Baptism of fire for Pakistan's army headKARACHI - With Pervez Musharraf due to be sworn in as a civilian president on Thursday after holding the position while in uniform for the past eight years, his successor as chief of army staff faces a crucial decision over the role of the army against militancy.
General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, who took over from Musharraf on Wednesday, was immediately thrown his first test by al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants in the volatile Swat Valley in North-West Frontier Province, who declared a ceasefire against the Pakistani army operating there.
The use of the army against militancy is highly controversial in Pakistan and should Kiani agree to the ceasefire, he will have the backing of much of the country, and even his corps commanders, but he will put the county on a collision course with the US over its role in the "war on terror".
On Tuesday, militants in the Swat Valley communicated through a jirga (tribal council) that since Musharraf had stepped down as military chief, they did not have any personal grudge against the Pakistani army, so it would better if the army reciprocated with its own ceasefire.
The aim of the militants to date has been to engage the Pakistani security forces in the Swat Valley, forcing them to reduce their presence on the border. This in turn has allowed militants to cross freely into and out of Afghanistan in support of the Taliban's insurgency there.
The ceasefire move is clearly a test for Kiani to make his own choices. Intensified military operations over the past 10 days in the Swat Valley have not yielded any significant results. The army did succeed in recapturing a few districts but was in no position to force the militants' surrender. This means the army will not be able to consolidate its gains for any prolonged period in the valley - the militants will be back.
Contacts familiar with Kiani say that he would prefer for the army to back off, but Pakistan's commitments in the "war on terror" will make him stand firm, at least for now.
Kiani does not have Musharraf's seniority over the corps commanders - they are mostly his contemporaries. And they see the militants' ceasefire offer as a chance to bridge the gap between the nation and the army and force the pro-West Kiani to accept the ceasefire and not fight against its own people.
In the past few days in the runup to Musharraf resigning as chief of army staff there has been feverish activity in the capital.
Kiani talked for an hour on the phone with former premier Nawaz Sharif, who has just returned to the country after years of exile in Saudi Arabia. Sharif assured Kiani that there is no rift between the army and Nawaz's branch of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and that all bitterness is in the past. Musharraf ousted Sharif in a coup in 1999 and he was jailed for a year before going into exile.
Retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, a former boss of Musharraf and recently released from jail after being detained soon after the declaration of a state of emergency early this month, spoke to Asia Times Online.
"This whole process of change of command [in the army] is part of Washington's agenda in Pakistan. Musharraf shed his uniform because he was asked by Washington to do so, and if he lifts the emergency, he will be doing so at American dictates.
"Now the new army chief has the biggest challenge - to restore the image of the Pakistani army and bridge the distance between it and the nation. Therefore, he must take his own decisions accordingly,' said Gul. 'An ex-military man enjoys no power and no status. Look at me, how they sent me to jail, because I am ex-military. From Thursday, Musharraf will be a retired army man, and him keeping some extraordinary powers as president will have little meaning without being army chief. The real power will be Kiani.'
Gul insisted that as a result of the change of command there will be a paradigm shift and Pakistan will change its policy of fighting in the tribal areas.
Washington had reasoned that changing horses in midstream by pressing for a new civilian government would not affect the "war on terror". But Pakistan has its own dynamics and the US plan for a resurgence of "liberal democratic forces" in January's elections is highly unlikely to materialize. Instead, the conservative Sharif has emerged as the most popular leader in the country, not former premier Benazir Bhutto, the darling of Washington.
Sharif returned to Pakistan on Sunday with the ruling PML in some crisis. Many of its senior leaders refuse to contest the polls on its platform, and some have even defected to Nawaz's group. Even those who have elected to stay in the party have removed Musharraf's portrait from their campaign posters.
The most interesting case is that of former information minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, once a close aide of Musharraf, who refuses to say a single word in favor of the president and who privately says that siding with the "war on terror" and with Musharraf means humiliating defeat in January's elections. Sharif has already publicly said that the battle against militancy will not be conducted in such a manner that it could jeopardize Pakistan's stability.
Meanwhile, an increasingly vocal civil society is in no way ready to ease its pressure. Gul was due to attend a meeting of the opposition All Parties Democratic Movement on Thursday as a special guest. "Yes, I will go there and press them all to boycott the elections until the judiciary is restored. The next elections will be held under an international agenda and are aimed to bring out biased results through rigging," Gul told Asia Times Online.
After declaring a state of emergency, Musharraf sacked scores of the judiciary, including the chief justice and members of the Supreme Court. His hand-picked replacements in the Supreme Court then threw out petitions that sought to block Musharraf from becoming president, paving the way for his swearing-in.
Sharif has made a point of visited the sacked judges, vowing to support the civil movement to have them reinstated.
Washington in a spot
Washington, too, has its dilemmas. Since 2006, the Taliban's strength has steadily increased and in 2008 they are likely to emerge more powerful than ever. The US has played many different cards in an attempt to split the Taliban, but they have immediately countered such moves.
One example is the jirgagai (small jirga) that was scheduled to be held this month in Pakistan. For the first time, the Taliban were invited to talk about a peace process. British intelligence held meetings with several Taliban commanders in Pakistan and Afghanistan and agreed on a temporary ceasefire so that the jirgagai could take place.
But the militants increased the intensity of their resistance in the Swat Valley and this effectively killed off the initiative.
An Afghan diplomat told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity that because of the situation in the valley, the jirgagai has been postponed until January or even later. Even then, it is unlikely to produce any results.
From the US viewpoint, its overriding concern is the relentless progress of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, not to mention in swathes of Pakistan on the border. Washington's least concern is Pakistan's problems.
Kiani now has the opportunity to put Pakistan's interests first.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]