A season for extensions

Prime Minister Gilani addressed the nation late night on Thursday for less than three minutes but made an announcement that kept everyone glued to their television screens. The prime minister, after consultations with President Zardari, gave a three-year extension to Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. This did not come as a surprise to many who were already expecting that the government would stick with General Kayani rather than bringing in a new army chief at this point when our armed forces are engaged in an intense battle against the terrorists. There had been a review going on within the power corridors, both at the governmental level and consultations with the military top brass. To quell speculation, which could have led to uncertainty within the military quarters, the government decided to announce its decision sooner rather than later. This is an unprecedented length of extension, virtually another tenure. The interesting aspect of this extension is that General Kayani’s term ends in 2013, the same year when the tenure of the current government and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry also comes to an end. Prime Minister Gilani also made a reference to this fact in a press conference yesterday. The coincidence seems significant.

Extensions in the army are a rare occurrence, especially that of an army chief, unless he gives one to himself as in the case of Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Musharraf when they were in power. General Kayani is the second army chief to be given an extension by a civilian government, the first being Ayub Khan – the difference being that Iskandar Mirza’s government was not a democratically elected one. The inherent problem with extensions is that it tends to block other people’s career prospects – in this case some dozen other generals’ chances of becoming the army chief – and causes heartburn. Given the discipline of the army, this heartburn may not translate into anything substantive but a possibility of resignation(s) cannot be ruled out. Back in the 90s when General Musharraf superseded his senior officers and was made the army chief, General Ali Kuli Khan resigned. This time we would have to wait and see if any resignations occur.

Prime Minister Gilani cited “[Kayani’s] effective role in the war against terrorism and in the enforcement of rule of law in the country” as the reason for this extension. It is true that changing horses midstream, when perhaps we have entered the most difficult phase of this war against terrorism, would not have been wise. After successful military operations in Swat and South Waziristan and a few other successes, now is the time to make sure that these areas remain peaceful. The civilian dispensation has not yet taken full control of these areas. Thus the ability of the army to conduct mopping up and offensive operations stands compromised to some extent. General Kayani’s ‘successful’ command should not therefore be prematurely mistaken for final success.

Another reason for this extension could be that so far General Kayani has not shown any inclination towards the army’s past penchant for upsetting the democratic applecart. If anything, he has supported continuance of the democratic dispensation. Therefore, without any disrespect to any expectant, the consideration must have been that General Kayani’s track record inspires confidence. Another important factor is General Kayani’s good equation with the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. They have reposed a lot of confidence in his counter-insurgency efforts, further sealing his credentials as the man of the hour. Though extended tenures generally have the unnerving tendency to go to people’s heads, so far this does not seem a high risk as far as General Kayani’s professionalism is concerned.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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