New York : As Pakistan’s instability grows and President Pervez Musharraf faces intensifying political problems, the US is pinning hopes on the new army chief to emerge as a force for stability in the country.
Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who took command of the army in late November from Musharraf, has become an increasingly important figure to the Bush administration, but current and former US government officials are yet unsure if he can play a decisive role in the troubled country, The New York Times reported Monday.
Over time, as Kayani gains firmer control of the army that wields enormous influence in Pakistan, he is likely to become more powerful than even Musharraf, whose protégé he has been, the influential US daily surmised.
Kayani’s loyalties to Musharraf – and skills – are likely to be tested since the two political parties opposed to the president have vowed to launch nationwide protests if Musharraf’s party wins parliamentary elections scheduled Feb 18.
What Kayani decides then will determine who rules Pakistan. Pakistani and American analysts predict that he will not back Musharraf if the latter’s actions are viewed as damaging the army.
“He’s loyal to Musharraf to the point where Musharraf is a liability and no longer an asset to the corporate body of the Pakistani military,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and White House official, told the Times.
Kayani has so far impressed US military and intelligence officials as a professional, pro-Western moderate with few political ambitions. But the elevation to army chief has been known to change Pakistani officers – Musharraf is a recent example.
Kayani’s personal views are difficult to discern, as he has not been granting interviews to the media.
American military officials have praised Kayani’s step declaring 2008 the ‘year of the soldier’ to improve the weakening morale of the Pakistani army.
Kayani’s early political moves as commander were interpreted as attempts to ease tensions between the government and political parties. After Benazir Bhutto’s assassination Dec 27, he sent soldiers to place a wreath on her grave and privately met her husband.
On Thursday, Kayani led the first meeting of Pakistan’s corps commanders – the dozen generals who dominate the military. Musharraf did not attend the meeting for the first time in eight years.
During the meeting, Kayani stressed unity, the Times reports.
“It is the harmonisation of socio-political, administrative and military strategies that will usher an environment of peace and stability in the long term,” the Pakistani state-run news media quoted Kayani as saying. “Ultimately, it is the will of the people and their support that is decisive.”
The son of a junior officer in the Pakistani army, Kayani is from Jhelum, a region known for producing Pakistani generals. He attended military schools and is seen as loyal to the army as an institution above all else. His career has included repeated military education in the US.
Kayani’s appointment was popular among army officers, some of whom believe the Pakistani army should withdraw from politics, as it has intermittently in the past, the Times said.
Kayani has so far declined to ally himself with any political group. As a junior officer, he briefly served as a military aide to Bhutto during her first term as prime minister in the late 1980s, but has stayed away from politicians since then.
“Kayani throughout his career has shown little in the way of political inclination,” a senior American military official who has worked with him told the Times.
The military official predicted that the Pakistani army would perform better under Kayani than under Musharraf, who was often distracted by politics while serving as both president and army chief.
But any progress Kayani achieves militarily could be undermined by continuing political turmoil, according to Pakistani analysts. To end that instability, he might have to strike a “grand bargain” with Pakistan’s civilian political parties that would end the army’s dominance.
“If Kayani, in a way, tries to promote democracy and becomes the protector of democracy,” said Talat Masood, the Pakistani political analyst and retired general, “then I think Pakistan has a chance.”