By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 20 -- When Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte visited Pakistan last weekend, he met once with President Pervez Musharraf, for two hours. But before he left town, he held three meetings with a lesser-known figure: Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the deputy army chief.
The two shared a Saturday night dinner.
The attention paid to Kiyani has affirmed reports here that he will soon be anointed Musharraf's successor as head of the army -- and, as such, will be a vital ally for the Bush administration during a time of crisis.
"Use your influence. You can help save Pakistan," Negroponte told Kiyani during the visit, according to a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Musharraf has repeatedly said he will step down from his army post. It remains unclear when he will do so. If Kiyani is named successor, he will command Pakistan's 600,000 troops and lead the country's most important institution.
Power in Pakistan flows from the uniform, as a popular saying here goes. Half of the country's rulers have been sons of the military.
"To understand the power of Pakistan, you have to understand that it's the military that matters. And they are kingmakers here," said Shireen M. Mazari of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. "I don't know if that implies that Kiyani can indeed influence Musharraf politically right now. But he may well do in the future, if history is an indicator."
Public support for Musharraf, who was installed in the presidency after a 1999 coup, has never been as low as it is now, following his decision Nov. 3 to declare emergency rule, fire several Supreme Court justices and crack down on the news media.
On Tuesday, Musharraf's government released more than 3,000 political prisoners who had been held under emergency rule, many of them lawyers. But the Interior Ministry said 2,000 people remain detained. And in Lahore, a group of lawyers was briefly released and then arrested again.
Meanwhile, police detained 150 journalists in the southern city of Karachi, where violence broke out after police sprayed tear gas, used batons to beat protesters and chased them through the streets. Several journalists were shown on television injured.
Musharraf flew to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday amid reports that he might be meeting with Nawaz Sharif -- the prime minister ousted in the '99 coup.
With the political uncertainty continuing in Pakistan, analysts say Kiyani is key to Musharraf's own future.
Few say Kiyani would attempt a coup because, for now at least, top military leaders would not support it. And Kiyani, 55, has his own reasons not to press Musharraf to lift emergency rule or resign as president.
"He won't risk his own job, since time is on his side," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general who is now a political analyst.
Masood added that "the U.S. emphasis is correct."
"They have to cultivate him and make sure they get along well with each other," he said. "Because if, down the road, the army feels their reputation is sinking along with Musharraf, well, that is when you have seen a change of power in Pakistan throughout history."
Pakistan's army was once the most popular institution in the country. Bumper stickers proclaimed, "Good Men Serve in the Pakistani Army." Wars with India over Kashmir were a unifying factor against a common enemy.
But Musharraf and the troops he commands have lost support among many Pakistanis. The president has been criticized for undermining national interests in favor of the Bush administration's in counterterrorism operations. Public approval of the military sank after soldiers launched a deadly raid at a pro-Taliban mosque in Islamabad, with troops facing off against religious students.
Throughout the recent turmoil, Kiyani has remained out of the political spotlight.
Before becoming the armed forces' No. 2, the general was head of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's spy agency, where he worked closely with senior CIA and Pentagon officials. He was given that post after investigating two assassination attempts against Musharraf in 2003; the appointment was seen as a reward.
Kiyani has working-class roots, having been raised in farming communities in the Punjab region, sometimes called the country's "martial belt" because many teenage boys from the province enter the military, lacking other economic opportunities. He attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
Colleagues say Kiyani is more knowledgeable about al-Qaeda than any other army general. He is said to have good relations with some of the country's civilian political leaders, including former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, for whom he served as deputy military secretary.
Kiyani is known to show few emotions publicly and takes time to think over decisions, which analysts say could be a calming trait in the current political turbulence.
"The real question now is: Can Kiyani foster a better public image of the army and gain support within the army for what they are doing against their own brothers in fighting militancy in the tribal areas and in the Swat Valley?" said Nasim Zehra, a defense and security analyst in Islamabad. "As a Pakistani, I have full confidence in Kiyani. He's Pakistan's professional soldier and not interested in power and politics. But the truth is, I would have said that about Musharraf in 1999."