The end game in Afghanistan becomes increasingly tortuous, so the world waits with bated breath on who is going to be Pakistan's next army chief. Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has to decide, but his past appointments as army chiefs did not work out for him.
Sharif insists that he has not changed from his previous incarnations as premier. His coterie too remains much the same. Some of them reportedly had a marked influence on him on picking the chief. A poor record coupled with status quo ante does not inspire confidence that the right choice will be made this time too.
General Ashfaq Kayani has had a tumultuous tenure as army chief. Initially he was lauded by the West, who felt he would provide unstinting support to combat the insurgency in Afghanistan, as opposed to the doublespeak many there believed General Pervez Musharraf often indulged in. But Kayani let the international community know that he would decide who and when to take on, no matter how much they prodded him.
India too got a measure of the man after the Mumbai attacks of 26/11, when the then president, Asif Zardari, had reportedly agreed to dispatch the Inter-Services Intelligence's Director General Ahmad Pasha to India, a visit which Kayani is understood to have nixed.
Kayani arguably remains the most powerful man in Pakistan, calling the shots on national security and foreign policy. Western leaders seek him out openly. India too seems to have realized that he is the go-to man. The Times of London reported in 2011 that India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had established direct communication with him, in a reversal of Indian policy. Pakistan's Inter-Services Public Relations first declined to comment, and denied the story only after Singh's office did so. Some good tandem was on display, which only seemed to lend credibility to the story.
But Kayani has not let power go to his head. Wikileaks revealed his disdain for Zardari, but he worked his way around him by bonding with former prime minister, Yousuf Gilani, and letting them both continue in office. Was Pakistan facing greater challenges when General Zia-ul-Haq unseated a previous premier, Zulfiqar Bhutto, or when Musharraf dethroned Sharif when the latter was prime minister earlier, or was the ineptitude of the civilians more then? One could argue no on all counts.
If Kayani can be faulted, it is for other reasons. One, his tacit acceptance of indiscriminate drone strikes. Second, his seeming blind spot for Pasha, who led him into tight corners. Fortunately, he replaced him with a more cautious officer. And third, undermining the army's institutional integrity by accepting a second three-year term in 2010, when a new chief could have been blooded with NATO still fully engaged in Afghanistan.
But that was then. Now no one knows how Afghanistan is going to pan out. Pakistan itself is reeling. The retreating Americans are on edge. Afghan President Hamid Karzai blows hot and cold. India is determined to not let Afghanistan turn against it. Will the Taliban triumph and revert to recidivist ways, or will they learn to comport in relatively moderate fashion? How can Afghanistan be prevented from spawning more 9/11s?
Such then are the issues facing Pakistan's next army chief. Kayani has become seasoned. In facilitating the release of the CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, he exhibited diplomacy. After Bin Laden's killing, he stooped before his own force to save his chair. After the NATO raid on the Pakistani border posts in Salala, he dug in his heels before backing off. Throwing a new man in the deep end at this stage would be fraught with risk, not just for Pakistan, but also the world at large.
Reuters recently quoted a Zardari confidant claiming that the contenders for Kayani's job are nowhere near as patient as him when it comes to the screw-ups of civilian leaders. Zardari for his part ducked and weaved, even decamped abroad, when he faced trouble from the army. Sharif though aspires to be the unquestioned boss.
Power though is serving as a reality check. He has now set up the same National Security Council that he refused to do so on the urging of a previous army chief, Jehangir Karamat. No doubt this took some convincing from Kayani. But it also shows that the two have developed a mutual understanding. It would also be prudent for Sharif not to ignore that Kayani has let democracy run its course.
Sharif's visage and statements reveal the enormous amount of pressure he finds himself under, not just from within Pakistan, but also without. He has seen tough times, but his mettle is going to be tested now as never before. If he is going to pull off the great escape from hell, for Pakistan and for the world, he is better off retaining a general who has dealt with the myriad complexities of the region. A novitiate will naturally have a learning curve. Kayani should be given two years to stabilize the situation. Whether he succeeds or not, he must make way for a new man then.