the US and Britain into closer allies and outmanoeuvering not-so-friendly neighbours like India and Afghanistan at international fora. In a country brought to its knees by terror, corruption and an inept political system, the former ISI chief is putting up a masterly show as he calls the shots.
Sitting with foreign minister S M Krishna this February, US defence secretary Robert Gates said he was going to Pakistan the next day. So who was he going to meet? Oh, a number of people, said Gates, but his most important conversation would be with Pakistan army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. “Why not Zardari?” asked Krishna, referring to the Pakistan president. “Because Kayani is the most important man out there,” Gates said matter-of-factly . And Gates should know – in Washington, he’s often described as the most powerful defence secretary Pentagon has had in a long while.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, this low-profile general has emerged from the shadows. The obvious ineptitude of the Pakistan political establishment seems to have finally helped burnish the credentials of the Pakistan Army whose reputation was in tatters in the final days of the last military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf. And with its return has emerged its boss Kayani. Compared to Zardari’s gang that just can’t shoot straight, many in Pakistan seem to view the Army chief as a better bargain – although it’s debatable that they’ll want a return to military rule.
As boss of Pakistan’s infamous spy agency ISI (Inter-ServicesIntelligence) , Kayani had a reputation for being slightly nervous. It would now appear that he was being circumspect rather than nervous. As the civil government got its knickers in a twist every so often, the general quietly plotted the return of the military to its position of pre-eminence in Pakistan society.
He has since quietly started calling the shots. Remember how Zardari promised to send the ISI chief Shuja Pasha to India after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, and how Kayani vetoed him? That was just the beginning of his new assertiveness.
But who is this man really? Is he a bumbling military brass in the mould of Yahya Khan, who lost East Pakistan because of his ham-handed ways, or is he a modern-day version of the suave Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator who introduced the army to the intoxication of political power? Or is Kayani just a product of circumstances, the man who is willy-nilly filling up the political vacuum created by the messy management of Zardari & Co?
Details about the 57-year-old Kayani are somewhat sketchy. He doesn’t have the kind of privileged background that most Pakistan military brass does. His father, Lehrasab, was a naib subedar in the army – in other words, a non-commissioned officer. Born in Rawalpindi in Punjab, Kayani came up the hard way after being commissioned in 1971, the year of the Bangladesh War.
Those who have seen him up close say Kayani is the brooding type. He was given to long, solitary walks until November 2007, when Gen Musharraf named him the army chief – thereafter, it was no longer possible for him to remain unattended. Kayani is a chain smoker – he reportedly lights up every 15 minutes – and is given to long drags on his cigarette as he engages in deep listening during briefings by his trusted commanders. It’s said he interrupts only to seek either a clarification or elucidation of a point.
Kayani’s slightly unnerving silence contrasts strongly with Musharraf’s volubility. But it would be stupid to infer from this that he has little to say. They say Kayani has a lot more going on in his head. He is also a Pakistan army “traditionalist” which means his worldview is India-centric . The eastern neighbour, India, is seen by the army as enemy No1, and policies and responses flow from that basic understanding.
A strategically shrewd army chief, Kayani doesn’t count India among Pakistan’s allies – something that is likely to make him appear in New Delhi to be more dangerous than someone like Musharraf. In any case, since it’s Kayani who holds the reins, New Delhi would do well to sit up and take notice of this man.
It needs to know whether Kayani’s anti-India stance is a strategic move to bind together the army at a time when political parties in Pakistan are slipping fast into an inchoate body of disparate noises, and when the people see the solidity of the army as a source of reassurance. Or is it genetically coded – that come what may, he will be hostile towards India.
Says a top Indian official, “On a scale of 1 to 10 for anti-India sentiment, if Musharraf was at 5, Kayani is at 8.” “And as he is seen increasingly to be in control, it’s bad news for us.”
Kayani started out as an apolitical army chief. Now as he is in the driving seat in Pakistan, he is showing political sense. The way he has latched on to the water issue between India and Pakistan to drum up paranoia about India “starving” Pakistan of water shows he knows how to press the emotive buttons. When India offered foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan, Islamabad took its time to respond, allegedly because Kayani hadn’t given his nod; he wanted a composite dialogue that would include Kashmir, and not just terror. And it was Kayani who gave directions to Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Salman Bashir, when he came to New Delhi to meet Nirupama Rao.
Significantly, the day before, Kayani told the defence committee of the National Assembly that the army under him would remain “India-centric” . “India has the capability, intentions can change overnight,” he told legislators.
G Parthasarathy, who was high commissioner to Islamabad, says, “Gen Kayani represents an institutional hostility towards India because promoting it enables the army to dominate Pakistan without responsibility. Given the fact that he is the de facto ruler of Pakistan, India should be prepared for more covert and overt hostility directed at it from Pakistani soil.”
The quiet rise of Kayani hasn’t gone unnoticed in capitals around the world. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton spends more time with Kayani than with the civvies. Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who has had a testy relationship with the Pakistani army, is mending fences with it.
Pakistan’s strategic outreach is being managed by Kayani: He made a much talked about power-point presentation at the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) headquarters in Brussels on how he could help the West get out of Afghanistan; he talked turkey with the Turks on keeping control of a key conference in Istanbul on Afghanistan’ s future; and he’s assumed the role of the point person on ‘reconciliation’ with Taliban.
This week, Kayani will be the pre-eminent member of the Pakistan delegation at a strategic dialogue with Washington where demand No.1 will be a nuclear deal like the one signed with India, apart from agreements on more mundane matters like trade and agriculture. In preparation for the talks, Kayani presided over a meeting of government secretaries on Tuesday, the first time that top-level bureaucrats have been called to army headquarters in a civilian regime.
WOWING THE WEST
It was not always so, even as recently as in 2009. Through most of lastyear, Pakistan, and its army, were on the back foot. Terrorists in Swat and other parts of FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and NWFP (North-West Frontier Province) were on the rampage and inching towards Islamabad, setting off alarm bells the world over. To make matters worse, there was talk of the army playing fast and loose with the Americans as well as with the Taliban. The US media was awash with CIA leaks on how Kayani had described Afghan Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani as a ‘strategic asset’. There was little trust between the two sides.
Cut to January 2010, and the scenario had changed dramatically. Pakistan had ‘fixed’ the trust problem with the Americans. In July 2008, when Kayani and ISI chief Shuja Pasha were ‘summoned’ by General David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, to be scolded about Islamabad’s misdemeanors, especially the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, it was a low point for a country which had tomtommed its “shared anxieties” with America.
By the end of 2009, Kayani was taking the US joint chief of staff chairman Mike Mullen and US commander in Afghanistan Stanley Mc-Crystal on helicopter rides in Swat and Waziristan to show progress in his battle against the Taliban. Pakistan had effectively re-established itself in the West as a part of the solution, even as it continued to be a part of the problem.
Kayani’s message to the NATO brass in January, made adroitly yet forcefully through a 62-slide presentation, was disarmingly simple: Pakistan had a strategic future in Afghanistan well beyond the US presence and should not be taken lightly. This meant the government in Kabul had to be mindful of Pakistani interests; and India had to be out of Afghanistan, or at the very least, needed to greatly reduce its presence.
Kayani scored another big victory at the January 28 London conference on the future of Afghanistan. The idea promoted by the British and backed by the US, that Pakistan would be the lead player in the Taliban ‘reconciliation’ process, was met with enthusiastic response. The army chief came out smelling of roses, confident in his belief that he had successfully outmanoeuvered India even as New Delhi fumbled in its opposition to the Taliban being accommodated.
This was quite a contrast to Musharraf’s last days, when the army stumbled from one political miscalculation to another and ended up with the disastrous storming of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid where radical imams were threatening the state. Meanwhile, the Tehreek-e-Taliban was growing in strength and firepower with a string of terror attacks throughout Pakistan, leading up to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
Worryingly for the hawks, Musharraf had also found a common language with Manmohan Singh and back-channel talks with India hinted at some sort of non-territorial adjustment in Kashmir. His ‘out-of-the- box’ proposals on Kashmir as well as ‘tactical restraint’ on the Kashmir
jihad between 2004 and 2007 undermined the traditional mindset. As both Siachen and Sir Creek remained unresolved, there rose many voices within the Pakistan military establishment questioning the wisdom of abandoning the old position of bleeding India.
BACK TO BRASS TACKS
Enter Kayani, with a 18-handicap in golf and a Plan. Admiral Mullen recently gushed in Time magazine: “Gen Kayani commands an army with troops fighting in what President Barack Obama has rightly called the ‘most dangerous place in the world.’ He’s lost more than 1,000 soldiers in that fight. He knows the stakes. He’s got a plan.”
Convinced of the centrality of the army as the bulwark of the Pakistan state, Kayani was bringing back to it its robbed glory and quintessential values. He has figured that the only way to regain influence for Pakistan would be to somehow make the Taliban a part of the power structure in Kabul and help the US pack its bags. That would force India to leave Afghanistan and help Pakistan regain control of the region.
Until that happens, Kayani knows the India bogey has to be kept alive and leveraged against Pakistan’s efforts at taming the Taliban. Against the US’s better judgment, but impelled by recession and public opinion, Washington is giving the Kayani worldview more than a nod and a wink. Washington’s approach to Islamabad is old-fashioned bribery: sophisticated military toys are winging their way to Pakistan as ‘incentive’ to fight the Taliban.
It knows full well that these weapons will actually be directed against India. As an Indian official explained, “Kayani is pegging the modernisation of the Pak army on US money.” By end-2010 , Pakistan will get an additional $3.4 billion in military aid from the US, bringing the total up to almost $12 billion since 2003.
IT’S IN HIS BLOOD
Kayani cut his teeth in the army during the Bangladesh war. Thirty years later as director-general military operations (DGMO), he directed the 10-month stand-off with the Indian army. He earned his spurs with Musharraf when he conducted, with efficiency and confidentiality, the investigation into the assassination bids on Musharraf in 2003. Musharraf has himself reminisced that until Kayani took over, the investigation was a mess. It led to his appointment as DG-ISI in 2004.
For all his loyalty to Musharraf, Kayani was an admirer of sorts of Benazir Bhutto, having served as military secretary to her. In 2007, when the Americans started pressuring Musharraf to work out a “reconciliation” with Benazir, he sent Kayani to do the job. On March 9, 2007 when Musharraf’s aides read out the riot act to Justice Chaudhry, demanding he step down, Kayani was part of the team. But presciently, he remained silent through the meeting and refused to present an affidavit to Chaudhry along with the others.
That paid him rich dividends later when he brokered a deal between Zardari and the judiciary during the lawyers’ Long March in 2008 and the most recent constitutional crisis with the judges’ appointment in 2009, which eroded Zardari’s credibility but enhanced Kayani’s . In 2008, Kayani compelled Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani to reinstate Chaudhry as CJ. In December 2009, Kayani once again made Zardari accept a decision by Chaudhry and the Supreme Court overturning the immunity earlier granted to Zardari from prosecution for corruption.
In a previous age, the army chief would have had ample reason by now to take over power, but Kayani seems to prefer playing puppeteer. “From the beginning, Kayani took the civilian leadership into confidence, but the onus of unifying the country was the army’s ,” says Imtiaz Gul of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.
When Zardari assumed office in February 2008, and Musharraf was turfed out, the new army chief declared his intention to stay apolitical even though he reportedly loathed Zardari and others in the corrupt leadership. Although he firmly believed that the army was the mainstay of Pakistan, Kayani was sensitive to the unusually strong public outrage against the army. It needed to go back to the barracks if it had to get back a modicum of its earlier prestige. In one of his early acts, Kayani withdrew hundreds of army officers from civilian jobs in the government, leaving the job of running the country to civilians.
RETURN TO GLORY
With the campaign in Swat later in the year, Kayani salvaged a lot of goodwill. Mosharraf Zaidi, political commentator in Islamabad, said, “Kayani’s deft handling of the Swat crisis helped turn the tide in favour of an overarching national narrative of support for a military fighting to protect Pakistanis from the threat of Taliban thugs overrunning the country.”
In the past few weeks, Kayani has closely supervised the consensus to replace the 17th amendment of the Pakistan constitution with the 18th, effectively moving the Pakistani system back to the 1973 constitution and a parliamentary democracy. This means Zardari can’t gather any more powers , having surrendering many in the last year, including the nuclear command authority.
If the constitutional amendment goes through, Gilani will be more relevant than Zardari and Kayani will find it much easier to control the levers of Pakistan. But more significantly , because Kayani is proceeding without the hoopla that accompanied Musharraf’s actions, and is keeping the other generals in the army in the loop, his actions, though just as autocratic, have greater acceptability within Pakistan.
The US, for all its democratic avowals, was the first to read the tea leaves. In March 2008, the Americans ‘selected’ Kayani for the US Army Command and General Staff College’s International Hall of Fame. “The hall honors those officers of United States allies’ militaries who have attained the highest command positions in their national service component or within their nation’s armed forces,” the citation said.
But even as Kayani wowed the West, he turned the heat on India. The word was out: India was fair game again, particularly in Afghanistan. The Haqqani network-executed terror attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7, 2008 was a direct result of this and there was little attempt to cover the trail that led back to the Pakistan army. By the time 26/11 happened, it was clear in India that Lashkar-e-Taiba had been blessed by the army. In 2009, the embassy in Kabul was attacked again, and in 2010, Indian civilians in Afghanistan are sitting ducks for Pakistan-supported terror.
In the immediate aftermath of 26/11, when Manmohan Singh made the unprecedented request to Pakistan to send its DG-ISI , Shuja Pasha, Kayani torpedoed it, saying “The Indians will be asking me to go next.” In the present context of resumed talks, top Indian officials say Kayani is not particularly interested in exploring any new engagement; for him maintaining tension is more important.
The jury is still out on how far Kayani will go in allowing groups like LeT and HuJI to carry on their activities against India, with ISI support. Pakistan refuses to acknowledge Indian concerns on LeT, saying instead that the more India focuses on LeT, the more difficult things will get. The US and other countries have read out the riot act to Kayani several times on these groups. But as Kayani said, “Pakistan’s long-term national interests would never be sacrificed for someone else’s short-term interests”.
THE TROUBLE WITH TERROR
And yet, nobody possibly knows better than he the intricate connections between these groups and how they’re spawning daily terror in Pakistan itself.
Terrorism is, and will remain, Pakistan’s weak spot, and its encouragement will always be counter-productive . Despite the campaigns against the Pakistan Taliban, the army continues to maintain an ambivalent posture of tolerance towards these groups. If Musharraf was attacked by Jaish-e-Mohammed in 2003, Kayani himself was the target of an assassination plot by Ilyas Kashmiri in May 2009. Even today, HuJI leaders, Kashmiri and Saifullah Akhtar, are operating from South Waziristan and carrying out terror attacks in Punjab with the help of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. But somehow, the Pak army continues to believe these groups can be controlled.
For India, it’s clear that as long as terror groups from Pakistan attack India with help from its military-intelligence complex, it will remain focused on terrorism. With virtually no official engagement between India and the Pakistan army, New Delhi’s in a bizarre situation where Kayani appears to have assumed the role of chief interlocutor for Pakistan with the rest of the world, but not India.
There’s a view that India needs to make a greater public effort to engage the Pakistan army. But the signals are mixed. On the one hand, ISI chief Shuja Pasha’s “dropping in” at the Indian high commissioner, Sharat Sabharwal’s iftaar party, was a potent invite to India. But on the other, the Pakistan army has by and large been reluctant to defreeze relations with its Indian counterparts. India had proposed polo matches between the armies about a year ago, but there was no response from Pakistan.
PLAYING THE AFGHAN CARD
It’s with the Taliban that Kayani is playing a high stakes game. Given that he doesn’t want a regime in Kabul that is ‘unfriendly’ to Islamabad, it follows that he will seek to orchestrate and control reconciliation efforts with the Taliban . Karzai too was doing some “reconciliation” himself, negotiating with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Mullah Omar’s No. 2 in the Quetta Shura (which runs the most powerful arm of the Afghan Taliban), when the ISI “captured” him in Karachi. In the weeks since, Pakistan has captured nine of the 18 members of the Shura. One of the theories doing the rounds is that Kayani didn’t want Karzai to upstage him in negotiating with the Taliban, and the swoop on Baradar was aimed at pre-empting any deal between the Afghan president and the Taliban.
Last week Karzai and Kayani, in reciprocal visits, came to an understanding. Baradar could be handed over to Karzai with an understanding that Pakistan has first dibs at this game. Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani network is Pakistan’s favourite Taliban leader, and ideally, Kayani would like him to be part of the power sharing arrangement in Kabul. But here too, by killing off Sirajuddin’s brother, Kayani has made it clear as to who’s the boss.
Will Kayani deliver al-Qaeda to the US? And at what price? The British are content to play the Pakistan game, but the Americans are yet to be fully convinced. India is out of this one, but has a strong interest in seeing that the Taliban is not part of Kabul with their ideology intact.
HOW LONG WILL HE BE CHIEF?
Kayani has many irons in the fire. But if things go as scheduled , the army chief is set to hang up his gloves in November 2010. Will he? The Obama surge in Afghanistan will be in full bloom and without Pakistani assistance, it is unlikely to work. Kayani has become Washington’s man and to make the same investment in a successor at the height of the battle might be difficult. So they may want to see him stay on.
Pakistan’s politics is notoriously fragile and unlikely to sort itself out, and even if Zardari and Nawaz Sharif stop acting like vicious boys, Kayani has emerged as something of a sheet anchor in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s future relevance hangs on whether Kayani can ‘manage’ to successfully influence the Taliban reconciliation programme in Afghanistan to keep Pakistan in play there.
That will need Kayani’s combined skills as soldier and spy, along with American and British cheerleaders, to pull it off. Kayani’s chief task now is to bring about an agreement among his fellow generals that he should stay on – he’s more inclined to go down this road than take the my-way-or-the- highway approach of Musharraf.
In what is seen as a test case, ISI boss Shuja Pasha was given a year’s extension last week. Zardari has let out that he has offered Kayani a two-year extension as well. If Kayani agrees, does that also give Zardari some space? Will it be greeted with a sense of relief in Islamabad and Washington? Most important , will he be able to build some sort of ‘collegiate consensus’ in favour of his continuity, which would mean his colleagues agreeing to sacrifice their chances?
Many within the Indian establishment believe Kayani may be biding his time before he edges out Zardari and take over as president. But if Kayani does go, who’ll take his place? The name most frequently mentioned is Khalid Shamim Wyne, commander of the Quetta-based 12 Corps, with few ties to extremists, but more experience against India. Others in the running are Mohammed Mustafa Khan, chief of general staff; Nadeem Taj, commander 30 Corps, who preceded Pasha as ISI chief but is considered too close to the Taliban; and Tahir Mehmood, head of 10 Corps.
But for the moment, Kayani-controlled Pakistan is playing a good game with very few cards in hand. India would do well to watch the moves closely.
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