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Aditi Phadnis: A fine balance in Pakistan

Leadership changes presage a recalibration of the civil-military equilibrium

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With Pakistan due to hold general elections in the summer of 2013, Ajmal Kasab’s execution is perfectly timed — any later and it would have become a factor in the election, another reason for the Pakistan Taliban (the Pakistan, to give it its full formal name) to propel itself centre stage; and a headache for the civilian political establishment, the Pakistan Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that they want to avoid at all costs.

Pakistan is changing a lot and changing at a very fast pace — points that were brought home forcefully at an international conference recently. In India, there is very little sympathy for its neighbour, with the most charitable view being that Pakistan has only itself to blame for all the troubles it is facing today: a state without the capacity or the political resolve to look at all its religion- and terror-related problems squarely.

But Pakistan feels it is surrounded by ingrates: Afghanistan for which it has done so much in the past, now flexing its muscles and angrily pointing to Pakistan for all its problems; the US with which Pakistan’s relations lately have been rocky, at best; and even China, with which Pakistan proudly describes its relationship as being “as high as the mountains and as deep as the sea”, getting restive on the issue of militants, who want to start a movement from Pakistan with the aim of establishing an independent Islamic state in the western part of China.

With friends who are now turning away rather than recognise them on the street, Pakistan is also trying to prepare itself for inevitable domestic leadership changes. The 2013 election, Pakistanis say, is unlikely to alter the picture in the National Assembly significantly with Imran Khan’s party being the only new political element. But the tenure of the Chief Justice of Pakistan comes to an end in 2013. The Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) is due to retire in 2013 after an extended tenure. An chief, Lt Gen Zahir-ul-Islam, was appointed in March this year. There is gossip that Gen Zahir-ul-Islam could succeed Kayani with the latter becoming a Field Marshal — but an operational rather than a ceremonial one. But there is no clarity about that. The real speculation is over how Pakistan will refashion civil military relations going forward, and who the men-in-place will be.

The last ISI chief, Shuja Pasha, did not cover himself with glory when he demitted office. It was on his watch that an American raid killed Osama bin Laden — where the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) took great care not to inform ISI. This badly dented ISI’s prestige both in the public and the Army. A contractor killed two Pakistanis and got off paying a fine; and accusations continue that ISI is shielding Islamist militants. The killing of an investigative journalist, Syed Saleem Shahzad, widely viewed as an ISI job, brought international condemnation.

The ISI chief – whoever it is – will face even more complex challenges in 2013 and 2014. If Kayani moves out, who will be the new CoAS? What will be his relations with the ISI chief? Islam was deputy director general in ISI before he was promoted as chief. But he is the juniormost in his batch and has never held the command of a Corps, which is an essential qualification for a CoAS. Moreover, if he is to take Kayani’s place, he will have to supersede as many as six other officers. Most of these are highly competent.

In any other army, Lt Gen Tariq Khan might have been the most favoured as CoAS. Acclaimed as a war hero for his work with the Frontier Corps and the 14th Infantry Division that reported spectacular success against insurgents in South Waziristan, Tariq Khan is a no-nonsense General. He is secular in his outlook and is, therefore, viewed with suspicion by the Islamists in the Pakistan Army. The Americans love him and his entire family is settled in the US — another reason for suspicion. There are other Generals who are considered top notch at their job.

Of course, the final decision will be taken by the new president of Pakistan, whose election will follow the general elections. If it is Asif Ali Zardari again, it will be a new, empowered president who will be looking at an elected second term. Obviously, Kayani, who is likely to be around, will have his own opinion on his successor.

But the new ISI chief will have the second big task on his hands in 2014, when foreign forces begin moving out of Afghanistan. Given an open border, strong hostility between Pakistan and Afghanistan on the issue of terror groups and safe havens, and the possibility of a weak political structure in Afghanistan, Pakistan will have to fight very hard to keep its civil-military equilibrium intact. India needs to reach out and help.

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