Both sides described the Lahore meeting as informal and cordial, but it was no mere social call. Analysts saw greater import: Kayani visited Sharif even before the prime-minister-in-waiting has been formally elected by Parliament and taken the oath of office.
The military said no other army chief had ever done that, but then Pakistan is entering a period of firsts — most significantly, a historic transition between elected governments.
“There are no rules for this because it’s never happened before,” Shuja Nawaz, who directs the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, said Sunday. “This will help the incoming administration get out of the blocks faster than expected.”
Nawaz’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, characterized the meeting as a briefing on security matters and a “good omen for democracy.” The army agreed.
“It shows there is no threat to democracy and no tension between military and civilian leadership,” a ranking military official, who declined to be identified because he is not an authorized spokesman, said Sunday. “Both want to work and support each other for strengthening democracy and addressing the grave problems of militancy and terrorism.”
Concerns, common ground
Sharif, deposed in a bloodless coup 14 years ago, imprisoned and then exiled for years, made a remarkable comeback in a campaign that, although heavily focused on promises of rescuing the economy, included pledges to pull Pakistan out of the U.S. war on Islamist extremism, negotiate with domestic insurgents and promote civilian supremacy over national security matters and foreign affairs.
That political rhetoric raised concern in a country where the military establishment pulls the strings even when not officially in power, as it has been for more than half of Pakistan’s existence. Elected leaders cautiously stay within the strictures placed upon them by the military chiefs and the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.
The country’s pundits and political leaders have been hanging on the question of how much room the army will give Sharif to make decisions after he easily locked down enough seats to head the new government.
“The meeting has set a new trend, as army chiefs in the past considered themselves too big and too powerful to call on political leaders,” said Shaheen Sehbai, an editor with the daily News International. “Kayani has again shown that the army under him is trying to support democracy.”
The army considers itself the final arbiter on foreign policy, especially regarding the flash point of Kashmir — the disputed Himalayan territory over which Pakistan and India have gone to war three times — and internal and external security matters, including its sometimes-strained relationship with the United States and NATO.