By Shehrbano Taseer
Abraham Lincoln once remarked, “if you really want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Pakistan watched as Iskander Mirza gave his Army Commander at the time, the notorious General Ayub Khan, a tenure extension in 1955. Ayub Khan devolved into a military despot, crushed Pakistan’s nascent democratic process by staging a coup, and drove its economy into the ground. There remains some legitimate grounds for concern, then, over the civilian government’s decision to give General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani another three-year term as Chief of the Army Staff. General Kayani, however, is not Ayub Khan, and 2010 is not 1955.
General Kayani’s tenure extension comes at a time where there is much international scrutiny being placed on Pakistan’s military and government leadership over the war against the extremists. His extension is seen by some as key to providing continuity to Pakistan’s military effort and stability to the region.
Pakistan’s tumultuous civil-military relationship does not exactly allow for history to be on Kayani’s side. Opponents of the decision are furiously voicing concerns about the disruption of the organizational hierarchy of the army, the possible undermining of civilian control of government, the potential of a coup, and of course, the ‘principle’ of the matter. For those who regard this decision as morally indefensible, I ask them to take a minute to consider the alternative.
When bringing up Ayub Khan’s painful example it is important to look at context when drawing comparisons. These are extraordinary circumstances. I cannot stress thie enough. Pakistan faces an existential threat at the hands of extremists beheading human beings over religious differences and destroying the fabric of its pluralist society. This conflict is not one of its choice. The current government is battling an enemy it has inherited. The situation is dire; in this war, there is no substitute for victory. In a time where Pakistan’s stability and future is at stake, no one can refute that the pragmatic extension of Kayani’s tenure might be in the best interest of the nation.
General Kayani is seen as one of the least corrupt generals in Pakistan’s history. He is shrewd, apolitical, and dignified. Furthermore, Kayani has shown unprecedented capability in combating the extremists, and Pakistani forces have met considerable success so far. There are few parallels in military history, in fact, of such an operation where an administration went to such lengths to protect its civilians. Him and his lieutenants have made headway in communication with the Afghan government, and are attempting to broker a peace agreement with the Taliban and its allies. Kayani has also earned the trust of the U.S and NATO forces, Pakistan’s allies in this war. Continuity, therefore, is crucial; a change in the military high command in the middle of war is a needless risk. Even the Americans and the British did not adhere to normal retirement patterns for their top commanders in the middle of the Second World War.
The same cannot be said for Ayub Khan. At the time of independence, he was not selected to represent Pakistan in the partition council set up to divide the assets of the British Indian Army between the Pakistani and Indian armies. There were nine other officers senior to Ayub Khan on August 14, 1947; he was Pakistan Army No10 (PA10). Also, His dubious promotion from colonel to general occurred in less than four years. Kayani, on the other hand, was appointed Chief of the Army Staff in 2007, thirty-six years after he joined the army in 1971.
In Ayub Khan’s diary, he shows immense political greed starting from as early as 1954. In chapter eleven of his book, Friends Not Masters, he opposes parliamentary democracy and favors Islamization. He also spends six pages outlining ‘solutions’ to assuage the state of affairs in Pakistan. General Kayani has displayed no such inclination. He has consistently expressed harmonization of socio-political, administrative, and military strategies. He has been supportive of the continuity of a democratic process. The army has its plate full with operations in FATA. The hue and cry about the potential for a coup, then, is asinine. The decision to extend General Kayani’s tenure could actually allow for the civilian government to more confidently assert itself in national security policy matters and in strengthening political institutions.
The loyalty of soldiers and officers lies first and foremost with their country; their priorities are its defense and sovereignty. As a corollary of the extension, there are many generals who will be forced to retire before Kayani’s term ends in 2013. Let us hope the enormity of the task ahead preempts disgruntlement within the army’s senior echelons.
Kayani could take this opportunity to come up with a better system of command and control for the army. He could end the doubt that some civilians have about military economic ventures. He could also further diversify the army to include more Sindhis and Balochis, reflecting Pakistan’s ethnic diversity.
One potential grievance with Kayani may lie in the perception that he allowed Benazir Bhutto’s murder investigation to remain inconclusive. Another concern is that the extension portrays the existence of a close tie between the military and the ruling PPP, a reversal of the past when Pakistan’s largest political party and its most powerful institution were seen at loggerheads. The PPP currently faces a dual challenge from the PML-N and from the Supreme Court. General Kayani’s extension could keep PMLN out of power in Islamabad until 2013. The ruling party must beware that the PML-N could turn to Islamists and right-wing politicians to consolidate its support, and that would further threaten the PPP’s already unsteady future.