Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was confident enough in his control of his turbulent country to spend last week in Europe. The man he put in charge of the army has started to feel confident himself — enough to assert some independence.
Two months after Musharraf relinquished direct oversight of the army — his source of power — General Ashfaq Kayani, its new chief, has told officers to avoid contact with politicians. With parliamentary elections set for Feb. 18, Kayani’s order may limit military support for pro-Musharraf parties, which likely helped them dominate elections in 2002.
Musharraf “thinks that he still controls the army, even if he doesn’t command it,” said Talat Masood, a political analyst and retired lieutenant general. “I think it’s more of an illusion than a reality. The command and the control are with General Kayani, from all that one can make out.”
Kayani, 55, is also undoing Musharraf’s mechanism for keeping the bureaucracy in check, ordering army officers assigned to civilian government jobs to return to military positions, according to Online, a Pakistani news agency. About 2,500 officers serve in government ministries and state-owned companies, Online said. A new policy on such appointments will be issued soon, said General Athar Abbas, the army’s spokesman.
Pakistan’s military elite increasingly sees Musharraf as politically divisive and damaging to the armed forces’ reputation, said Masood, who shares that sentiment and wants Musharraf to resign.
Among the public, the army’s favorability rating during 2007 slipped to 55 percent from 80 percent, according to a November poll by the Washington-based International Republican Institute. In a letter issued on Jan. 22, scores of retired officers urged Musharraf, 64, to step down “in the national interest.”
Masood and other analysts expect Kayani to remain loyal to Musharraf. So does Musharraf. “His loyalty to me is personal,” the president said in Davos, Switzerland, where he attended the World Economic Forum. Musharraf, in a Jan. 25 session sponsored by Institutional Investor, cited his trip as evidence that his position is secure.
The ties between the two are strong enough that Musharraf has assigned Kayani to several sensitive roles, including head of the main intelligence agency and chief investigator of two 2003 bombings that came close to killing the president.
Kayani is a native of Jhelum in the province of Punjab, an area famed for its soldiers. He joined the army in 1971, serving in the war against India, and in addition to his military studies in Pakistan received training at Fort Leavenworth in the U.S.
The threat of a coup is probably remote, absent some catastrophic event, such as violent protests more sustained than those ignited by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s Dec. 27 assassination. “There will be a slow decline” of Musharraf’s power, “but not any sudden coup,” Masood said.
The military has ruled Pakistan for most of its 60-year history, manipulating politics and elections even under nominally civilian governments. The army is the dominant branch of Pakistan’s 620,000-strong armed forces, and its chief of staff usually has reigned as the nation’s ultimate political arbiter, more powerful than the president or prime minister.
Musharraf was army chief for nine years, a term surpassed in duration only by Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq’s 1976-1988 tenure, when he reigned as dictator. When Zia died in an airplane crash, the military initially moved to restore its reputation by allowing elected civilian governments to take office.
Over the next 11 years, Pakistan’s army-backed president dismissed each succeeding government — two headed by Bhutto and two by Nawaz Sharif — before they completed their terms. Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup after Sharif tried to replace him as army chief of staff in 1999.
As they did under Zia’s military rule, Pakistanis have grown discontented with Musharraf. Last year, he sparked protests by trying to oust Pakistan’s chief justice, who the president saw as a threat to his Oct. 6 reelection. In November and December, Musharraf suspended the constitution during six weeks of emergency rule, arrested thousands of political opponents and replaced most of the Supreme Court.
Politically weakened amid the turmoil, Musharraf accepted the return of the exiled Bhutto and Sharif to campaign for the parliamentary elections. Their parties have said they would impeach Musharraf if they win the necessary two-thirds majority, and accuse government authorities of harassing the opposition and providing money and logistical help to pro-Musharraf candidates.
Kayani told a meeting of top army commanders on Jan. 3 that “ultimately, it is the will of the people and their support that is decisive” in addressing Pakistan’s problems, and that for the military, “training and professional pursuits must remain our prime focus.”
Kayani’s order that officers avoid meetings with politicians came in a letter this month, Pakistani news media reported. Abbas, the army spokesman, confirmed the letter’s existence but declined to describe it in detail, calling it “an internal army matter.”Top