The cult of Kayani: Chronicles in camouflage

One can forgive Kayani if he decides to finally familiarize himself with the snooze button on his alarm clock today.

Wajahat S Khan/gibran Peshimam November 29, 2013
One can forgive Kayani if he decides to finally familiarize himself with the snooze button on his alarm clock today. PHOTO: ISPR FOR THE EXPRESS TRIBUNE

One can forgive Ashfaq Parvez Kayani if he decides to finally familiarize himself with the snooze button on his alarm clock today.

By this evening, the 14th commander of the Pakistan Army will hang up boots that have racked up a mileage of no less than 42 years, two months and 30 days – or 15,432 days to be precise, – in a journey that would have made Odysseus himself shudder.

Having begun as a cadet in PMA Kakul on 14 November, 1969, the boy from the obscure village of Mangot, Tehsil Gujar Khan, District Rawalpindi, will retire after having collected a lot of brass and making it to the very top office in General Headquarters, commanding the sixth largest fighting force on Earth for six action-packed years – the longest such tenure in Pakistan without having added ‘President’ to his title.

It has been a grueling journey, and it has taken its toll on Kayani, as it would on any man. Of the plethora of the glittering medals and awards he wears proudly today, none tell a more compelling and meaningful story than the one he wears unwittingly: the ever-expanding dark circles under his eyes. Since his rise to the higher echelons of the Pakistan Army, Kayani is said to have slept only four hours a night on average, resorting to an hour-long power nap in the middle of the day to recharge if necessary. His Gold Leafs, which he caps with a special filter, start from the left and are extinguished with the right hand. Maybe that’s why Kayani likes broad-spectrum durations, and resolute finishes. But his salute is less crisper than it was six-years ago. The nicotine-abuse could be a part of it. But his concentration, according to those who gauge it often, surpasses that of most of the younger men in the room.

Much is spoken of the dizzying power and authority that comes with holding the office of Chief of Army Staff or of Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence. Last year, Forbes ranked him as the “28th most powerful man” on the planet.

But such titles distract from a more sobering reality: That baton he accepted from his predecessor has never in history been heavier.

Less, if anything, is said about the pressure and hazards of commanding an institution that has, among other things, been front-and-centre in a regional conflict so big that even the world’s sole superpower cannot tame it; so potent that it has claimed over 40,000 lives in Pakistan alone and counting; so complex that it morphs seamlessly between military and political, between conventional warfare and insurgency; so treacherous that your closest friend is often your biggest foe, and your biggest foe your once-closest friend.

And yet everyone - your allies your enemies, your countrymen, your fellow soldiers - looks to you for blame, but never to express gratitude. Yes, it comes with the turf, but this turf has never been more laden with peril.

Kayani will have learnt much from his years in the service. When Lieutenant Kayani was commissioned, on August 29, 1971, the moral and standing of the army was plummeting in the face of the events of East Pakistan and would soon hit rock bottom with its separation. He was probably still being ragged as a newcomer in the 5 Baloch Regiment when 90,000 of his Army’s finest laid down their arms. The debacle was not dissimilar when General Kayani took over the force on November 29, 2007, as a flailing Pervez Musharraf desperately tried to cling to power in the face of a popular uprising against him and indeed his institution. The man started life as a soldier in the midst of an existential crisis for Pakistan: he ends his soldiering in a similar battle space.

But unlike the post-1971 recovery, the Pakistan Army under Kayani has worked to become less of a threat to a fledgling democratic order rather than working towards regaining that ignoble mantle. Yet nothing in Kayani’s service history suggests that he ought to have been oriented that way. When he was first commissioned into the Army, the country was under its first bout of military rule – with the less-than-ideal Gen. Yahya Khan in the driver’s seat. His schooling before that as a young cadet, from Military College in Jhelum, was during the height of Gen Ayub Khan’s power in the 60s. Kayani was schooled at a time soldiers ruled everything and there had never even been proper general elections in the country. Yet, he moved the army away from direct political interventionism to a low-profile public footprint, and oversaw not one but two relatively free and fair general elections.

Perhaps that’s because Kayani would have seen a botched “return of democracy” twice. First, as the young gun in his parent unit, it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in 1971-72, which ended in destabilisation and then a coup in 1977; then the 1988-1999 turbulence now known as the decade of democracy. The latter he would have seen up close and personal as Deputy Military Secretary to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in her first government.

But the democracy debate probably started much earlier for Kayani. After graduating from Pakistan Military Academy Kakul, Kayani was inducted into one of the older, more prestigious regiments – reinforcing pride and ambition, training officers to believe they are the best of the best. His period of service would see at least two other direct interventions by an Army chief – 1977 by Gen. Ziaul Haq, when Kayani was a captain and an Instructor Class “C” at School of Infantry and Tactics, Quetta, and then in 1999 by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, when Kayani was a Major-General and posted as General Officer Commanding, 12 Division, Murree – not far from the flak that was still falling from Kargil, and would eventually be felt in Islamabad. He would see Bhutto hang in 1979 from the far lens of Fort Benning, in Georgia, and see Pakistan win the last battle of the Cold War in 1987 from the academic range of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Thus, he would understand America’s way and vision. For a Pakistani general, that would be a weapon, as well as a tool.


By the time he was in a position to oversee the third period of democratization in Pakistan in 2008, Kayani was steeped in a culture wherein “President General” was not just a very distant possibility, but a stark reality – and perhaps even a foregone conclusion – while elections were an intermittent exercise in manipulation.

Yet, his legacy is so different. Maybe it’s his humble roots: The son of a Junior Commissioned Officer, Kayani didn’t grow up in a general’s mansion or on a zamindar’s farm like many others of his generation. Perhaps that is why the general impression of regular Pakistanis mattered to this general of arms, for insiders admit that Kayani was almost paranoid about the public’s opinion, less for his office and more about his army. But years later, it seems democracy has never been stronger, but Kayani has only partially repaired the damaged reputation that Musharraf’s dictatorial chiefdom inflicted on Pakistan’s most important institution.

“Change has to be measured for sustainability before it is judged for acceptability,” he tells The Express Tribune on being asked about the charge of not having done enough. “I would rather change things by 10 per cent, if they are sustainable and acceptable, rather than change things by 80 per cent, where they will not be sustainable, nor acceptable.”

And his record shows just that. Less has always been more with Kayani.

For the first time in the country’s history, we saw one directly-elected civilian government complete its term and hand over power to the next in another even more credible general election. Even his most critical detractors will concede that Kayani had a lot to do with that – if nothing else then by not having much to do with it.

There are certainly many red marks on his record: The deadly and increasing insurgency at home that has inflicted damage beyond the gains any strategic assets may provide; the murky drone doctrine that still allows the CIA to roar over the tribal belt; the still missing persons in Balochistan and now elsewhere, too. And who can forget Osama in Abbottabad and the militants’ storming of GHQ and PNS Mehran?

Yet, unlike most of his flamboyant and often unreserved predecessors, he has most often taken up the role of a backseat firefighter to earn his brass, and continued in the same vein when he had collected all four stars on his collar.

As a two-star Major-General, he was the man in the spotlight as the Director-General of Military Operations when India and Pakistan were on the verge of war in December 2001 after an attack on the Indian Parliament in Delhi. He is said to have played a big part in defusing tensions as the two nuclear-powered countries teetered perilously on the brink of a potentially disastrous war.

As the three-star commander of the all-important X Corps in Rawalpindi, he was entrusted by the then army chief and president Pervez Musharraf himself with the internal inquiry into the failed assassination attempts on him – an investigation that had footprints leading into the army’s own house, and which could have easily blown up into something greater.

Later, as the head of Pakistan’s most powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, Kayani helped broker the deal that would bring Benazir Bhutto, and later Nawaz Sharif, and hence credible democracy, back to Pakistan in 2007.

By the time he was army chief with four stars on his collar, he had more work to do aside from keeping the military out of the elections: He helped ensure that President Musharraf’s ouster from office was as smooth as possible – which was important for a struggling system already plagued by a lack of clarity and stability. He ‘made the call’ when the two principal political forces in the country – PPP and PML-N – were on a collision course as the judicial movement peaked in 2009.

When Kayani got his widely-criticised three-year extension in 2010, it would have had a lot to do with these capabilities. Not simply the arm-twisting that most cited.

Like any good soldier, Kayani had instinct. He knew when to act. It was under him that the Pakistan Army tried to steer away from a narrative that many had criticized it for peddling for so long– that extremists were Pakistan’s friends and assets. Under him the army launched Rah-e-Raast and then Rah-e-Nijaat in 2009 – successful operations in Malakand and South Waziristan against militants. He became the first soldier to call internal extremism and terrorism Pakistan’s biggest threat, and democracy Pakistan’s only shot at progress. And he said to his own troops before he said it to the world.

And these are just the stories of success that relate to the bigger headlines – it doesn’t count the unreasonable phone calls from Washington, hard line discontent from Pindi, unrealistic populism from Islamabad.

Villain or hero, repressor or liberator, flaming democrat or silent dictator, Kayani’s is a job not many would, or could, handle with as much poise. He is described widely by now done-to-death tags such as “chain smoker,” “silent,” and “a professional soldier” – but there is so much more to the man than cigarettes and introversion.

For one, when he hands over the baton on the 29th to his COAS-select Raheel Sharif, rest assured that it will be a lot lighter than the one he inherited.

Much will be going through his mind today as he punches out from the office, and flips the light switches for the last time in his chambers. It will take a while for it to settle in. What will be going through his mind on the drive home? Maybe he can work on his golf handicap of 12, perhaps take a long vacation with his two children Sarosh and Zara and grandson Shahmeer; or perhaps, for now, he can stop on the way home to buy a bouquet of flowers for Begum Zahida, his wife of 33 years who has stood by him through so much: ‘Thank you for everything’, he should say. ‘And by the way, do you know what a snooze button is?’

Kayani moments

The highs:

5) Averting war with India

He was DG Military Operations when India and Pakistan were on the verge of war in December 2001 after an attack on the Indian Parliament in Delhi. He is said to have played a big part in diffusing tensions as the two nuclear-powered countries teetered on the brink of a disastrous war.

4) 2013 and 2008 elections

For the first time, one directly-elected civilian government completed its term and handed over power to the next. Even his most critical detractors will concede that Kayani had a lot to do with that. He also helped bring back Benazir and then Nawaz despite their differences with Musharraf in 2007.

3) Operation Rah-e-Raast/Nijaat

Under him the army in 2009 launched Rah-e-Raast and then Rah-e-Nijaat – successful operations in Malakand and South Waziristan against militants. He became the first soldier to call internal extremism and terrorism Pakistan’s biggest threat – that too in front of a large gathering of his own soldiers.

2) The pro-democracy speech

It wasn’t his first speech in favour of democracy, nor his last. But the timing, just days before the 2013 General Elections, was key and classy. “I assure you that we stand committed to wholeheartedly assist and support in the conduct of free, fair and peaceful elections ... I also assure you that this support shall solely be aimed at strengthening democracy and rule of law in the country.”

1) Restoring the judges

PPP and PML-N fight over credit for restoring the judges made non-functional by Gen Musharraf. Yet, behind-the-scenes, as a massive rally snaked towards Islamabad for a political showdown in the capital between the opposition and the government, Gen Kayani is said to have made some calls. The result: the CJP and his brother judges were restored and a clash averted.

The lows:

5) The Kerry-Lugar Bill reaction

Few may remember the army’s reaction to the announcement of the US’ Kerry-Lugar aid bill in 2009. A lot of fuss was made over the language of the bill – and a lot of incorrect conclusions drawn from it. The public and the media ate it up, creating a lot of misperceptions

4) Protecting NLC scam generals

The Army did not allow NAB to investigate three senior retired Army officers involved in the multi-million-rupee National Logistics Cell (NLC) scam. It was promised that the Army would try them internally. Nothing has been heard of this since. Justice must not only be done, but seen to be done.

3) Storming of the GHQ

Not much can be done against an internal enemy is camouflaged within your own. But aside from a string of daring attacks on military installations, the raid of the Army’s own home, the fortified General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, in October 2009 will live in infamy. And it happened on Gen Kayani’s watch

2) Missing persons

Perhaps the greatest criticism of the Army today involves the abduction of people from Balochistan (and elsewhere in the country), their detention, torture, killing and then the dumping of the bodies. It happened before. It is commonplace now. The Army says it has nothing to do with it. Everyone else says otherwise.

1) Osama in Abbottabad

The world’s most wanted man was found by the US a stone’s throw away from Pakistan’s top military school in Abbottabad. To this day, the military and intelligence says they did not know about his presence, and they did not give permission for the US unilateral raid. Embarrassing either way.

Name: Ashfaq Parvez Kayani

D.O.B: 16 October 1952

Parent regiment: 5 Baloch (Infantry)


1969 - FSc from Military College Jhelum

1971 - Bachelors from PMA Kakul

1993 - MSc War Studies from Quaid-e-Azam University

1979 - Infantry Officers Advance Course Fort Benning (USA)

1985 - Command and Staff Course Quetta

1987 - Command and General Staff Course from Fort Leavenworth (USA)

1992 - AFWC at National Defence College

1997 - Security Studies Course from Asia Pacific Centre Hawaii

Service history 42 years, 3 months

October 16, 1952 - Born in Manghot village, Gujar Khan tehsil, district Rawalpindi

1971 - Graduated from PMA Kakul -45th Long Course

August 28, 1971 - Commissioned in to the armed forces as a Lieutenant in the 5th battalion of the Baloch Regiment

August 29, 1973 - Promoted to Captain

February 23, 1978 - Promoted to Major

1980 - Marriage to Begum Zahida Kayani

August 15, 1988 - Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel

1990 - Military secretary to Benazir Bhutto

June 22, 1994 - Promoted to Brigadier

1999 - Appointed General Officer Commander Murree (12th Infantry Division) and promoted to Major General [Two stars]

2001 - Director General Directorate of Military Operations

2003 - Appointed Commander X Corps (Rawalpindi) and promoted to Lieutenant General [three stars]

December, 2003 - Kayani led the investigations on two assassination attempts on Musharraf

October, 2004 - Became Director General, Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)

October, 2007 - Promoted to Vice Chief of Army Staff [four stars]

2007 - National Reconciliation Ordinance - “brokered” by Kayani

November 28, 2007 - Promoted to Chief of Army Staff, takes over from Musharraf

April, 2009 - Operation launched in Swat, Rah-e-Raast; led to military victory

July 23, 2010 - Given a three-year extension by PPP government

November 28, 2013 - Retires

Published in The Express Tribune, November 28th, 2013.


x | 7 years ago | Reply

Excellent article, informative and non biased as well as touching.

Azfar | 7 years ago | Reply

Thank for your faith in democracy. We know it is weak right now, but we will learn to solve our problem on our own. God Bless Us All.

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