Baptism of fire for Pakistan's army
head By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - With Pervez Musharraf due to be
sworn in as a civilian president on Thursday after
holding the position while in uniform for the past
eight years, his successor as chief of army staff
faces a crucial decision over the role of the army
General Ashfaq Parvez
Kiani, who took over from Musharraf on Wednesday,
was immediately thrown his first test by al-Qaeda
and Taliban-linked militants in the volatile Swat
Valley in North-West Frontier Province, who
declared a ceasefire against the
Pakistani army operating
The use of the army against
militancy is highly controversial in Pakistan and
should Kiani agree to the ceasefire, he will have
the backing of much of the country, and even his
corps commanders, but he will put the county on a
collision course with the US over its role in the
"war on terror".
On Tuesday, militants in
the Swat Valley communicated through a
jirga (tribal council) that since Musharraf
had stepped down as military chief, they did not
have any personal grudge against the Pakistani
army, so it would better if the army reciprocated
with its own ceasefire.
The aim of the
militants to date has been to engage the Pakistani
security forces in the Swat Valley, forcing them
to reduce their presence on the border. This in
turn has allowed militants to cross freely into
and out of Afghanistan in support of the Taliban's
The ceasefire move is
clearly a test for Kiani to make his own choices.
Intensified military operations over the past 10
days in the Swat Valley have not yielded any
significant results. The army did succeed in
recapturing a few districts but was in no position
to force the militants' surrender. This means the
army will not be able to consolidate its gains for
any prolonged period in the valley - the militants
will be back.
Contacts familiar with Kiani
say that he would prefer for the army to back off,
but Pakistan's commitments in the "war on terror"
will make him stand firm, at least for now.
Kiani does not have Musharraf's seniority
over the corps commanders - they are mostly his
contemporaries. And they see the militants'
ceasefire offer as a chance to bridge the gap
between the nation and the army and force the
pro-West Kiani to accept the ceasefire and not
fight against its own people.
In the past
few days in the runup to Musharraf resigning as
chief of army staff there has been feverish
activity in the capital.
Kiani talked for
an hour on the phone with former premier Nawaz
Sharif, who has just returned to the country after
years of exile in Saudi Arabia. Sharif assured
Kiani that there is no rift between the army and
Nawaz's branch of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML)
and that all bitterness is in the past. Musharraf
ousted Sharif in a coup in 1999 and he was jailed
for a year before going into exile.
Retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, a
former boss of Musharraf and recently released
from jail after being detained soon after the
declaration of a state of emergency early this
month, spoke to Asia Times Online.
whole process of change of command [in the army]
is part of Washington's agenda in Pakistan.
Musharraf shed his uniform because he was asked by
Washington to do so, and if he lifts the
emergency, he will be doing so at American
"Now the new army chief has the
biggest challenge - to restore the image of the
Pakistani army and bridge the distance between it
and the nation. Therefore, he must take his own
decisions accordingly,'' said Gul. ''An
ex-military man enjoys no power and no status.
Look at me, how they sent me to jail, because I am
ex-military. From Thursday, Musharraf will be a
retired army man, and him keeping some
extraordinary powers as president will have little
meaning without being army chief. The real power
will be Kiani.''
Gul insisted that as a
result of the change of command there will be a
paradigm shift and Pakistan will change its policy
of fighting in the tribal areas.
Washington had reasoned that changing
horses in midstream by pressing for a new civilian
government would not affect the "war on terror".
But Pakistan has its own dynamics and the US plan
for a resurgence of "liberal democratic forces" in
January's elections is highly unlikely to
materialize. Instead, the conservative Sharif has
emerged as the most popular leader in the country,
not former premier Benazir Bhutto, the darling of
Sharif returned to Pakistan on
Sunday with the ruling PML in some crisis. Many of
its senior leaders refuse to contest the polls on
its platform, and some have even defected to
Nawaz's group. Even those who have elected to stay
in the party have removed Musharraf's portrait
from their campaign posters.
interesting case is that of former information
minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, once a close aide
of Musharraf, who refuses to say a single word in
favor of the president and who privately says that
siding with the "war on terror" and with Musharraf
means humiliating defeat in January's elections.
Sharif has already publicly said that the battle
against militancy will not be conducted in such a
manner that it could jeopardize Pakistan's
Meanwhile, an increasingly
vocal civil society is in no way ready to ease its
pressure. Gul was due to attend a meeting of the
opposition All Parties Democratic Movement on
Thursday as a special guest. "Yes, I will go there
and press them all to boycott the elections until
the judiciary is restored. The next elections will
be held under an international agenda and are
aimed to bring out biased results through
rigging," Gul told Asia Times Online.
After declaring a state of emergency,
Musharraf sacked scores of the judiciary,
including the chief justice and members of the
Supreme Court. His hand-picked replacements in the
Supreme Court then threw out petitions that sought
to block Musharraf from becoming president, paving
the way for his swearing-in.
made a point of visited the sacked judges, vowing
to support the civil movement to have them
Washington in a
spot Washington, too, has its dilemmas.
Since 2006, the Taliban's strength has steadily
increased and in 2008 they are likely to emerge
more powerful than ever. The US has played many
different cards in an attempt to split the
Taliban, but they have immediately countered such
One example is the jirgagai
(small jirga) that was scheduled to be held
this month in Pakistan. For the first time, the
Taliban were invited to talk about a peace
process. British intelligence held meetings with
several Taliban commanders in Pakistan and
Afghanistan and agreed on a temporary ceasefire so
that the jirgagai could take place.
But the militants increased the intensity
of their resistance in the Swat Valley and this
effectively killed off the initiative.
Afghan diplomat told Asia Times Online on
condition of anonymity that because of the
situation in the valley, the jirgagai has
been postponed until January or even later. Even
then, it is unlikely to produce any results.
From the US viewpoint, its overriding
concern is the relentless progress of the Taliban
and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, not to mention in
swathes of Pakistan on the border. Washington's
least concern is Pakistan's problems.
Kiani now has the opportunity to put
Pakistan's interests first.
Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan
Bureau Chief. He can be reached at[email protected]