Army Grows Cooler to Musharraf
Pakistan Military Goes Its Own Way, Shuns Political Role
By JAY SOLOMON and ZAHID HUSSAIN
Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2008; Page A5
Pakistan's generals are gradually distancing themselves from President Pervez Musharraf as the country prepares for parliamentary elections next week, a dynamic that could change how the Bush administration approaches Pakistan and the war against Islamist extremism.
The chief protagonist in this delicate dance is Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Mr. Musharraf's successor as the army's chief of staff and a confidant of the president. Gen. Kayani, a Fort Leavenworth-trained infantry officer, has largely walked lock step with his predecessor on the need to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban.
In recent weeks, however, Gen. Kayani has initiated a number of changes that establish a divide between the uniformed army and Mr. Musharraf, say senior Pakistani officers. Last month, Gen. Kayani, 55 years old, issued an order barring officers from any unauthorized meetings with Pakistani politicians, including the president. The army commander also said the military wouldn't play any role in staging next week's parliamentary elections, outside of providing security.
The moves, say senior Pakistani officers, stand as a clear signal to Mr. Musharraf that he can't rely on his former allies in the military to get "desirable results" from the vote, says an active Pakistani general. "We don't want the army to be seen as involved in political affairs in any way," he says, a move the army hopes will inoculate it from being tarnished by any potential electoral improprieties.
Pakistan's changing political landscape has prompted a parade of American officials to visit Islamabad in recent weeks. They include Central Intelligence Agency Director Gen. Michael Hayden, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, and, this weekend, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The men, according to U.S. officials, have sought more cooperation to combat the terrorist threat from the country's tribal areas, such as enhanced intelligence-sharing and approval for the possible use of U.S. covert forces.
A number of U.S. officials who have met with Gen. Kayani say his leadership could enhance Washington's ability to fight al Qaeda. They say he seems to agree more than Mr. Musharraf on the need to cooperate with Afghan and U.S. forces to track militants flowing over the Afghan-Pakistan border. And they say Gen. Kayani, unlike his predecessor, understands that the Pakistan army needs to switch from training to fight conventional wars with India to conducting counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban.
"Kayani knows he doesn't have the right army" to face the current threats, says a senior U.S. military officer who recently met Pakistan's army commander. "He'll be more receptive to external help."
Mr. Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, ended his 46-year military career in November when he tapped Gen. Kayani to succeed him as army chief. The move was prompted by widespread protests against Mr. Musharraf's presidency.
One likely outcome of Monday's elections is a diffuse power structure, where Mr. Musharraf is forced to share decision making with a prime minister not supportive of his campaign to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban. Most American officials initially expected Benazir Bhutto to forge a partnership with Mr. Musharraf, but since her assassination, they say they have little certainty of who might be elected in her place.
"Now we could be dealing with a weakened Musharraf, which is a much more complicated process" than what we dealt with before, said a U.S. official working on Pakistan.
Washington's point man on Pakistan, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, told lawmakers Jan. 29 that Mr. Musharraf is "taking on the role of president...but no longer as the guy in charge."
It is unclear whether Gen. Kayani will be able to push military operations inside tribal areas if public opposition increases. Mr. Musharraf was able to ignore public sentiment when he served both as president and army commander.
Aides to Gen. Kayani say they worry this month's vote could be particularly volatile. Opposition to Mr. Musharraf's role in politics has risen sharply in recent months, particularly after the president's dismissal in November of the Supreme Court and temporary shuttering of independent media outlets. Tensions also have been fueled by the December assassination of Ms. Bhutto. Her supporters contend that Mr. Musharraf's government was complicit in her death, a charge it denies.
Any perception of an improper vote could spark wide-scale unrest, say Pakistani military officers. Islamabad's intelligence services have been charged in past elections with vote rigging and seeking to intimidate opposition political candidates. European Commission election monitors in 2002 claimed wide-scale voting irregularities in Pakistan's last national parliamentary vote.
"If these are not free and fair, either in reality or in perception, the blame would fall on those who supervised them. And it's not going to be us," said the active Pakistani general. Gen. Kayani has made clear that the army's military intelligence unit must stay out of electoral politics.
Many Pakistani and U.S. officials who know Gen. Kayani say he is aware of how Mr. Musharraf's role in politics has tarnished the public's support for the military. They say he will prioritize the need to rehabilitate the army's image over any personal allegiance to his benefactor. "This isn't a guy who's going to roll the dice. He's going to be cautious," says Robert Grenier, the Central Intelligence Agency's station chief in Islamabad from 1999 to 2002. "But he's very sensitive to the army being discredited."
Write to Jay Solomon at email@example.com