Who will be calling the shots in Pakistan?

As the newly-elected representatives of the opposition parties and their unelected leaders, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, position themselves to take over power in Pakistan’s National Assembly. They face the dwindling power of President Pervez Musharraf, weakened by the loss of his supporting party, the Pakistan Muslim League Q, and all his other camp followers, many of whom are seeking to hitch their wagons to the Pakistan Peoples’ Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto or Sharif’s PML-N. Meanwhile the most powerful man in Pakistan, the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, bides his time in the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi. A major concern of his is the undue attention given to the army by the militant Islamists whom Musharraf had riled and then been unable to control. It was Kayani’s public separation from Musharraf in the days leading up to the February 18 elections that spelt doom for Musharraf and his party. By forbidding the army from contacts with all politicians, including Musharraf, and dissociating it from the running of the elections, Kayani made the army neutral. In other words, it would not participate in intimidation of the electorate nor condone blatant vote rigging. That allowed the opposition parties to win back their rightful quota of power in the elections. Now, Sharif is calling for Musharraf to resign and the Western powers are trying to find ways of keeping him on, with Zardari and the PPP hedging their bets for fear of “rocking the boat”. That was the telling phrase used by PPP Prime Minister-in-waiting, Amin Fahim, yesterday. Attention shifts to the role of the army chief. Kayani’s actions and inaction both will mean a lot in the days ahead, especially in signaling a shift in relative power between the President and the army chief.

It reminds me of the events surrounding Pakistan’s first national Martial Law in 1958 when President Iskander Mirza imposed Martial Law but appointed the army chief General Ayub Khan to run it. Mirza’s plan was to ease out Ayub and replace him with another chief. Within days, it was becoming evident to observers in the media and the diplomatic corps that the duumvirate would not last. Elie Abel of The New York Times recounted how he detected a palpable change in the atmosphere of the room when Ayub entered the room for a joint interview with Mirza conducted by Abel and Watson Sims of the Associated Press on 9 October in Karachi. ‘It was immediately clear who was in charge,’ said Sims. Within days Ayub was to overthrow Mirza and take over as President. (I cover these events in detail in my forthcoming book Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within; April 2008, Oxford University Press.)

The same sort of shadow play is being conducted between the Army House where Musharraf lives (instead of the Presidency in Islamabad) and its rightful occupant, the new army chief, Kayani. While technically Musharraf can still replace the army chief, he may have run out of time. The extent of Kayani’s unilateral declaration of independence from his former boss will become evident in the next few weeks as he shifts some of his principal aides at army headquarters. The first to go may be his Director General Military Intelligence, Major General Nadeem Ijaz Ahmed, reportedly a relative of Musharraf. Next will likely be the Director General, Inter Services Intelligence, Lt. General Nadeem Taj, a former Military Secretary to Musharraf. The DG ISI normally reports to the Prime Minister and the new Prime Minister will want his own person in that slot and most likely will accept Kayani’s choice. Another key position that Kayani will need to fill with a new person who owes his loyalty to him and not to Musharraf is the Corps Commander X Corps in Rawalpindi that controls the key 111 Brigade. This brigade is the one that guards all the key residences of the President, Prime Minister, and other sensitive installations in the capital area and Rawalpindi. It is also the one that undertakes all the operational aspects of a coup d’etat. At GHQ, he will be looking to the Chief of General Staff’s slot also for someone of his own choice, replacing Lt. General Salahuddin Satti, who once commanded X Corps under Musharraf. Satti commanded 111 Brigade when Sharif was overthrown in October 1999. How quickly Kayani makes his new appointments and consolidates his own position in command of the army will indicate the shift of power from Musharraf to the army chief. His window of opportunity is narrow: he can do it now, while Musharraf is still reeling from the shock of the elections and before the new Prime Minister has had a chance to establish his control over government.

A thoughtful man, not given to impetuous behavior, Kayani will be weighing these matters before taking action in the weeks ahead. Watch those posting orders from GHQ!