New Pakistani Army Chief Quietly Takes Charge
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It's been a busy week for the general who replaced Pervez Musharraf as Pakistan's military chief. General Ashfaq Kayani held meetings with the head of the U.S. military's Central Command. And all week, the Pakistani army has been battling militants loyal to a Taliban commander that Pakistan blames for last month's assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Kayani now holds the most powerful position in Pakistan. In his two months in office, he started to make some fundamental changes while keeping a low profile, at least, compared to his predecessor.
As NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Islamabad.
JACKIE NORTHAM: For eight years, since he seized power in a bloodless coup, Pervez Musharraf was both Pakistan's president and its military chief. It was an arrangement that was at best tolerated. But the country's patience with Musharraf ran out last year when he purged the Supreme Court and altered the constitution in order to hold on to power. Swelling anger and opposition finally forced him to relinquish his army post, but the reputation of Pakistan's military was left badly damaged.
Ayaz Amir, a political commentator, says Musharraf's successor, General Ashfaq Kayani, had to act quickly when he replaced Musharraf two months ago.
Mr. AYAZ AMIR (Political Analyst): The first thing that you would expect a new army chief to do is really to try to rehabilitate the tarnished image of the army. And the obvious point to begin from was to say, all right, enough of politics. No politicians coming to general headquarters and no military men going to politicians.
NORTHAM: That is exactly what Kayani has done. Earlier this week, he issued two key directives. Kayani barred all senior military officers from having any direct involvement in Pakistan's politics. That includes meeting directly with President Musharraf unless they have Kayani's prior approval.
Air Marshal Asghar Khan says that looks good on paper, but it may not be practical, especially for Musharraf, who has decades-long ties with military officers.
Captain ASGHAR KHAN (Air Marshal, Pakistan Air Force): Personal contacts, personal relationship and all that. And he has gone to (unintelligible). I think it won't be realistic to expect that you cut off even his social contacts. That wouldn't be impossible. So it was a really complicated thing.
NORTHAM: General Kayani also has called back hundreds of military officers from plum civilian positions that were handed out as perks by Musharraf, powerful positions in ministry such as transportation, communication, and the water empower authority. Air Marshal Khan says he's pleased Kayani is trying to curb a reward system that's created resentment and militarized the government.
Capt. KHAN: It's a very good thing, I think, far too many officers doing civilian jobs. Even the postmaster general as a military man. It's ridiculous.
NORTHAM: Kayani's directives were issued while Musharraf is in Europe, trying to drum up support for his teetering regime. Analysts are split as to whether Kayani's move is seen as undermining Musharraf's position or has the president's blessing.
Retired Army Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a defense analyst, says either way, it's clear Kayani is taking steps to distance the Armed Forces from politics in the hugely unpopular Musharraf. Masood said it's imperative to build Pakistan's fate in its military again.
Lieutenant General TALAT MASODD (Retired, Pakistan Army): These Armed Forces in this country cannot afford to have a civil-military divide. This is one time when we need the full support of the people of Pakistan to fight, especially in this war on terror and extremism. If we do not have the support, we cannot fight this war effectively.
NORTHAM: Kayani is asserting himself in his new role as military chief. Over the past two months, he has regularly visited Pakistan's tribal areas, where the army is fighting pro-Taliban militants. Unlike his predecessor, Musharraf, Kayani is seen as focusing on military matters rather than on running the country. But political commentator Amir says, since its early days, he says the military's dabbling in politics is ingrained in Pakistan. Kayani has to prove he has no political aspirations.
Mr. AMIR: No. But he has taken a few steps, but that doesn't qualify for any glorification of General Ashfaq Kayani. I mean, he's an army chief, but I don't see any reason to glorify him. He is not the knight on a white charger that Pakistan has been waiting for, who'll step into the (unintelligible) General Kayani and his white charger is saying, all right, I salute the Pakistani nation. I'm going to go back to general headquarters. That's not going to happen.
NORTHAM: The calls for Musharraf's resignation from every quarter continue to grow stronger every day. Amir says the critical test for Kayani will be how long he, and by extension the military, backs the president - and how much power Kayani will assume if or when Musharraf is toppled.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Islamabad.