The South Asia Channel

The Kayani era continues

The Kayani era in Pakistan continues.

In a nationally televised address on Thursday, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced a three-year extension for the country's powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who had been scheduled to retire this November.

Gilani stated that the move was necessary to ensure the continuity of counterinsurgency operations in Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan. He described Kayani as "pro-democracy" and said that the success of military operations in Swat and elsewhere was made possible by the army chief's leadership.

That the Pakistani prime minister made his announcement in a rare televised address to the nation was significant. Earlier in the week, Gilani tried to project the image that he alone would decide Kayani's future, telling a journalist, "Let me decide it [whether or not to give Kayani an extension]; it is my prerogative; you need not to worry about this matter."

Perhaps Gilani and his advisors thought a national address would project the image of civilian control -- specifically, that of the prime minister -- over the military. But Gilani could have made his decision public less dramatically, for example, by issuing a press release and making himself available to journalists. Gilani's use of national television and the wording of his speech accord Kayani a status of almost equal stature to the country's elected civilian leadership. Though this reflects the ground reality -- Kayani maintains a monopoly over shaping Pakistan's security policy and even influences its politics -- it is counterproductive for Gilani to implicitly (and unwittingly) acknowledge this himself. Better that he repeats what everyone else knows to be a lie.

Perceptions aside, three more years of Kayani could conceivably provide continuity to both Pakistan's military and political setup. In recent months, the consensus in Pakistan was that Kayani would receive a two-year extension. Gilani's choice of three years was a surprise. But not by mere coincidence, Gilani's government also has three years remaining in its tenure. And so it's certainly possible that there is a deal between Gilani's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Kayani, perhaps involving foreign guarantors, to let this ship sail for three more years (with Gilani wearing the captain's hat steering an imaginary wheel and Kayani actually in control). Indeed, Gilani alluded to a possible deal when he said today that Pakistan's four major "stakeholders" -- the president, prime minister, army chief, and Supreme Court chief justice -- are in a "secure position" till 2013.

Gilani's statement likely reflects more aspiration or promises made with fingers crossed than a fixed roadmap. The Gilani government and the president, Asif Ali Zardari (who also heads the PPP), face a dual challenge from an activist Supreme Court and an opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League -- Nawaz (PML-N) that is positioning itself for early elections toward the end of this year or early next year. The PML-N has been out of national power for 11 years, and a Kayani-PPP deal would make the PML-N the odd man out, shutting it out of Islamabad for another three. It is unlikely to sit idle if a deteriorating economy and clash between the PPP and judiciary provide it with a pretext to push for early elections in which it would gain a plurality of votes and be able to form a government. In fact, the PML-N could fortify ties with right-wing politicians and Islamists, who want to see the end of the PPP government. Some of Pakistan's nationalist and Islamist commentators have also reacted with suspicion toward Kayani's extension, describing it as a result of Hillary Clinton's "lobbying" or as a continuation of the reviled American and British-arranged power sharing deal between Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf.

And so for Kayani, who has managed to become the darling of many of Pakistan's nationalists and Islamists, there is some risk involved in continuing for another three years as army chief. If he ties himself too close to the PPP, he -- and more importantly, the Pakistani Army -- could lose a critical support base and sink along with the current government, unless he maintains a political distance and continues to pursue a semi-nationalist security policy.

Gilani projects a false sense of confidence in the viability of Pakistan's current political-military setup. This is Pakistan. The Kayani extension provides a short-term ceasefire between the PPP and the army, but it will also likely produce re-alignments among its fractious power brokers. And another head-on clash between any two of them is not far from reality.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He writes at The Pakistan Policy Blog (www.pakistanpolicy.com).

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images