Islamabad Diary: The extent of consensus around a polarising military leader
After The New York Times, followed swiftly by The Washington Post, idly speculated last month that Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was on the way out, chatter in the capital has centred around the role of the army chief.
The consensus, to the extent that there can be a consensus around a polarising military leader, is that Kayani has lost the plot but will leave only if he wants to.
Those who come to bury Kayani always begin by praising him.
One military official said were it not for Kayani, the army as an institution would be on life-support. He compared the early achievements of the army chief to that of former COAS Waheed Kakar. Kakar had gently nudged Ghulam Ishaq Khan out of power and then allowed Benazir Bhutto to take charge after relatively free elections in 1993. Similarly, according to the official, Kayani did not interfere in the 2008 elections and kept a low profile even while mediating the political dispute over the restoration of the judiciary. The official believes the turning point for General Kayani came when he diverged from Kakar’s path and accepted a three-year extension as COAS. Kakar, when offered a similar deal by a civilian government had the good sense to refuse and retire gracefully.
Other close to the general believe his basic problem is one of public relations, not competence. Kayani, they say, was doing fine until the Abbottabad raid of May 2 and journalist Saleem Shahzad’s murder.
The army reaction in both instances failed to keep up with public reaction. Instead of trying to keep the public on its side, the military’s PR machine acted with haughty disdain, refusing to answer basic queries on competence and intentions.
The reason for this, according to one military source, is that the senior leadership has been unhappy with Kayani ever since he accepted the extension to his tenure as army chief. Although outwardly loyal to Kayani and, in keeping with the basic military code, still carrying out his orders, senior military leaders are privately disheartened that their chances at snagging the top slot have been stymied by Kayani. This has apparently led to a sluggishness and apathy at the higher reaches of the army.
The fear now, says the source, is that this lack of morale may seep down and infect the entire military. This would be ironic since it was Kayani himself who is credited for restoring the battered military morale after the Musharraf era. Kayani led the army to a surprisingly successful victory against the militants in Swat but now, according to the source, he may not be able to inspire the troops to similar feats.
A comparison invariably is made to Musharraf, another army chief who was so consumed by politics he forgot basic military strategy. Musharraf, in the view of the army, embarrassed the troops when he sent them into battle in Fata without sufficient preparation. That same mistake, many fear, could be made by General Kayani if an operation in North Waziristan is needed.
Published in The Express Tribune.
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