“The term of the President, the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice is till 2013. The term of the Chief of Army Staff [COAS] has also been extended to 2013. Now all have secure positions and should work as per the Constitution,” Premier Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani told the media on Friday; 15 hours after he went on national television to announce the three-year extension of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani's term.

That said, Mr. Gilani left the media interaction. But, then he had said it all. He had admitted that the extension — widely covered in the international media — was an “insurance policy” to borrow a phrase used by journalist Nusrat Javed on his show.

The decision itself did not take many by surprise because this has been in the air for a while now. What did surprise many, though, was the duration of the extension. Still, the response has been muted; both from the Opposition and the Pakistani media, which is ever ready to put the government in the dock on every issue.

While part of the reason is the Army's continuing clout over Pakistani polity, where the military establishment remains a sacrosanct institution seldom put under the scanner, there is evident grudging respect for the way General Kayani has conducted himself over the past three years which saw the country return to a democratic framework but has been beset with problems the ruling elite appears to be blind to.

In fact — in a country prone to conspiracy theories — there have been whispers of the establishment planning to put together a “national government of technocrats.” These “persistent rumours” of an “unholy alliance of the new power troika in Pakistan — generals, judges and the media — to undo the current malfunctioning system and establish a ‘national government of technocrats' to steer the country…” were echoed recently in The Friday Times editorial also.

So, it didn't require the Prime Minister's candour to establish that stability in the political arrangement was the primary reason for the government preferring continuity to change in the Army's top command structure. “There was risk in change in the present context and caution prevailed,” explained the former Secretary (Defence Production), Ministry of Defence, Talat Masood.

Conceding that no one is indispensible — Gen. Kayani's leadership of the war on terror was cited by Mr. Gilani as reason for the extension — Lt. Gen. (retired) Masood said: “This was a prudent decision. If you take the complete picture — the way he has conducted himself, his relationship with the U.S., the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Chinese — dealings within the Army where he enhanced its capabilities and support for democratic institutions — he was a serious contender.”

However, Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc, maintained that the extension was a bad idea. “If the Army claims it is the only institution left then it should have systems and processes that would not require dependence on an individual. This will weaken the organisation as it will encourage greater internal politics. What guarantee is there that he will leave after completing the next term. The argument regarding continuity is nonsense because this is a different kind of a war and bringing in a new chief doesn't matter.” There are others who hold this view privately and harbour the hope that Gen. Kayani will refuse the extension in the larger interest of an institution he has led for three years.

A man of few words, Gen. Kayani worked his way up the “blue-blood conscious” military hierarchy from a humble background. His father was a non-commissioned officer in the Army. Commissioned in 1971, he has been Director-General of both Military Operations and Inter-Services Intelligence. Appointed COAS by President Pervez Musharraf, his quiet steely demeanour is in sharp contrast to his predecessor and architect of Pakistan's fourth tryst with military rule.

Given that three of the four military dictatorships in Pakistan were spearheaded by generals — Ayub Khan, Zia-ul Haq and General Musharraf — who had been hand-picked by the civilian government of the day to supersede their seniors, the spectre of democracy once again becoming a victim of the machinations of an all-powerful general is being raised.

Equally rampant are speculations of U.S. influence on this decision. Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to be drawn into commenting on the subject on her visit to Islamabad three days before the decision was announced — stating that this was an internal matter of Pakistan — the move is widely believed to have had American blessing.

In the 2009 annual Time 100 issue, Gen. Kayani was placed 19th in the 20-strong category of leaders and revolutionaries; one notch above U.S. President Barack Obama. Writing about him for that issue of Time, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen noted how in their very first meeting, the COAS came across as a man with a plan; a leader who knows where he wants to go.

Admiral Mullen said: “He seemed to understand the nature of the extremist threat inside Pakistan, recognised that his Army wasn't ready to meet that threat and had already started working up solutions.

“So far he's done everything he told me he would do. He said he would provide the Frontier Corps with material support and strong leaders. He did it. He said he would send more Pakistani Army troops to the northwest border region. He sent nearly 2,000 troops. He said he would use those troops to go after the Al-Qaeda and extremist groups in Bajaur and the Swat Valley. They have mounted several operations in just the past few months.

“There's much more to do, of course. But I also think it's important to look at what Gen. Kayani hasn't done. For starters, he hasn't let the Army meddle in politics. Gen. Kayani helped foster a peaceful outcome to last year's constitutional crisis, but he did it in a way that was totally in keeping with his military responsibilities. He also hasn't let tension over the involvement of Pakistan-based militants in the Mumbai terrorist attacks spin out of control.

“General Kayani commands an Army with troops fighting in what President Barack Obama has rightly called the ‘most dangerous place in the world'. He's lost more than 1,000 soldiers in that fight. He knows the stakes. He's got a plan,” wrote Admiral Mullen.

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