Accessibility links

Breaking News

U.S. Military Chief: Pakistani Army Takeover Unlikely

Pakistani Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani (right) meets with U.S. General David Petraeus in Islamabad in January.
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Pakistan's Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani is unlikely to launch a military takeover to end an ongoing political crisis threatening the one-year-old civilian government, according to the United States' top military officer.

"He is committed to a civilian government. He is committed to the democracy that's there," Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the American PBS network on March 13.

"He does want to stay out of politics. He wants to do the right thing for Pakistan and he's in a very, very tough spot," Mullen said.

Inevitably, eyes are on Kayani as a political crisis envelops President Asif Ali Zardari's coalition government.

In the latest crisis, Zardari and his government have been trying to derail a mass protest organized by a lawyers movement fighting for an independent judiciary, and backed by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, along with parties from the religious right.

Former President General Pervez Musharraf chose Kayani as his successor when he stepped down as army chief in 2009. Musharraf came to power in a coup that toppled Sharif in 1999, but Mullen did not believe Kayani has any ambitions to run the country.

"In my view, the last thing in the world he wants to do is take over as President Musharraf did," Mullen said.

Focus On Afghanistan

Mullen said he'd met Kayani 10 times over the past year, and had been watching the developments surrounding the protest movement, and realized people were concerned that a crisis "may cause actions to be taken on the part of the military."

"I don't think that possibility is out there as a high probability right now, but certainly it's a concern," he said.

Kayani has been consulting Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, doubtless advising them to avert a confrontation that could risk serious violence and destabilize the country.

Pakistan's Western allies, the United States and Britain, have also been calling for a resolution to the crisis.

They want Pakistan focused on helping their forces in Afghanistan defeat the Taliban, and their intelligence agencies to break Al-Qaeda.

Mullen said Kayani recognized the "terrorist threat" in Pakistan and was aware of U.S. concerns about the Inter-Services Intelligence agency's (ISI) old ties with jihadi groups.

"They have been very attached to many of those extremist organisations," Mullen said.

"The ISI fundamentally has to change its strategic approach," said Mullen, adding he had been encouraged by the appointment of Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha as ISI chief late last year.

The U.S. military chief said Kayani should concentrate his forces along Pakistan's Western border with Afghanistan as recent tensions with India, sparked by last November's attack on the Indian city of Mumbai by Pakistani militants subsided. Pakistani troops also needed training in counterinsurgency, he said.

Pakistani analysts and political insiders concurred with Mullen's assessment of the poker-faced, chain-smoking Kayani.

"The army knows that all efforts to cure the chaos in the past have resulted in more chaos," a member of Zardari's inner circle told Reuters.

The Muslim nation has been ruled by generals for around half its history since Pakistan was created out of the partition of India in 1947.

Kayani, though, seems to understand that one of the reasons Pakistan's polity remains woefully immature in some ways is because the army has never let the country work through its crises.

Security and political analyst Nasim Zehra also saw the army as being committed to supporting Pakistan's rocky transition to civilian led democracy.

"There is no doubt in my mind that they are not going to change the [political] system," said Zehra, director of current affairs at Dunya Television.