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The unusual reign of Gen Kayani


By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, October 18, 2013


However controversial his reign as the chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Kayani owed his elevation and particularly his second tenure to an overwhelming desire that former Obama adviser Bruce Riedel made an indirect reference to when discussing the difficulties the United States faced in dealing with Pakistan in his absorbing book The Deadly Embrace.

On page 21, Riedel acknowledges candidly that “Washington worked behind scenes” to secure a second term for Gen Kayani.

This desire stemmed from the cordial notes two Pakistani and three American generals (including David Petraeus and Admiral Mike Mullen) had struck aboard Abraham Lincoln, the US warship in the Indian Ocean some time in July 2008.

All five of them, including Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, sat across the table for several hours to try to understand each other’s view points on the complex nature of insurgencies that the US-led ISAF troops faced in Afghanistan, and the Pakistani army confronted in its northwestern territories bordering Afghanistan. With this began the honeymoon between Kayani and the American duo of General David Petraeus, then Centcom chief, and Mullen, the chairman of joints chiefs of staff.

Gen Kayani had established an excellent rapport with Petraeus and Mullen. On an operational level, both the armies appeared to be working in tandem.

This bonhomie bore fruition when, in mid-December 2009, Admiral Mullen told US journalists accompanying him he “couldn’t give Pakistani Army anything but an ‘A’” for how they’ve conducted their battle so far” in Swat and Waziristan. There was a context to it. Together with Kayani, Mullen had spent several hours flying over the 3,000 meter high mountains and deep gorges in the Swat region.

So impressed was Mullen that before leaving Islamabad he requested Kayani to take Gen Stanely McChrystel, then the US commander in chief in Afghanistan, on the same tour so “Stanely can get a sense of how and what you need to fight in such a difficult terrain.” McChrystal followed the advice a few days later.

For General Kayani, this was a hard-earned  praise from the top man of  the American  establishment  that had been relentlessly pushing  Pakistan to a) crack down on the terrorist sanctuaries in North Waziristan and b) force Afghan Taliban – Mullah Omar, as well as  the militant Haqqani group – into reconciliation.

But contrary to the top-level military to military cooperation, both the ISI and the CIA were working at cross purposes – driven by conflicting visions on the way forward. The US went all out to map out Pakistan’s religio-militant landscape through private security contractors and thus attempting to take on clandestine relations between the Pakistani security establishment and some of the networks such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad.

The ISI, on the other hand, remained stuck in its skewed desire of seeing the Americans out of Afghanistan, battered and bruised. It is difficult to conjecture as to what extent Kayani contributed to this dichotomy in words and actions, but it is quite obvious it was happening under his nose because after all he never minced words when asked about his views on India or its proximity to a hostile Afghan establishment led by President Hamid Karzai.

Regardless of the merits or otherwise of this approach, Kayani spared no opportunity in telling US and NATO interlocutors that Pakistan had to  balance the US-NATO short term interests – containing and eliminating the insurgency – with its own long-term objectives – securing the western borderlands without offending the tribes that straddle this region.

General Kayani also brushed aside the talk of Pakistan seeking a strategic depth policy in Afghanistan.  “This certainly does not imply controlling Afghanistan. If Afghanistan is peaceful, stable and friendly we have our strategic depth because our western border is secure.”

Based on some personal insights, one can say that irrespective of the controversies surrounding his wheeling dealing brother, Gen Kayani’s reign as army chief stands out as unusual, in several ways.

Firstly, he nudged the military away from political management, couching all his talk and actions in the constitution. He would repeatedly recourse to “our respective roles as laid out in the constitution.”

Secondly, he strove hard, in his wisdom, to keep Pakistan relevant in the Afghanistan process – though it is an altogether different matter that the ISI and the hardliners within the GHQ kept undermining any noble intentions Kayani might have had. The means and the agency deployed have kept Pakistan relevant in the Afghan reconciliation,  but at the cost of its image. For years, the country denied possession of or contact with Taliban leaders, but has meanwhile released 33 top and mid-level leaders, most of whom still roam streets of Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi.

Thirdly, Kayani made a very serious effort – unlike his predecessor – to take the garrison along, regularly visiting units and outposts in the north and the northwest to boost up troops embroiled in war on their own soil for years. His reaction to the Salala incident in November 2011 and the explanations he gave us bore testimony to his position vis a vis the soldier, many of whom were clueless and demoralized for a war they were not sure if they were to fight, and against whom.

Fourthly, Kayani remained focused on India and tried to leverage his rapport with Petreaus and Mullen to off-set the advantage India enjoyed in the India-Afghanistan-America matrix. This, he explained on occasions, constituted the core of Pakistan’s strategic framework.

“I explained to NATO leaders in Brussels (during a late January security conference in 2010) that understanding Pakistan’s strategic framework would help them understand  the situation in a much better way.”

Before his presentation in Brussels, Kayani had made a similar forceful case before the US secretary of defense Robert Gates at the GHQ.

“If you care about India getting upset, care about us as well. You have to balance the concern for India with concern for our interests as well,” was Kayani’s blunt message to Gates.

Fifth, Gen Kayani successfully singled out the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as the internal enemy that “wants to impose its distorted views on Pakistan.”

The dilly-dallying on the issue of talks with the TTP – despite the All Parties Conference (APC) – probably also stems from General Kayani’s view on the group which he has been categorically refusing to engage in talks. However, he explained on many occasion, it’s the prerogative of the civilian government to talk or otherwise. We will simply follow, he maintained.

Kayani’s position on the TTP also dovetailed with the security establishment’s long-held brief on the TTP as an “externally-sponsored terrorist outfit… a handiwork of the US CIA in conjunction with the Indian RAW – both of whom   consider the Pakistani army and the ISI as the major obstacle in their quest for regional hegemony”.

For the first time, General Kayani spelt out the “enemy within” as the real internal threat, but the army establishment’s collective view prevented a real divorce on outfits such as LeT, the Jaish, and the Haqqani Network.

This selective approach also practically defeated the stated policy of elimination of Al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Waziristan because both lived under the protection of the Haqqanis.

This ambivalence on relations with militants of various shades (which Hilary Clinton had once acknowledged as “legitimate hedging”) also finally fractured the bonhomie between Pakistani and US generals, when Admiral Mullen, a week before his retirement, burst into an anti-ISI tirade by declaring the Haqqani Network as the “veritable arm of the ISI.”

This judgment sits deep within the US-India-Afghanistan combine and will be hard to displace without demonstrable and discernible actions. This probably also reflects the confusion within the security establishment as to who the real enemy of Pakistan is – terrorist and jihadist networks per say or their ideology that is creeping like an approaching monster.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk