Pakistan’s Army chief general, Ashfaq Kayani, has announced that he will retire on 29 November. In doing so, he put an end to the rumours running from D.C. to Delhi about the stability of the region.
It is no secret that talk of Afghan settlement and a negotiated pause to the war is contingent on the Pakistan army. Over the last six years as army chief, and previously as ISI Chief and Director-General of Military Operations, General Kayani has been one of the foremost figures in the Afghan War. Western defence chiefs - particularly General Sir David Richards and General Stanley McChrystal - forged extremely close relationships with Kayani. They understood that the region's stability depends on this quiet, chain-smoking general.
It is, therefore, no surprise that there has been much chatter in the West and the East on who will succeed him. There are plenty of contenders: the Pakistan army contains at least half a dozen three star generals who are equally able to take over. The current crop of generals is battle-hardened after a decade of continuous and costly war. In the last six years, the majority of Pakistan army staff officers have been blooded along the Afghan border, fighting Baluch and Taliban insurgents. Generals have often led the battle themselves, and a couple of two-star and three-star generals have been killed on the front line. The SWAT valley operations were a resounding success, and NATO/ISAF figures were at pains to stress that the Pakistan army is fundamental to any coalition effort in Afghanistan. General Haroon Aslam, the front runner to succeed Kayani, led troops in the SWAT valley. General Tariq Khan led the battle personally in Bjur Agency. General Masood Aslam was the strategist behind the victory in South Waziristan and in outwitting Mangal Bagh Afridi in the Khyber Valley.
Western minds, though, have turned to peace not war. General Sir David Richards' Musa Qala peace deal in 2007 can now be seen as a stroke of genius that was far too forward-thinking for the dim-witted foreign policy teams of Tony Blair and the Americans, who failed to see its wisdom. General Richards had observed and been in contact with general Kayani (and Musharaf) about the viability of ceasefires and a political settlement with the Taliban. There was an opportunity to broker a settlement while these men were in post and acting in concert. Islamabad regarded General Richards as the most trusted Western official, while General Kayani was instrumental in calming the bad blood between the Americans and Pakistanis. Now, though, as Kayani follows Richards into retirement, it seems that the Taliban are not interested in talking to NATO on favourable terms.
Richards’s retirement is cause to lament; but Kayani's retirement is cause to worry. The Pakistan army is uneasy about the Afghan endgame. Its relationships with the governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan are tense. Afghanistan has seen sharp divisions on military and civilian policies even within NATO countries – witness Sherard Cowper-Coles and several Danish diplomats on the subject over the last ten years. However, in Pakistan, the army holds all the trump cards because civilian political leaders simply do not have the stomach to fight the Taliban menace. They have been too timid in approaching a political settlement, and the courts and the much-vaunted chief justice have not been able to pass one verdict on terror cases. It has fallen to the army to do what the executive and judiciary have failed to carry out. Provincial and federal authorities did very little to alleviate the suffering of the displaced after the military campaigns in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan. And in Karachi, as violence rages again, the inept civilian government requests on a daily basis that the army declare martial law in the city. General Kayani has resisted all calls by the civilian leaders to apply martial law in Karachi, and has also held off political pressure to intervene in North Waziristan. There is apprehension about what his successors might do.
The Pakistan army remains the strongest and most capable fighting force embedded on both sides of the Durand Line. While Western armies look for the exit door next, the Pakistan army will face threats at home and abroad for the foreseeable future.