In a timely though perhaps overly dramatic move, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of Pakistan announced last night on national television the extension of army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani for another three years beyond November this year, when his first term was to end. Timely, since any further delay in announcing it would have led to further speculation and confusion about what was to happen. Dramatic, since the normal manner would have been a press release from the Inter Services Relations Directorate.
But then this is Pakistan and anything to do with the army chief makes headlines. And this announcement further strengthens the view that the army continues to be a key player even as democracy struggles to establish itself in a country that has been ruled for more than half its life by the military.
This is the first time a civilian government has extended an army chief for a full term. In the past, extensions have been either short, given by military rulers to themselves or, in the case of the first military ruler, Ayub Khan, to an ineffectual army chief with no independent power base. Benazir Bhutto sought to break with tradition when she offered an extension to General Abdul Waheed in 1996 but he refused it. Kayani took pains to convey the impression that he would not seek an extension nor negotiate for one. It appears that the government made him an offer he could not refuse.
Kayani is widely regarded as a quiet, professional soldier, who has helped transform the army in his tenure from a largely conventional force to one that is effectively fighting an irregular war inside its own borders. His new tenure gives him a rare opportunity to continue the transformation of the Pakistan into army into a professional body ready to fight insurgencies and conventional enemies equally well. He maintains a low public profile and is seen as a thinking general. Compared with his predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf, who was tempestuous and rarely had time to read, Kayani is deliberate. From the outset, he stated a policy of keeping the army out of politics, a policy that he tried to maintain even while selectively intervening in political squabbles as a referee. In recent months he has played a key role in moving the United States-Pakistan strategic dialogue onto a higher plane in terms of content and action.