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All the General’s men

Pakistan army chief Kayani is setting the stage for a military takeover. Ravi Visvesvaraya Prasad elaborates.

india Updated: Mar 10, 2009 22:56 IST

The warnings issued by Pakistan’s Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to President Asif Ali Zardari to clear up the political mess by March 16 has led to speculation that the army may again seize power. Even though Kayani has long been perceived as apolitical, he has been preparing to launch a coup since September 2008.

According to military experts, an army chief requires the close cooperation of the three most powerful officers to stage a coup — the Commander of the X Corps at Rawalpindi, the Chief of General Staff at General Headquarters, and the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In a September 2008 reshuffle, Kayani had placed his trusted loyalists in these three key positions, simultaneously promoting them from major generals to lieutenant generals. Thus, they owe their posts to Kayani and not to Pervez Musharraf.

Major General Tahir Mahmood was promoted as Corps Commander of the first, overseeing operations along the Line of Control, Siachen and Kargil. Major General Mohammad Mustafa Khan of the ISI was appointed as the Chief of General Staff at General Headquarters, a post which traditionally acts as the eyes and ears of the army chief, as the Military Operations and Intelligence Directorates function under him. Most importantly, Major General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, who was Director-General Military Operations — in charge of anti-militant operations in the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas — was made Director-General of the ISI. Significantly, Kayani had held these crucial posts earlier, gaining the trust and admiration of junior officers for his professionalism and discipline, apart from the fact that he’s risen from a humble background, his father being a naib-subedar in the army.

Promoted as lieutenant general in September 2003, Kayani was made Corps Commander of the powerful X Corps at Rawalpindi, despite his relative lack of seniority. He was in this post till October 2004 when he was transferred as Director-General of the ISI, which he headed for three years. In October 2007 he was promoted as a full General, and made the Vice-Chief of Army Staff, finally superseding a dozen Major Generals in September 2008 to the top post. Kayani is the only officer who held the position of DG of ISI and then went on to become the army chief, and it is a measure of his control that none of those who were superseded in the restructuring raised any protest.

Zardari’s refusal to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhary as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and his vendetta against the Sharif brothers have nullified the moral and intellectual arguments against the regime of Pervez Musharraf. Indeed, Musharraf has indicated his willingness to become president again. Zardari’s nickname has changed from ‘Mr Ten Per Cent’ to ‘Mr Hundred Per Cent Liability’, in contrast to the financial rectitude of Kayani and Musharraf.

It is reported that Kayani’s warning to Zardari was issued with US encouragement — issued just after he had returned from a visit there. This is a significant change of direction for the US, which had recently accused Kayani of maintaining links with Islamic militant groups after telephone intercepts revealed that he had referred to Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani as a “strategic asset”. But Kayani is a better bet for the US compared with an incompetent, corrupt and vindictive Zardari.

Even though Kayani has been perceived as apolitical, it is worth keeping in mind the words of a serving US general: “But the elevation to the post of army chief has been known to change Pakistani officers… All the military dictators so far — Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ul Haq, Pervez Musharraf — had a reputation of being apolitical before they actually seized power…” But what’s most worrisome for India is that within a few years, the Islamic fundamentalists who joined the army during the days of Zia ul Haq will rise to lieutenant general levels.

(Ravi Visvesvaraya Prasad heads a group on C4ISRT in South Asia)