Ashfaq Kayani: Can Pakistan’s Army Chief End the Afghan War?

Pakistan's little-known army chief, Ashfaq Kayani, holds the key to a smooth exit for U.S. troops. Imtiaz Gul on what the general's angling for at this week's U.S.-Pakistan talks—and why Obama must visit Islamabad next month.

Although Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, is ostensibly leading the third round in the strategic dialogue between Pakistan and the U.S. in Washington this week, the brains behind the high-level engagement between the two countries is Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.

For President Obama and his military commanders, the Pakistani army chief holds the key to gradually extricating American troops from Afghanistan. Obama has reportedly offered a multiyear military cooperation pact and several billion dollars in economic assistance to Pakistan—on the face of it, a very generous quid pro quo.

Some may wonder why Obama is offering so much to this general who, like Pervez Musharraf, is little-known and much lionized in the American press. Kayani's army and intelligence services are widely believed to support militant groups that are targeting American soldiers. Why would the president chose to bolster an army that is indirectly hurting American interests? It's a legitimate question from those critical of Obama and wary of the Pakistani army's double-dealing. But most commentators tend to overlook the fundamentals that were instrumental in initiating the strategic dialogue between Washington and Islamabad.

If the Obama administration does offer a long-term military cooperation pact to Pakistan, the move will reflect a paradigm shift within the U.S. administration. Considerable credit would go to Kayani, who enjoys an unusually cordial relationship with the U.S. military high command, especially Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Without Kayani, the strategic dialogue would probably not have come about. So what exactly is he angling for? A few quotes taken from his public pronouncements give a clear indication of his loyalties and concerns:

The general is very clear about the limitations of his own army. But he has made it plain that he does not want coalition forces operating in Pakistan.

* "Partnership doesn't mean you say and we act. It is a bond based on considerations of mutual interests. We cannot compromise or undermine our interests by agreeing to your demands."

* "We will never allow the U.S. and NATO to cross the red lines on the Western border."

* "The Coalition must trust us. That will give U.S. space to operate in our own areas with determination and lesser criticism from those who want U.S. all to fail."

* "Pakistan's challenge lies in reconciling its long-term interests with the short-term objectives of the Coalition forces."

* "Afghanistan will remain fragile until at least 70 percent of security is handled by the Afghans themselves."

* "We cannot wish for Afghanistan what we don't want for Pakistan."

* "India remains our concern and its Pakistan-specific strike capability shapes our frame of reference."

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* "The Pakistani army has to be India-centric because Indian defense doctrine is Pakistan-centric."

One may disagree with one or more of these statements, but they leave little doubt that Kayani, who served as the head of the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, before becoming the army chief, means business. For him, mutual trust is fundamental to any level of cooperation.

The general, who at 59 is a patient and cool listener, is very clear about the limitations of his own army. But he has made it plain that he does not want Coalition forces operating in Pakistan. The recent 10-day border closure to the NATO cargo carriers in retaliation for an attack on Pakistani posts on Sept. 30 reaffirmed that the Pakistani army will not take in such incursions unchallenged.

The border closure triggered a deep crisis within the U.S. administration, as Pakistan remains the most important conduit for NATO's vital food and fuel supplies in Afghanistan—almost two-thirds passes through Pakistan.

Kayani doesn't mince words when it comes to India. He tells anyone who will listen that India's troop deployments in Kashmir and the Punjab, and its growing military capacities, will hardly discourage his army from directing its manpower and resources at India.

Although some in Washington expect that recent revelations, leaked through the Indian media, that ISI officers were involved in the November 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai might spell trouble for the Pakistani delegation during the talks, those familiar with Kayani don't foresee a hiccup. U.S. authorities have gone out of their way to underscore that while elements of the ISI may have been implicated in the attacks, there is no indication that the government of Pakistan was aware of them or that it played a hand in their planning or execution. (The timing of the latest revelations is hardly incidental: In August, hours before the Indian foreign minister's visit to Pakistan, the home secretary in New Delhi made similar statements, scuttling the talks in Islamabad the next day).

If Obama skips Pakistan when he visits India next month, it will certainly not go down well with the Pakistanis. (President Bill Clinton spent less than five hours in Islamabad after spending five days in India in March 2000, and the slight still rankles.)

Such a snub from Obama will only further damage the bruised egos of Pakistanis. It would feed into the narrative that al Qaeda and its Pakistani auxiliaries love to promote—that the Americans cozy up to Hindus and Jews and disdain Muslims. So Obama should visit the country and not avoid it on security pretexts. The U.S. needs Pakistan's help to make a smooth exit from Afghanistan. The longer its troops stay in the region, the more Pakistan will be destabilized. With any luck, that is the message that will come through this week.

Imtiaz Gul heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad, and is the author of The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan's Lawless Frontier, a book on the militarization of the tribal areas.