Respected at home and abroad, Pakistan’s powerful army chief gets 3 more years

By Chris Brummitt, AP
Friday, July 23, 2010

Pakistan’s respected army chief to stay on

ISLAMABAD — The decision to extend the term of army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani leaves a respected soldier at the helm of Pakistan’s most powerful institution just as the U.S. looks for a reliable partner in the war in against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Kayani, 58, is known to be popular among U.S. and NATO generals who have visited him regularly since he took the top job in 2007, trying to enlist his help in battling militants along the country’s border with Afghanistan.

At home, he is praised as a professional solider who has led successful campaigns against extremists in the frontier region, steered the army away from politics after a divisive period of military-backed rule and improved the morale and welfare of the nearly 600,000-strong force.

The announcement late Thursday of a three-year extension in his term was mostly welcomed on Friday, with many saying they agreed with the government’s stated reason that the country needed continuity given the ongoing fight against extremism.

Critics were concerned it represented an unnecessary concentration of power in the hands of a single solider given the country’s history of military rulers. The extension begins in November, when his current three-year term ends, meaning Kayani will be in the job when elections are next scheduled for 2013.

The chain-smoking, golf-playing general is a man of few words and credited with a sharp mind. He graduated from two of America’s most prestigious military academies, Fort Benning and Fort Leavenworth, and once the headed the country’s main spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.

“He talks less and thinks more,” said retired Brig. Mahmood Shah. “He is known to be a thinking general.”

The military has held power for around half of the 63 years since Pakistan won independence. It still exerts enormous political influence, so Kayani’s dealings with the country’s democratically elected leaders have also come under scrutiny. On that front, he has also won measured praise.

But in a sign of the power the army still has, most analysts assumed the extension followed a demand by Kayani to stay on — rather than an independent decision by the civilian leadership to keep him in his post. The army chief is appointed by the prime minister.

“Kayani is a highly professional solider who understands the international dynamics of the region. He has been supportive of democracy by and large and has distanced himself from the political side,” said Talat Masood, a former general. “He still wields political power, but he has been discreet in this regard.”

The United States has praised his commitment to the fight against militants and given the army millions of dollars in aid. Under his watch, Pakistan’s army has waged its most intense operations ever in the Swat Valley and in several parts of the tribally administered regions bordering Afghanistan.

Yet, American officials have made it clear they would like to see aggressive action taken against Taliban militants like the al-Qaida-allied Haqqani network that is based in Pakistan but fights mostly in Afghanistan. Analysts say Pakistan considers tackling that group as not in its strategic interest because it will likely need it to project influence in Afghanistan when the Americans withdraw.

Despite the largely upbeat portrayal of Pakistan’s military by NATO and U.S. officials, suspicions remain. Western and Afghan officials still maintain that Pakistan effectively harbor Afghan Taliban leaders including Mullah Omar. During Kayani’s tenure as army chief, Afghanistan has accused ISI, which falls under the army, of involvement in terrorist attacks on Afghan soil.

While ordering troops into the northwest of Pakistan to fight Muslim extremists, Kayani has also stressed the need for army to remain prepared for what it sees as the country’s primary enemy, nuclear-armed India on its eastern flank. This year, he oversaw major military exercises aimed at countering the threat of conventional war with India.

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