Ashfaq Kayani: the new man with the baton in Pakistan
Pakistan's president doffed his military uniform Wednesday and handed over a sensitive post.
Islamabad, Pakistan — After 46 years in uniform – including eight as head of state – President Pervez Musharraf has retired from the Pakistani Army. The official step marks a major transformation not only for Mr. Musharraf personally, but for the country's political and military establishments. At the fulcrum between the two powerful institutions will be the new chief of the Army, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.
Just as Musharraf blurred the line between Pakistan's civil and military life, observers say General Kayani will now be expected to reverse that dynamic. By withdrawing to the wings but maintaining ultimate authority, Kayani is likely to recast the Army's role as a less political actor. Some former generals expect him to devise new strategies for dealing with the Taliban fighters who control swaths of western Pakistan.
The success with which Kayani is able to achieve this and the manner in which he supports Musharraf in his new civilian role will be scrutinized from Washington to Waziristan.
"Will the Army be willing to give Musharraf all the political backing he will want? There is a big question mark over this," says Talat Masood, a retired general in the Army, who suggests that Kayani will now try to wash the force clean of the heavy political baggage Musharraf accumulated throughout his eight years of military rule. In recent months, popular frustration with the Army's role in civil life has grown, as have the militants' relentless attacks.
"Kayani has no baggage, he's starting with a clean slate," says Mr. Masood. "That will help him in dealing with what he faces as the new chief, independent of anyone's expectations."
At a ceremony at Army headquarters in Rawalpindi on Wednesday, Musharraf handed Kayani a wooden baton that symbolizes the transfer of control of Pakistan's half-million strong Army and nuclear arsenal. It was the first time in eight years that the military severed – at least on paper – its connection with civilian politics.
"The Army has been my life. It has been my passion. I have loved this Army," he said in the stoic voice of his military persona. "Though this relationship will continue, I won't be in uniform anymore."
Musharraf is now ready to take an oath of office as a civilian president for the next five-year term on Friday, after being cleared of all legal obstacles by his handpicked Supreme Court last week.
Kayani's strong sense of loyalty
Observers say that Kayani is a wise choice for Musharraf's successor. He is the seniormost officer eligible for the post, and he has demonstrated a unique loyalty to the president. But it is a choice laden with consequence: Three civilian rulers have been deposed by their hand-picked Army chiefs in the past, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif whom Musharraf overthrew in 1999.
The Army, however, can be expected to remain loyal to the uniform.
"Kayani is a real professional. I believe he might want to focus on the Army's professional responsibility," says Masood, especially at a time when the country is wrought by internal conflict.
"Musharraf chose him as someone who is loyal and also professionally acceptable to the rest of the Army," says Ikram Sehgal, editor of the Defence Journal. "He has a clean and solid reputation."
But his mettle may be tested now as he finds himself at the epicenter of a power struggle. The military had always been the source of Musharraf's real power throughout his rule, say analysts. Now, cut off from it and thrown into the ring of civilian politics, history suggests that he will need the military to remain loyal if he is to remain as president.
One risk for Musharraf is that other Pakistani politicians may now be able to influence the new Army chief. Pakistani political leaders, especially when caught outside the ruling group, have a history of approaching the chief of the Army to intervene. Such power plays have led to past Army takeovers.
Kayani has served as the military secretary to Benazir Bhutto, one of the leaders of the opposition movement to Musharraf, during her first tenure as prime minister. He was also instrumental in brokering the failed political deal between her and Musharraf earlier this year. But based on his record, experts say, Kayani is unlikely to be swayed by entreaties from Musharraf's opponents.
The Pakistani Army, note former officers, now has the opportunity to focus on the task at hand: fighting an insurgency that is creeping closer to the major cities outside of Pakistan's tribal regions.
Kayani, who met John Negroponte at length during the US deputy secretary of state's visit this month, will now be in charge of the war against Taliban militants, as well as instrumental in combating the guerrillas who are now attacking the cities with suicide bombers.
"Musharraf inherited the situation," says Mr. Sehgal, referring to Pakistan's involvement in the US-backed war on terrorism that followed America's invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. "But Kayani can't afford to toe anyone's line unconditionally," he says. The expectation from within the Army and popular opinion will require the general to restore order in the frontier region – to succeed where Musharraf effectively failed.
Kayani may reconfigure the counter-terrorism strategy, which has produced mixed results under Musharraf. "From some of the statements he's made," says Masood, "it seems he's inclined to using economic and political strategy in the tribal areas," instead of force.
But in a country where the Army's discussion of strategy seldom leaves the confines of the war rooms, the new dynamic between Muhsarraf and his successor, as well as its impact on the popular opposition movement and war against militants, will only become clear with time.
"What General Musharraf is hoping to be a smooth transition," says Zaffar Abbas, an editor at the country's largest English daily, Dawn, "may turn out to be the beginning of a drastic transformation."