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Updated: March 5, 2010 22:53 IST

Pakistan Army: the struggle within

Praveen Swami
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THE SEARCH FOR SUCCESSOR: Pakistan's army chief, General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani
AP
THE SEARCH FOR SUCCESSOR: Pakistan's army chief, General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani

Later this year, President Asif Ali Zardari will appoint a new army chief. Faultlines within the state could be forced open.

“India,” Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari famously said in an October 2008 interview, “has never been a threat to Pakistan.” In his first major interview, given just a month after taking office, he described jihadists in Jammu and Kashmir as “terrorists.” He imagined “Pakistani cement factories being constructed to provide for India's huge infrastructure needs, Pakistani textile mills meeting Indian demand for blue jeans, Pakistani ports being used to relieve the congestion at Indian ones.”

Early last month, Pakistan's army chief, General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, outlined a rather different vision. In a presentation to the media, he asserted that the Pakistan army was an “India-centric institution,” adding this “reality will not change in any significant way until the Kashmir issue and water disputes are resolved.” His words were not dissimilar in substance from the language used by jihadists such as Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed in recent speeches.

Later this year, President Zardari will make a decision that could force open the faultlines between the military-led establishment and the Pakistan People's Party. Gen. Kayani is scheduled to retire in November 2010. Mr. Zardari, as the commander-in-chief, holds the power to appoint his successor.

Ever since Gen. Kayani — a former Inter-Services Intelligence chief — took office, the Pakistani state has set out on escalating tensions along its eastern frontier. Fighting along the Line of Control has increased, and jihadist infiltration escalated reversing an eight-year trend. Last week, Jammu and Kashmir secessionists were told by Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir that his country had reverted to its traditional policies on the state — policies that included unconcealed support for jihadists. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's secret envoy Satinder Lambah, who has been holding secret meetings with his Pakistani counterpart Riaz Mohammad Khan, has discovered that Islamabad no longer appears interested in pursuing a five-principles path to peace advocated by the former President, Pervez Musharraf.

The army, it has long been evident, loathes its commander-in-chief: Mr. Zardari, for example, is never invited to address the staff at military installations.

Last year, Mr. Zardari was forced to hand over control of the National Command Authority, which controls Pakistan's nuclear assets, to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. The military also appears to have been working hard to strip Mr. Zardari of his sole source of authority over the army. In January, Parliament's constitutions reforms committee unanimously agreed that Article 243 be amended to give the Prime Minister—rather than the President — effective power to appoint the services chiefs. Even as things stand, Mr. Zardari could face resistance if he picks a chief of his choice. Defence Secretary Syed Athar Ali is a former Lieutenant-General; his predecessor in office, retired Lieutenant-General Iftikhar Ali Khan, refused to sign on the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's orders sacking the then army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

But come November, Mr. Zardari will likely hold the ace in his hand — and a bitter struggle could break out if he chooses to play it.

Gen. Kayani's three years in office have enabled him to build a substantial constituency within the army. For a variety of reasons, the army chief was able to promote a record number of top officers, and give others coveted positions. In 2008, Gen. Kayani promoted six officers to the rank of Lieutenant-General, and assigned several other Lieutenants-General and Major-Generals to prestigious offices. Last year, four more officers were promoted Lieutenants-General. From March onwards, eight Lieutenants-General will retire — including ISI Director-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, Chief of General Staff Muhammad Mustafa Khan, Quartermaster General Zahid Hussain, and commander of the Karachi-based V Corps Shahid Iqbal. New opportunities will thus arise for Gen. Kayani to dispense patronage.

Islamabad military gossip has it that Gen. Kayani may use his goodwill within the army to lobby for a further year in office, as part of a deal which would also secure Mr. Zardari's position. Gen. Kayani may also attempt to have himself selected chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. General Tariq Majeed, head of the JCSC, is due to retire just days before Gen. Kayani — a coincidence that could ease the move. If that indeed is Gen. Kayani's intention, though, he will unlikely be satisfied with the largely ceremonial position of JCSC chief. He could lobby for supervisory powers over top appointments — a move that would likely have President Zardari's support, since it would create tensions between the JCSC and the new army chief.

Gen. Kayani's own favoured choice for his successor, should he not secure an extension for himself, is the current ISI chief, Gen. Pasha, who is due to retire on March 18, 2010. However, Gen. Pasha has had a relatively brief tenure as Pakistan's spymaster — a fact which, read along with the critical state of affairs in the country, could justify an extension. Lieutenant-General Masood Alam, who heads the critical Peshawar-based XI Corps, was recently given an extension on just these grounds. However, Gen. Pasha has never commanded a Corps — normally a prerequisite for the top job.

Lieutenant-General Nadeem Taj will likely be the second in line for the army's top job, if Gen. Pasha's extension does not come through early in March. Now serving as commander of the Gujranwala-based XXX Corps, Gen. Taj is scheduled to retire only in April 2011 — and thus has time on his side. Long a key Musharraf aide, Gen. Taj was appointed Director-General of Military Intelligence, a position he held until February 2005. Later, he commanded the Lahore-based 11 Infantry Division, and served as commandant of the Pakistan Military Academy.

But any move to appoint Gen. Taj is likely to encounter intense resistance from the United States — and with some reason. Gen. Taj was made ISI Director-General in September 2007, just before Gen. Kayani replaced Gen. Musharraf as army chief. By late that year — as Gen. Kayani brought about changes in policy that the army saw as more consonant with its interests than the pro-western position of President Musharraf — Gen. Taj found himself in trouble with the U.S. In August 2008, President George W. Bush was reported to have complained that it had become “impossible to share intelligence on the al-Qaeda and the Taliban with Pakistan because it goes straight back to the militants.” Eventually, in October 2008, Gen. Taj was moved out of the ISI — but rewarded with charge of a prestigious Corps.

Khalid Shameem Wynne, Lieutenant-General who leads the Quetta-based XII corps and the army's southern command, appears the third in line for the top job — and least contentious among those in the race. From a family with a long military tradition — his father, Colonel Arshad Wynne, served during the India-Pakistan war of 1971— Gen. Wynne started his career in the 20 Punjab Regiment. He held several important posts, notably serving as Deputy Chief of General Staff, and commanding the prestigious Siachen-focussed 323 Infantry Brigade. Little is known about Gen. Wynne's political affiliations, perhaps because he has none. Notably, Gen. Wynne has had no tenure at the ISI, unlike both his rivals for the top job — and, of course, Gen. Kayani himself.

Wars of succession in the Pakistan army have often had significant political outcomes. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's October 1999 appointment of Lieutenant-General Ziauddin Butt — an engineering officer — precipitated the coup which led to Gen. Musharraf taking charge as President. President and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto picked the junior-most — and supposedly most subservient — candidate for the army chief's job. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who Bhutto described as “my monkey,” returned the compliment first by naming the Prime Minister Colonel-in-Chief of the Armoured Corps — and then sending him to the gallows. General Abdul Waheed Kakkar, appointed army chief by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in the course of a bitter power struggle with Mr. Sharif, forced both politicians to resign.

Popular consensus has it that the Pakistan army is a battleground between Islamists and pro-western professionals. In fact, as scholars like Ayesha Siddiqa have shown us, the military is an independent political actor, representing a set of concrete interests: the military is, after all, Pakistan's largest owner of land and custodian of an industrial empire that runs everything from breakfast-cereal plants to banks. The army, thus, is not just the custodian of the ideological and territorial boundaries of the state; it is, in key senses, the state itself.

Gen. Musharraf was reviled by the army for having allowed Pakistan to be drawn into a war that threatens its primacy. Gen. Kayani has responded by seeking to repair the army's relationship with its long-standing Islamist allies —and by seeking to find a way out of the war in Pakistan's northwest by escalating tensions along its eastern border. It is no coincidence that jihadist operations like the November 2008 attack on Mumbai took place soon after Gen. Kayani took office. His successor will have to decide if the army's interests lie in this direction, or in charting a new course.

India has enormous equities in the looming struggle for control of the Pakistan army — and must watch its course with great care.

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