Global Insider: Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff

Late last month, Pakistan’s Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar denied rumors that the government was planning to extend Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s term as chief of army staff. In an e-mail interview, Hassan Abbas, Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society and Quaid-i-Azam Professor at Columbia University, discusses the possible candidates for one of Pakistan’s most powerful positions.

WPR: As Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani’s honorable retirement in November 2010 draws nearer, what are the prospects of his term as Pakistan’s chief of army staff being extended?

Hassan Abbas: There have been credible rumors about a possible extension in service for Gen. Kayani, and indications are that the Obama administration is supportive of this possibility. The primary reasons for this support are to maintain the working relationship between the Pentagon and the Pakistani army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, which has improved in the last couple of years, and to maintain continuity of command in the midst of a major military campaign against terrorists and insurgents in the Pakistan-Afghan border region.

The political consequences of Kayani’s extension cannot be ignored however. Kayani was director-general of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) during the Musharraf era, and he played a constructive role during Pakistan’s transition to democracy in early 2008. He also played a conciliatory role during the judicial crisis in 2009. As a result, he is very powerful, and the Pakistani political leadership would probably like to deal with a new and less-influential army chief. More so, there is no precedent for such an extension during civilian rule.

Recently, there were media reports in Pakistan suggesting that senior army commanders want an extension for Kayani. If so, then political leaders of Pakistan are unlikely to oppose such a “consensus” between “the army and America” — widely perceived to be the two most important players in Pakistan.

WPR: If Kayani does retire as planned, who are the possible successors?

Abbas: According to the country’s constitution, the choice of the new army chief will be made by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. President Asif Zardari as the commander-in-chief and co-chairperson of the ruling Pakistan People’ Party (PPP) will also significantly influence this decision. Under ordinary circumstances, one of the following generals is likely to be designated as the new army chief:

1. Lt. Gen. Khalid Shamim Wayen, until recently corps commander in Quetta and now holding the very important position of chief of general staff at GHQ, is considered to be the favorite within military circles.

2. Lt. Gen. Muhammad Yusuf, currently corps commander in Bahawalpur XXXI Corps, may get the position if Wayen is appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC), which is largely a ceremonial position in Pakistan and for which the incumbent will also be retiring in October 2010. Some analysts believe that Kayani may be appointed as CJCSC, with the role of this office enhanced and expanded. This is possible, but unlikely.

3. Among junior contenders, Lt. Gens. Nadeem Taj and Jamil Haider are noteworthy.

WPR: What impact will the transition have on the U.S.-Pakistani security and political relationship?

Abbas: Pakistan’s army is undisputedly the most powerful institution in the country, though its capabilities and cohesion are being challenged like never before. None of the top-most contenders for the position of army chief are known for harboring any extremist views, and U.S.-Pakistan army relations are institutional in nature. The U.S. should avoid influencing the choice of a new army chief as well as voicing its opinion about Kayani’s possible extension, as that will complicate the situation both for Pakistan’s political leadership and for U.S. interests in South Asia.