My first meeting with Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, then a lieutenant-general, was interesting.
It was a sunny, November morning in 2004 as we drove into the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate in Islamabad. Zigzagging through the barriers, we were checked, courteously, at three different points until we finally entered the premises. The manicured, resplendent lawns and flowerbeds stood in complete contrast to the image the agency has garnered. There was none of the sense of darkness and menace associated with its cloak-and-dagger stuff. It was more like Honey Rider emerging from the sea in a white bikini than Alexander Conklin being double-tapped in a dark alley in Paris.
The Army was keen to know what we had seen and experienced on our 10-day visit to Indian-occupied Kashmir, the first ever visit by Pakistani journalists. We had started with Jammu and then proceeded to Srinagar, an arduous nine-hour journey through the winding Pir Panjal range and the famous Banihal Pass into the Valley. Like the-then president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, other officers, too, wanted to hear our impressions of the visit. Kayani was one of them.
As we alighted from our vehicles, we were met by a tall, courteous officer in civvies. We followed him into the main building. Being unencumbered until then by a cellphone, I waited for the seven others to deposit their devices at the reception. Another officer looked skeptical when I told him I didn’t carry a cellphone. So I smiled and said that Wordsworth couldn’t have written The Prelude if he had carried one. The officer remained pokerfaced. He was, perhaps, more a Byron man. We were soon put into an elevator and up we went to one of the conference rooms for the session.
To my mild surprise, Kayani was already there to greet us. “I have been reading you for a long time,” he said, shaking my hand. “From your picture I thought you’d be taller.” I replied: “I am sorry to disappoint you, sir, but it’s a bit late in the day for me to rectify that!” Kayani seemed to smile at that, or so I thought—it’s somewhat difficult to read his smiles. He moved on to meet with the rest of the group.
This was my first meeting with Kayani, who, three years later, would succeed Musharraf as Army chief, a position he would retain for two full terms.
Four other officers were present with Kayani that day, two of them major-generals and two brigadiers. Kayani himself was new to his assignment, having taken over from Gen. Ehsan-ul-Haq only the previous month. Pleasantries exchanged, we got seated and attended to the business at hand. I had been assigned the job of giving the initial briefing, which I did. Others followed. I kept noticing Kayani: he didn’t speak, and would occasionally take notes. Kayani was different from his boss, Musharraf, who, in such meetings, would generally spend more time talking to editors and journalists than listening to them.
Once all of us had spoken, Kayani asked his junior colleagues if they had any questions. The exchange started. I realized an hour into the conversation that Kayani had barely spoken more than five sentences. Finally, in the last half hour or so of the meeting, he asked questions, formulating his queries with a minimalism that would have done Hemingway proud. He did, at that moment, look like a superspy—polite, taciturn, a keen listener absorbing things, but giving away nothing of his thoughts. He didn’t have the false panache of his talker boss. Kayani seemed like a doer whose next move was difficult to calculate. It was only in the last five minutes that he gave his own assessment. Again, there was no bravado there, just clearheaded concision. And five minutes were five minutes. When we were done, he saw us off at the conference room door. Funnily enough, I don’t recall him smoking in that meeting.
I next met Kayani in January 2008, about two months after he had taken over as Chief of Army Staff, in a group of about 30 to 35, mostly journalists, at Army House in Rawalpindi. With Kayani were Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the newly appointed director-general of Inter-Services Public Relations, and Maj. Gen. Shuja Pasha, director-general of Military Operations. (In the next nine months, Pasha would make lieutenant-general and assume charge of the ISI.) The Army had taken a political hit the previous year, first with the sacking of the country’s chief justice and then with the imposition of emergency on Nov. 3. Kayani wanted a course correction. And Pasha was there to tell us why Operation Rah-e-Haq, started in November, within days of the emergency declaration, hadn’t been taken to its logical end and whether the Army was planning any more operations.
This time around, Kayani wanted to speak. He told us, in short, staccato sentences, that he wanted to get the Army out of politics and return it to its professional duties. He also spoke about the upcoming elections and what the Army’s role would be in providing security. He assured us that the Army, under his command, would stay away from politics and give its support to whoever came to power. There was much back and forth, and skepticism on our part about the Army’s thinking and planning. Kayani took the questions patiently, chain-smoking this time—I was sharing the ashtray with him; he smoked three cigarettes to each one I did through that cold winter evening session, which lasted for almost four hours. We left only half-assured.
I met Kayani several times after that, in groups small and big. As an observer of counterterrorism military operations, I saw a change in how the Army, and its chief, operated. There was emphasis, unlike under Musharraf, on two factors: getting a public buy-in, and planning systematically. The areas under Taliban control must be dominated physically before they could be restored to normalcy, went the thinking.
The chief was focusing on the Army. ISPR was working more efficiently and opening up, sharing information. Steps were being taken to improve training and the quality of equipment. Schemes were devised to take better care of soldiers and officers killed or injured during operations. For instance, unlike the time when units were picked up and inducted straight into operational areas, the Army created multiple counterterrorism centers, which also imparted pre-induction training to troops and officers to be deployed to operational areas. This helped reduce casualties and gave troops the necessary edge. Work also started on counter-IED techniques, and there was an emphasis on the fact that physical dominance of the space was just one end of the triangle, a necessary but not sufficient condition. It did seem like the Army was doing what it was supposed to do.
‘I thought they had come for our nuclear weapons,’ Kayani confided after Abbottabad.
Simultaneously, there was an effort to heal the wounds Musharraf had inflicted on Balochistan. Affirmative-action initiatives devised during the Musharraf period to recruit more Baloch into the Army hadn’t really borne fruit. Kayani worked them with a different stress and created incentives. The Army, for example, started the Chamalang Education Program to give free education to Baloch boys and girls. This and other schemes are functional, but the results are slow in coming. One reason could be that the Army had to cope with a nearly dysfunctional provincial government as much as the Baloch separatists. And that situation still obtains.
In the years that I interacted with Kayani, as did other journalists, I did not see too much change in relation to India. Granted, he would say that he desired a rapprochement. I was one of six journalists who went to Gyari with him following last year’s avalanche that killed 128 soldiers, officers, and civilian noncombatants from 6 Northern Light Infantry. Among the journalists was Anita Joshua, the Pakistan correspondent for the Indian newspaper The Hindu. After we gathered in a tent for a briefing, I recall that the commander of Force Command Northern Areas was hesitant to run some slides because of Joshua’s presence. But Kayani told him to go ahead. On a previous visit to Gyari, Kayani had given statements about demilitarizing Siachen.
But despite Kayani’s repeated stress on the internal threats facing Pakistan as also the economy, there was a reluctance to rethink the response to the threat from India—unless India showed flexibility and reciprocated. I found this to be a misreading of realpolitik which also ran in the face of the broader counterterrorism policy against the internal threat. Given India’s advantageous position, I couldn’t see why New Delhi would give much space to Pakistan. I remember suggesting to him at one point that we should perhaps put disputes with India on the backburner and develop a nonmilitary strategy to deal with them—at least as long as we are grappling with the internal threat, and, more broadly, the western border. He didn’t seem particularly convinced.
Kayani was also skeptical of the Americans’ success in Afghanistan and their Pakistan policy, even as he realized the asymmetry of power and the fact that Pakistan had no choice but to deal with Washington. His “famous” 16-page document to U.S. President Barack Obama basically advised the Americans on what to do in Afghanistan.
I and other journalists met him a day after the May 2011 U.S. operation in Abbottabad which killed Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. Kayani seemed distraught and on the defensive. Accompanying him were Lt. Gen. Waheed Arshad, the chief of general staff, and Generals Pasha and Abbas. Never before were we journalists more outraged as we were over the shocking discovery of bin Laden inside Pakistan; no one was prepared to accept Kayani’s explanations. And then someone asked Kayani about his first thoughts when he realized the Americans had ingressed into Pakistani territory. It was a telling moment. Kayani’s stunning one-sentence reply—“I thought they had come for our nuclear weapons”—told me more about Pakistan’s relations with the U.S. than if Kayani had written an entire position paper on the issue. I sat there thinking: if we distrust the Americans to this extent, and if the feeling is mutual, both sides are in trouble, us more than the Americans.
But I have gone beyond Kayani’s first tenure. Kayani shouldn’t have been in the driver’s seat post-November 2010, when he was originally to retire. But he was, and that was a mistake. This is what I wrote at the time in “The General Behind the Throne” for The Indian Express:
“There are two ways of approaching the full-term extension granted to General Kayani by the current Pakistan Peoples Party government—the ideal, which may also be called the abstract; and the real, which may be termed contextual. Conclusions will differ depending on the approach taken … The ideal approach would challenge the extension. It can do so by appealing to the concept of civilian supremacy which stipulates that the civilian principals must enjoy effective control over the military, this decision being clearly violative of that principle … The ideal can also appeal to the organizational framework and dismiss the gloss that is being put on the concept of continuity of command. Continuity of command is an institutional function, not a device to keep individuals in cushy jobs.
“At a dinner once, Kayani quoted Einstein on simplicity and complexity. So he should know the difference between this side of the complexity for which he wouldn’t give a nickel and the other for which he would give his life. He seems, in this case, to have chosen to fall on a third side of complexity that even Einstein hadn’t worked out.”
Earlier, speaking at the National Defense University on civil-military relations, with rumors about Kayani’s full-term extension afloat, I had argued against it. Seeing Kayani’s latter three-year term as Army chief, I’d support my arguments again. While he was an outstanding officer and did much good for the Army in his first term, his second was nothing much to write home about. I might have lived with a year’s extension for him, but a full term? No. It’s important to place institutions above any individual. It is also important to note that while Kayani stayed away from directly interfering with the political system, his abstinence had much to do with a PPP government resigned to the fact that it had no capacity to formulate security policy and gave the Army virtual carte blanche.
The Army under Kayani could not work out a clear U.S. policy even as it understood the threat presented by the Tehreek-e-Taliban and also the fact that Pakistan can either play ball with the U.S. or middle-finger it. There was operational cooperation, but the situation was marred with distrust. Much of the blame must also be laid at the door of the Americans who sacrificed the imperatives of higher strategy for tactical gains. But it doesn’t seem like Pakistan, more than either sulking or reacting, did much to engage the Americans seriously on what can and cannot be done.
The mounting distrust was not helped by Raymond Davis or the Abbottabad raid or Salala. On all these occasions, the Army and the ISI came across as impotent. There was visible anger in the Army. Pasha offered to resign and Parliament should have accepted his resignation. Kayani should have resigned, too. In a war, traditionally, there are no fixed tenures for generals. When they fail, they are chopped. But that presupposes civilian supremacy, which is a function of serious governance and policymaking, not shirking and definitely not procrastination.
A month or so after I wrote an open letter to General Pasha in the wake of the murder, in May 2011, of journalist Saleem Shahzad, I was invited to Southern Command Headquarters in Quetta. Kayani was also there, as was Lt. Gen. Javed Zia. While we were having tea after the passing-out ceremony, and just before Kayani was leaving, he turned to me and said, “You write on strategy and about the state; someday we should sit down and discuss that.” I said: “That will be great, sir.” That never happened.
My last meeting with Kayani, a six-hour marathon, happened in end-February. In April, I became persona non grata after I hosted a program on Capital TV with the sidekick of certified lunatic Zaid Hamid who said Hamid had leveled charges against the Army and Kayani. The channel was taken off air for two days. I haven’t been invited to any Army briefing or demonstration since.
Now that Kayani has retired and will probably spend his time chasing the white ball, perhaps we can have our sit-down and discuss theories of state after all. Nora, in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House says at one point: “An exit should be well-timed.” Kayani, who is said to enjoy literature, should have heeded that advice. He played a good innings; I just wish he had timed his exit better.
Haider is a senior journalist who has held various editorial positions. His areas of interest include defense, security, foreign policy, statecraft, political theory, and literature. The opinions expressed herein are his own. From our Dec. 7, 2013, issue.