In an historic moment this weekend, Pakistan’s two-term army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani announced that he would retire at the end of November after six years at the helm. An official later stated that Kayani would not seek any other job after retirement, putting an end to speculation in Pakistan that Kayani may stay on in another perhaps more powerful role. This marks a necessary transition in the slow return to the supremacy of the elected civilian government over the military that has dominated decision making in Pakistan for the past thirteen plus years, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s first government was overthrown by a coup on behalf of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. But the road ahead for Pakistan’s political evolution remains difficult, as stunted civilian institutions struggle to assert themselves in the face not only of lingering military power, but also a massive internal militancy and potentially hot borders on both Pakistan’s East (with India) and West (with Afghanistan). While this is a start, a number of other transitions are needed for Pakistan to regain its stability. Kayani may be gone, but military influence in the country remains powerful. His successor as army chief would do well to keep it on a downward trajectory.
Kayani, a graduate of the command and staff college at Fort Leavenworth, was the first head of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate to become army chief. He is also the last army chief to have fought in a full-fledged war, with perennial rival India in 1971. His U.S. training often led U.S. leaders to mistakenly assume that he was “pro-American,” most notably former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who made 26 visits to Pakistan to with meet Kayani during his tenure as chairman. Mullen also penned an over-the-top paen to Kayani forTIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” issue in 2009, calling Kayani “a man with a plan.” However, Mullen ended that relationship in 2011 on Capitol Hill with a scathing attack that described the anti-U.S. and pro-Taliban Haqqani Network as a “veritable arm of the ISI.” Mullen, like others, had made the mistake of assuming that Kayani would bury his strong nationalism in favor of meeting U.S. goals in the region, even after Kayani had made it clear that he did not think the United States had a clearly defined strategy for Afghanistan or the region and hedged his bets accordingly.
At home, Kayani tried to act as a political umpire between often-warring political parties, resisting the temptation to intercede or take over when they got into seemingly intractable feuds. In 2009, for instance, he prevented a major crisis during the Pakistan Peoples Party government of then-President Asif Ali Zardari when then-opposition leader Sharif led a “long march” into Islamabad to restore the ousted chief justice, admitting to a visitor: “I could have taken over then but did not.” Kayani stayed his hand for six years, but some powerful negatives have also marked his two-term stint.
Within the army itself, Kayani fostered unhappiness, especially among the younger officers, when he accepted a second three-year term from Zardari in 2010. The gap between him and his senior officers also widened. His newestcorps commanders are some 17 courses junior to him at the Pakistan Military Academy, a veritable lifetime in military circles. And the disastrous 2011 killing of two Pakistani civilians by Raymond Davis in Lahore, followed by the U.S. raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, the attack on the Pakistani border post at Salala, and the subsequent closing of the ground line of communications for the coalition in Afghanistan tarnished Kayani’s tenure. He had to face angry young officers at the National Defence University after the Abbottabad raid, and some senior officers were critical of his management style, saying that he reflected a paradoxical desire to be close but to retain a cool aloofness. As a result, Kayani kept his cards very close to his chest and relied on a handful of key colleagues to keep him informed of developments inside the army.
During this time, the ISI also came under severe criticism with accusations that it had overstepped legal boundaries in its pursuit of critics, including journalist Saleem Shahzad who was killed after publishing critical articles of the military’s dealings with militants. Separately, Kayani announced an inquiry, but did not share the results of the investigation, into the videotaped killings of unarmed, bound, and blindfolded captives during the counter militancy campaign in Swat.
But for all of the criticism, the ISI appeared to gain greater strength during Kayani’s term as army chief. Instead of becoming a policy-neutral intelligence agency, it came to be more of a policymaking body. If the post-Kayani transition is to take hold, the role of the ISI will need to be re-examined and reduced, and its relationship as a multi-service institution (rather than as a fief of the army alone) should be reshaped with civilian authorities. Sharif must take the lead in selecting the head of the ISI and also demand regular intelligence briefings, while resisting the urge to ask for policy advice or implementation. He must also regain control of a Defence Ministry that is heavily dominated by retired military officers. The challenge for Sharif will be to find capable civilians, starting with a full-time Defence Minister, who can make defense-related decisions, rather than trying to manage the ministry himself.
Kayani made history by averting a coup and supporting the return of civilian rule. Sharif could make history by regaining control of the country’s polity. He must begin by exercising his constitutional prerogative to select the next Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and the head of Pakistan’s army. He has a choice among capable three-stars, one of whom will have to provide strong and inspiring leadership for an army that has suffered the ravages of continuous insurgency and militancy for over a decade.
Shuja Nawaz is the Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., and is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within