There are three ways to interpret General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s announcement that he will retire when his extended tenure as Chief of the Pakistan Army ends on November 29. First, that he intends to wield power in some other capacity, such as National Security Adviser. Second, that he is placing the corporate interest of the military — which cannot afford too long a disruption in its natural system of succession — above the personal. Or third, that the civilian government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has made it clear there will be no further extension. Any which way, his exit is set to be the most graceful in Pakistan’s recent history. Six years ago, General Kayani gave himself the task of rebuilding his Army’s image, severely dented by the unpopularity of his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf. He succeeded to a great extent, such that even after Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid by U.S. commandos in Abbottabad, nationally little blame attached to the Pakistan Army for not having discovered the world’s most wanted man earlier. Under him, the military seemingly distanced itself from the U.S., its patron-in-chief, while the 2008-2013 Pakistan People’s Party government was blamed for ‘selling out’ to it. Most of all, General Kayani managed to give the impression of a COAS who, despite the opportunities thrown at him by an inept government, stayed away from the temptation to take charge. The reality, though, is that post-Musharraf, the Army knows it is not easy to run Pakistan, and that on matters close to its heart, power can be wielded from behind the scenes, leaving the civilian rulers to take the blame when things go wrong.
What General Kayani could not accomplish, however, was a course correction in the Pakistan Army’s opportunistic outlook towards terrorism. He said often enough that his country’s main enemies were terrorism and the militancy within, but it is under his watch that the Taliban and Haqqani network have stepped up their murderous campaign in Afghanistan, the ceasefire along the LoC with India has come under strain, and groups like the Jamaat-ud-Dawa continue to thrive. Of course, these squalid tactical pursuits cannot hide General Kayani’s biggest failing: despite its men and establishments coming under repeated attack by jihadi groups, the Pakistan military and its leadership proved incapable of grasping the fundamental reality that there is no good and bad terrorism but a metastasised malignancy that has to be fought regardless of whether its target is Pakistan, the U.S., Afghanistan or India. General Kayani’s decision to retire gracefully is good for democracy and the Pakistan Army. But unless his successor is willing to grasp this nettle, the cancer of terror will continue to destroy Pakistan.