Goodbye General Kayani
Would Change of Command Mean a Paradigm Shift?
By Dr Qaisar Abbas
Changing of the guard in Pakistan army has always been seen with curiosity by world powers as the institution has been a major power broker in the country. As the new Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif takes over, the outgoing General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, also known as the “silent observer,” completes his long tenure with mixed legacies.
His personal traits as a keen listener, keeping the media at a distance and a no-nonsense professional, also brought him the reputation of a pragmatic but lukewarm military leader at the same time.
As the first army chief born after independence, he was different from his predecessors in many ways. His first task after assuming leadership was to pull back the serving army officers from civil positions. It was a strong signal that he believed in the separation of military and civil institutions.
General Kayani’s era, however, witnessed some of the lowest points in the military history of Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto’s murder was the first crisis during his leadership that shook the whole nation and left a deep scar on his reputation although all fingers were pointed toward his friend President Musharraf.
Although it’s an open secret that the army has been nesting some militants under its wings, it became intensely embarrassing for the institution when the US Special Forces sneaking in from Afghanistan captured and killed Osama bin Laden right under the shadows of the army training camp in Abbottabad in 2011.
The incident brought the top military brass to the parliament to explain the humiliating incident and the then ISI chief offered his resignation to the elected representatives. Although a normal procedure in other democratic countries, it was totally unexpected in Pakistan.
Throughout his tenure of 6 years as army chief, he not only declared many times that he believed in strengthening democracy in the country but also proved that he was sincere in working with the democratically elected government.
To his credit, he allowed the elected party to complete its political term for the first time in the history of Pakistan besides giving them a hard time on several occasions to prove that the armed forces were still power brokers in the country.
It was also during Kayani’s leadership that the army took a ninety degree turn in shifting the strategic focus from being India-centric to terrorism-centered. This significant paradigm shift was a pragmatic change in the region realizing the new threat from terrorism which was now directly challenging the army on several fronts.
Practically, the army as an institution, despite its successful operation in the Swat valley in ousting militants, never took strong measures to challenge terrorism seriously and instead continued the failed strategy of supporting some militant groups while opposing others.
This strategic distinction between good and bad militants exposed its dualistic and hypocritical strategy to resolving terrorism and invited criticism from world powers who were interested in collaborating with the armed forces in breaking the militants’ power.
Kayani also didn’t try to resolve the Baluchistan issue when he was in full control of the army as its chief and continued the old policy of handling it as a military issue rather than a political crisis.
Besides his support to civil authorities, the state as a whole never developed a vision on how to tackle terrorism and militancy. The clear disagreement between the army and the civil government on terrorism has been the main hurdle in resolving the monumental crisis of violence and militancy.
The new army chief General Raheel Sharif will have to face some continuing and some new challenges. The drone issue, considered highly crucial for the Nawaz government who would like to end American strikes, could become a thorny source of tension between the civil and military leadership.
There will be a lot on his plate including the Baluchistan issue, dealing with militants, the army’s role in Afghanistan after the NATO forces leave next year, the Indian involvement in Afghanistan and the never-ending Kashmir issue.
We have to wait and see if this transition in military leadership will lead to a new era of civil-military collaboration or the new chief will prove a new guard in the old outfit.
Although General Kayani terribly failed to improve his institution’s image, he left an incredible legacy of recognizing and respecting the democratic process in the country unlike his predecessors. We hope the legacy continues.
(Dr Qaisar Abbas is a free-lance journalist, university administrator and media consultant. With a doctorate from University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has been teaching mass communication at several American Universities. He is also an Urdu poet with a published anthology of his poems)