For six years, General Kayani was Pakistan’s drug of choice.
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]omewhere between Ashfaq Kayani becoming Army chief and the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, at a function at President’s House in Islamabad six years ago, a businessman tried to ingratiate himself with the general. Kayani had been keeping to himself, standing to one side, pulling on a cigarette with a black filter. The businessman, who is said to be so ingenious that he might as well be called Mian Mensa, darted to Kayani’s corner. “Sir, you are from Chakwal, I am also from Chakwal,” he said in Punjabi, panting. “We must meet, sir; there is so much to discuss, sir.” As chief of Inter-Services Intelligence, Kayani had come to expect such obeisance. After he had let the businessman speak his piece, he responded stone-faced, and in English: “I am from Gujjar Khan.” And then he coolly walked away.
But the meeting did happen, months later, in which the businessman reportedly urged Kayani to intervene and prevent—for the sake of the national economy, for the sake of Pakistan!—Asif Ali Zardari from becoming Pakistan’s president. Over the next few years, especially during his first term, Kayani gave audience to other prominent businessmen complaining about actual and imagined political victimization and extortion-by-democracy, but he never provided them the bankable assurances they had come seeking—even if he did assist their cause, sort of.
During his first term as Army chief, Kayani took shotgun interest in the economy. Financial experts were regularly spirited to Rawalpindi for briefings, distressed businessmen were allowed to vent their spleen at ISI safe-houses in Islamabad—or, unprecedentedly, whisked away briefly but involuntarily by inquisitorial plainclothesmen—and policy prescriptions were dictated to the Pakistan Peoples Party-led government. There was good reason that many within the Zardari-led PPP continued to fear some sort of coup throughout their five-year term. This fear effectively forced the government to hand over defense and foreign policy formulation—and even several aspects of the economy—wholesale to the Army.
The Army, and later the Iftikhar Chaudhry-led Supreme Court, studiously and single-mindedly burnished its reputation at the expense of the PPP. The gloves came off just weeks into Zardari’s presidency—right after the president’s no-first-strike commitment to India. Then the 2008 Mumbai attacks happened. India and the U.S. blamed the carnage on Pakistan’s quasi-state actors. The PPP was tarred and feathered: it was accused through Army proxies of being naïve, weak, and unpatriotically self-interested. Zardari’s efforts to allay Indian concerns were torpedoed; the national-security adviser, himself a former general, forced to resign.
In March the following year, pressure from Kayani to prevent a march on Islamabad led Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to announce, in a pre-dawn address to the nation, that his government had relented. Chaudhry would be reinstated as chief justice. Kayani, fawned columnists, had heroically undone his predecessor’s crimes against the judiciary and forced the PPP’s hand. Then, at the time of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman negotiations, the Army publicly scolded the government for sliding in Army-neutering conditions in the draft U.S. bill. (Even Mr. Mensa took to television to scoff at the government for allegedly selling the country short.)
‘I enjoy giving cigarettes to you,’ General Kayani told a federal minister.
Pakistan’s worst ever floods, in 2010, shielded Kayani from criticism. In the first days of the disaster, Zardari was AWOL, leaving the Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, to excoriate the absent president by his own scenery-chewing presence in flood-hit areas. But the Army—which alone had the resources and manpower to conduct relief work—stole even Sharif’s thunder. It became haloed; Kayani’s popularity shot up—leaving the scrutinized-into-dysfunction PPP-led government with no choice but to give him a full, three-year extension.
Kayani’s sense of cause became stronger. At the seven-hour-long, off-the-record briefing to journalists that November, within days of his second-term having been announced, a PowerPoint presentation laid out all the good the Army under Kayani had done—during the floods, in the federally-administered tribal areas, in Balochistan. Then, Kayani asked an officer to go through his presentation on Afghanistan, a summary of the 16-page advice he gave U.S. President Barack Obama in breach of protocol. Not satisfied with the officer’s delivery of his words, Kayani took over, repeating several lines as if reciting verse, savoring syllables. (At the same meeting, Kayani also joked about Obama’s Wars, which had just come out and features Kayani: “I am very ‘India-centric,’ you may have read.”)
Then Raymond Davis happened, followed by the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, the Mehran naval base attack, the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad, Salala, the unending standoff with the U.S., Memogate—all in 2011. Kayani now had to fend for his legacy, and post-retirement survival-without-event in Pakistan. Obstacles were overcome with surgical precision: lawsuits against Kayani were quietly settled, the media was tamed behind the scenes, and the political opposition was charmed into line (several Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leaders spoke of Kayani’s “good character”).
Kayani was viewed as hall monitor by the business community and politicians. This June, talk show host Hamid Mir wrote a column for Jang, “Khawaja Asif Invited to Sin…,” that really speaks to how politicians saw Kayani. Mir writes that after the oath-taking of the new federal cabinet at President’s House, a “water and power and oil and gas thief” allegedly accosted Asif to congratulate him, then pursued him doggedly across the hall promising great gifts. The exchange was heading south quickly, with Asif “raising his hand in the air to slap the thief,” when prefect-figure Kayani came into view. “Judging the delicacy of the moment,” instead of slapping the villainous tempter, Asif used his raised hand to comb his hair “and then eased it into his pocket putting an end to the shameful saga.”
By the time of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s farewell lunch for Zardari, Kayani had become lame duck—even though he had asked Sharif after the May elections not to discuss his successor to prevent just this from happening—and approachable. After the feast, as Kayani spoke with PPP’s Aitzaz Ahsan, two PMLN politicians joined in, asking for cigarettes. The general obliged. “I enjoy giving cigarettes to you,” he told one of them, a federal minister.
Kayani maintained his moral authority—a necessity for keeping the rank and file unmoved by Islamist seduction—by having the likeminded run the PPP’s reputation into the ground. This worked to the advantage of the main opposition party and a kvetching business community, which will finally earn what they see as their due when the PMLN government begins its bargain-basement sale of state assets.
As Army chief, General Kayani was cold but courteous. It’s only right that his legacy be assessed similarly, coolly but courteously, without the empty platitudes we think we owe the once powerful.
Ahmed is the editor-in-chief of Newsweek Pakistan.