Pakistan gave its army chief, its top military official, another three years in office Thursday, in a move that will bolster the country's anti-terror fight and cement its role in neighbouring Afghanistan.
General Ashfaq Kayani won praise for leading Pakistan's fight against home-grown Taliban militants. He is also at the centre of Pakistan's controversial attempt to influence the settlement of the war in Afghanistan, pushing for a deal that gives the Taliban insurgents a slice of political power in Kabul.
In a nation with a history of military coups, the decision will further augment the power of the army chief, who leads Pakistan's dominant institution. The country emerged from its last period of military rule only in 2008. For a civilian government in Pakistan, giving an army chief an extended tenure is unprecedented.
Observers had predicted that Gen. Kayani, a favourite in Washington, would be given another one or two years. A three-year extension is seen as demonstration of military's power and Washington's lobbying clout, as well as the seriousness of the challenge that Pakistan is facing in the battle with al-Qaeda-inspired extremists.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced the extension in a late-night televised address to the nation - such is the importance of the position of the army chief. Mr. Gilani said the renewal was "to ensure the success of these operations - it is the need of the hour that the continuity of military leadership should be maintained."
Many in the government had wanted to give Gen. Kayani only one more year in office, according to a senior Pakistani official, who could not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. Gen. Kayani's current three-year term ends in November but the issue had already been the subject of months of speculation.
"He [Kayani]will become very powerful. This will enable him to consolidate his grip over the army," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, author of Military, State and Society in Pakistan. "It is a risk [for the government]but that depends on the performance of the government.
"If Kayani continues to perform in the war on terror, he will become the most powerful person in Pakistan's political context."
Gen. Kayani launched full-scale military operations against Taliban extremists for the first time, which had followed years of half-baked offensives by Pakistan's military since 2001. Last year he went after extremists who had staged a takeover of the Swat Valley, in northwestern Pakistan, followed by an on-going operation in South Waziristan, on the Afghanistan border, which was the base for the Pakistani Taliban.
"You don't change horses in mid-stream," said Ikram Sehgal, a military analyst based in Karachi. "You want to keep the momentum going."
Gen. Kayani is credited with ensuring that the 2008 elections were broadly fair. However, the military has kept a tight hold over sensitive areas of policy.
"The army has gone back to the barracks but they continue to call the shots from behind the scenes," said Rifaat Hussain, professor of defence studies at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University. "The government has ceded a lot of control over security policy and foreign policy."
Policy toward the United States, Afghanistan and India is run largely out of the military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Counterterrorism also remains in the hold of the military, through its Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.
Gen. Kayani is a former ISI chief, who headed an agency widely thought to have secretly backed the Afghan Taliban while the country's official policy was to turn against them after 2001. Famously a man of few words, Gen. Kayani rose through the military ranks from humble origins - his father was an ordinary soldier.
The Pakistani military is resisting American pressure to launch a fresh offensive in North Waziristan, which serves as a refuge for Afghan insurgents. The Pakistani military says that it is already fully stretched.
Special to The Globe and Mail
A SOLDIER'S SOLDIER
Facts on Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq Kayani.
- Born into a family from Punjab, Pakistan's traditional seat of power and largest province, Gen. Kayani, 58, studied at a military college in his home town of Jhelum, before training at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and the National Defence College in Islamabad.
- After fighting as a lieutenant in the 1971 war against India, Gen. Kayani was appointed as deputy military secretary to former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 1988.
- Gen. Kayani won accolades for overseeing troop movements in a tense 2001-2002 border standoff between Pakistan and India as the army's chief operational commander.
- In September of 2003, Gen. Kayani was promoted to command the army's elite 10 Corps in the garrison town of Rawalpindi.
- The chain smoker headed investigations into two December of 2003 assassination attempts against Pakistan's former president, Pervez Musharraf, securing several convictions, before being appointed director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency in October of 2004.
- In 2007, Gen. Kayani was involved in inconclusive negotiations with Ms. Bhutto on a power-sharing deal whereby Mr. Musharraf would continue as civilian president and Ms. Bhutto, Gen. Kayani's former boss, returned to politics. Ms. Bhutto was assassinated in December of 2007, in a suicide gun and bomb attack.
- Seen as largely apolitical, Gen. Kayani is also president of the Pakistan Golf Federation with a handicap of 18, according to Pakistan-focused blog The Insider Brief.