The grand Player

The bar for a successful chief of army staff is very low in Pakistan. So long as you don’t show so much disdain for democracy that you do away with it altogether you have done better than most. This is why, in the six weeks left before he retires, there will be many odes to General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the man who could have grabbed absolute power but chose not to.
Ignore this hagiography. Kayani is without a doubt a very shrewd and calculating man but his net benefit to the country is in the red.
The first stint seemed to go so well. After the Musharraf nightmare, Kayani seemed like a new breed. He had no interest in wielding power; just in carrying out the instructions of the elected government. When the civilians unadvisedly pursued the Nizam-e-Adl agreement with the Swat Taliban he stood by quietly. After they decided that it was just a ploy to forestall armed intervention, Kayani took the army into Swat and scored a decisive victory. Sure, he ended up getting the credit for action ordered by the PPP but that didn’t make the achievement any less impressive.
But then came the end of 2010 and retirement beckoned. Suddenly everyone, primarily the US, thought Kayani was indispensable. That, needless to say, was a mistake. If the military truly is the only institution that works in the country (it isn’t, but let’s play along for the sake of argument) then it should never be dependent on one individual.
The extension Kayani was given not only ended up hurting his carefully-crafted image but, more importantly, did a lot of damage to the country. That image was one that Kayani cultivated perfectly to the point where every profile in western publications had to point out that this man’s man rolled his own cigarettes but was less interested in exploring his ideology. It is only after the extension was secured that we truly got to know Kayani the political animal.
It is no coincidence that what Kayani is best remembered for now are the controversies. He is the one who, as a supposedly pro-US COAS, whipped up fervour against the Kerry-Lugar Bill. No one cares about the terms of that package now; we just enjoy its benefits. But at the time the army made it seem like our sovereignty was being obliterated.
The original military disapproval of the aid package was transferred, almost as if by osmosis, to reliable anti-American allies like the religious parties. Soon protests were being held around the country. Kayani didn’t end up winning but the military got its point across.
Kayani was similarly inflexible after the Salala attack, to the point where he ensured that Nato supplies across the country were stopped. And yet soon after we saw a sudden U-Turn and the army started cooperating with the Americans on matters small and large. This was the key to Kayani’s supposed indispensability. He could play along with anything long as it suited him at the time.
Of course, he never could have performed this circus trick had the PPP government not been so cowardly that it decided it was better to see out its term rather than ever challenge military hegemony over the country. This was the government, even when Kayani was fresh in power, so fearful of the men in uniform that, back in 2008, it took back its notification that the ISI should be placed under the interior ministry within two days of army protests. It also took only a day to withdraw its order to send the ISI chief to India after the Mumbai attacks.
No surprise, then, that in his three-year second term Kayani was able to get so much ‘done’. In the Memogate scandal, true that Hussain Haqqani scored an entirely avoidable own goal in his foolish interactions with Mansoor Ijaz and then compounded the error by being so shifty about his actions, but the way Kayani’s army swept into action so speedily and took advantage was truly a sight to behold. And they got his scalp.
Make no mistake about it, the Pakistan Army under Kayani was entirely his army. Having alienated many senior officers who had to forgo promotions after he secured his extension, Kayani moulded the military in his image. He was perfectly content being the silent powerbroker while men like the ISI’s Pasha took the flack but all orders flowed from him. The decision to not take any action against the Haqqani Network – all Kayani. Start releasing Afghan Taliban prisoners to satiate the Americans – again Kayani.
So preeminent was Kayani in the minds of Pakistanis that it seemed almost predestined that he would stick around in some capacity or the other. That he chose retirement is to his credit, but it isn’t nearly enough to undo the damage he did by spending another three years as the COAS.
He should also, had he truly cared about civilian supremacy, have allowed the Nawaz government to make the announcement about his departure. That he chose the ISPR as the vehicle for his retirement shows that even to the bitter end Kayani wanted to show that he was the master of his destiny. Pakistan, if it is lucky, will have a successor to him who isn’t quite as convinced of his infallibility. But our experience with men in uniform makes that extremely unlikely.