By Karin Brulliard and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 31, 2010; 8:37 PM
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Countless U.S. officials in recent years have lectured and listened to Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the man many view as the most powerful in Pakistan. They have drunk tea and played golf with him, feted him and flown with him in helicopters.
But they have yet to persuade him to undertake what the Obama administration's recent strategy review concluded is a key to success in the Afghan war - the elimination of havens inside Pakistan where the Taliban plots and stages attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Kayani, who as Pakistan's army chief has more direct say over the country's security strategy than its president or prime minister, has resisted personal appeals from President Obama, U.S. military commanders and senior diplomats. Recent U.S. intelligence estimates have concluded that he is unlikely to change his mind anytime soon. Despite the entreaties, officials say, Kayani doesn't trust U.S. motivations and is hedging his bets in case the American strategy for Afghanistan fails.
In many ways, Kayani is the personification of the vexing problem posed by Pakistan. Like the influential military establishment he represents, he views Afghanistan on a timeline stretching far beyond the U.S. withdrawal, which is slated to begin this summer. While the Obama administration sees the insurgents as an enemy force to be defeated as quickly and directly as possible, Pakistan has long regarded them as useful proxies in protecting its western flank from inroads by India, its historical adversary.
"Kayani wants to talk about the end state in South Asia," said one of several Obama administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive relationship. U.S. generals, the official said, "want to talk about the next drone attacks."
The administration has praised Kayani for operations in 2009 and 2010 against domestic militants in the Swat Valley and in South Waziristan, and has dramatically increased its military and economic assistance to Pakistan. But it has grown frustrated that the general has not launched a ground assault against Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in North Waziristan.
Kayani has promised action when he has enough troops available, although he has given no indication of when that might be. Most of Pakistan's half-million-man army remains facing east, toward India.
In recent months, Kayani has sometimes become defiant. When U.S.-Pakistani tensions spiked in September, after two Pakistani soldiers were killed by an Afghanistan-based American helicopter gunship pursuing insurgents on the wrong side of the border, he personally ordered the closure of the main frontier crossing for U.S. military supplies into Afghanistan, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.
In October, administration officials choreographed a White House meeting for Kayani at which Obama could directly deliver his message of urgency. The army chief heard him out, then provided a 13-page document updating Pakistan's strategic perspective and noting the gap between short-term U.S. concerns and Pakistan's long-term interests, according to U.S. officials.
Kayani reportedly was infuriated by the recent WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables, some of which depicted him as far chummier with the Americans and more deeply involved in Pakistani politics than his carefully crafted domestic persona would suggest. In one cable, sent to Washington by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad last year, he was quoted as discussing with U.S. officials a possible removal of Pakistan's president and his preferred replacement.
On the eve of the cable's publication in November, the normally aloof and soft-spoken general ranted for hours on the subject of irreconcilable U.S.-Pakistan differences in a session with a group of Pakistani journalists.
The two countries' "frames of reference" regarding regional security "can never be the same," he said, according to news accounts. Calling Pakistan America's "most bullied ally," Kayani said that the "real aim of U.S. strategy is to de-nuclearize Pakistan."The general's suspicions
Kayani was a star student at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in 1988, writing his master's thesis on "Strengths and Weaknesses of the Afghan Resistance Movement." He was among the last Pakistanis to graduate from the college before the United States cut off military assistance to Islamabad in 1990 in response to Pakistan's suspected nuclear weapons program. Eight years later, both Pakistan and India conducted tests of nuclear devices. The estrangement lasted until President George W. Bush lifted the sanctions in 2001, less than two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Kayani is far from alone in the Pakistani military in suspecting that the United States will abandon Pakistan once it has achieved its goals in Afghanistan, and that its goal remains to leave Pakistan defenseless against nuclear-armed India.
Kayani "is one of the most anti-India chiefs Pakistan has ever had," one U.S. official said.
The son of a noncommissioned army officer, Kayani was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1971. He was chief of military operations during the 2001-2002 Pakistan-India crisis. As head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency from 2004 to 2007, he served as a point man for back-channel talks with India initiated by then-President Pervez Musharraf. When Musharraf resigned in 2008, the talks abruptly ended.
The Pakistani military has long been involved in politics, but few believe that the general seeks to lead the nation. "He has stated from the beginning that he has no desire to involve the military in running the country," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. But that does not mean Kayani would stand by "if there was a failure of civilian institutions," Nawaz said. "The army would step in."
Kayani remains an enigmatic figure, chiefly known in Pakistan for his passion for golf and chain-smoking. According to Jehangir Karamat, a retired general who once held Kayani's job, he is an avid reader and a fan of Lebanese American poet Khalil Gibran.'Mind-boggling'
Even some Pakistanis see Kayani's India-centric view as dated, self-serving and potentially disastrous as the insurgents the country has harbored increasingly turn on Pakistan itself.
"Nine years into the Afghanistan war, we're fighting various strands of militancy, and we still have an army chief who considers India the major threat," said Cyril Almeida, an editor and columnist at the English-language newspaper Dawn. "That's mind-boggling."
Kayani has cultivated the approval of a strongly anti-American public that opinion polls indicate now holds the military in far higher esteem than it does the weak civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari. Pakistani officials say the need for public support is a key reason for rebuffing U.S. pleas for an offensive in North Waziristan. In addition to necessitating the transfer of troops from the Indian border, Pakistani military and intelligence officials say such a campaign would incite domestic terrorism and uproot local communities. Residents who left their homes during the South Waziristan offensive more than a year ago have only recently been allowed to begin returning to their villages.
Several U.S. officials described Kayani as straightforward in his explanations of why the time is not right for an offensive in North Waziristan: a combination of too few available troops and too little public support.The real power broker
Pakistani democracy activists fault the United States for professing to support Pakistan's civilian government while at the same time bolstering Kayani with frequent high-level visits and giving him a prominent role in strategic talks with Islamabad.
Obama administration officials said in response that while they voice support for Pakistan's weak civilian government at every opportunity, the reality is that the army chief is the one who can produce results.
"We have this policy objective, so who do we talk to?" one official said. "It's increasingly clear that we have to talk to Kayani."
Most of the talking is done by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In more than 30 face-to-face meetings with Kayani, including 21 visits to Pakistan since late 2007, Mullen has sought to reverse what both sides call a "trust deficit" between the two militaries.
But the patience of other U.S. officials has worn thin. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, has adopted a much tougher attitude toward Kayani than his predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, had, according to several U.S. officials.
For his part, Kayani complains that he is "always asking Petraeus what is the strategic objective" in Afghanistan, according to a friend, retired air marshal Shahzad Chaudhry.
As the Obama administration struggles to assess the fruits of its investment in Pakistan, some officials said the United States now accepts that pleas and military assistance will not change Kayani's thinking. Mullen and Richard C. Holbrooke, who served as the administration's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan until his death last month, thought that "getting Kayani to trust us enough" to be honest constituted progress, one official said.
But what Kayani has honestly told them, the official said, is: "I don't trust you."