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General Kayani and U.S.-Pakistani Relations, 2007-2013

December 17, 2013

Editor’s Note: This is another article in a short series on the legacy of the recently retired Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.


When General Ashfaq Kayani retired from his position as Pakistani Army Chief of Staff on November 29, 2013, he completed a turbulent and noteworthy six-year tenure as the most powerful man in Pakistan.   I do not know Kayani personally, but have interacted with him several times and tracked him closely for senior U.S. military leaders with whom I served throughout his tenure.   From this vantage point, my assessment of his legacy is a mixed one. Kayani will be remembered well for his caution when it comes to internal politics, but he will not fare as well when judged on the basis of his interaction with the international community and especially the United States.

His tenure as Army Chief was unique in many ways.  True to his word, General Kayani kept the Pakistan Army out of overt participation in politics and oversaw the first peaceful transition of power from one elected civilian government to another—a modest feat by the standards of most democratic countries, but one never before achieved in Pakistan’s 65-year history.  It is even more impressive considering Kayani served an extended, six-year term, making him the longest serving Army chief not to take over the country. I know that General Kayani repeatedly assured my former boss, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, that he was committed to this outcome despite the challenges. In many ways this was testimony to his stoic demeanor, for it was a poorly held secret that he—as most Pakistan Army generals of his generation—held President Asif Zardari and his hardscrabble cohort of Pakistani People’s Party politicians in extremely low regard.  General Kayani kept his commitment, and for this Pakistan can be grateful.

But there were clear limits to this public restraint.  Kayani did not suffer unacceptable civilian political machinations kindly or passively.  When then-Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani tried to put the military-run Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) firmly under civilian government control, Kayani’s rebuff forced the government to back-off.  Months later, when Gilani announced the government’s intent to send the head of the ISI to India to conduct a joint-investigation into the Mumbai terrorist attack of November 2008, the offer was swiftly withdrawn by announcement of the Army’s public relations directorate—and Gilani suffered another publicly humiliating back-down.   In the spring of 2009, Kayani is known to have counseled Zardari to reconcile with lawyers marching for the reinstatement of their Chief Justice, making it clear that the Army would not intervene on Zardari’s behalf under the thin pretense of civil order.   He may not have threatened the civilian government, but General Kayani did little to actively empower civilian leaders, keeping them on a very short leash.

In matters of international relations, especially relations with the United States, General Kayani’s era showed almost no deviation from the past.  Upon becoming Chief of Army Staff (CoAS), Kayani continued Musharraf’s approach to relations with the United States that made a virtue of necessity.  In the words of longtime American diplomats in South Asia, Howard and Teresita Schaffer in their 2011 book How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States: Riding the Roller Coaster, General Kayani cultivated a “guilt trip” mindset with American interlocutors.  He extracted maximum gains from the United States for Pakistan’s reluctant role in the Global War on Terror, while simultaneously safeguarding Pakistan’s linkages to many of the terrorist groups that most concern the United States.

General Kayani’s role in portraying Pakistan as victim and preserving military dominance in the Washington-Islamabad relationship was clearly visible in many instances during his watch.  Among these I’d cite Pakistan’s military and intelligence services carefully management of outside assistance to 2010 summer flood victims.  The message management limited direct involvement of American and British military aircraft in the delivery of much needed supplies directly to the flood victims, mandating that this mission and its important public relations optics be left to the under-resourced Pakistani military.   Aid workers complained that innocent Pakistani flood victims suffered from this policy, but Kayani’s protection of his military’s reputation and its undisputed sovereignty trumped humanitarian effectiveness.

Along with his Corps commanders, Kayani assured that India remained at the core of Pakistani security concerns, despite a meaningful although far from revolutionary redirection of military efforts against some—but never all—of the radical Islamist militants waging an insurgency in Pakistan’s west. American officials repeatedly failed to grasp this fact.    Like President Musharraf, General Kayani cautiously accepted United States assistance to conduct counterinsurgency operations against those radical groups that directly threatened Pakistan’s government national order (aka: “bad militants”), concurrently prevaricating action against and denying association with those deemed useful in provoking Indian interests in Jammu Kashmir, India and Afghanistan (aka: “good militants”). Finally, he continued a Pakistani tradition of obfuscation and denial in matters impacting what I’ve called “the necessary fiction of Pakistani national sovereignty”—an approach best exemplified by the Pakistani military’s Janus-faced approach to American drone strikes against terrorists in the western reaches.

General Kayani also held true to Pakistan’s national security narrative that blamed outsiders for Pakistan’s multifaceted security problems.  A center pole in this narrative remained the theme that the wider War on Terror was a United States construct that Pakistan had been forced to fight and that Pakistan’s internal militant problems were the makings of an unnatural American presence in Afghanistan, Indian intelligence agents stoking anti-Pakistan sentiment in its western territories, and increasingly, by American intelligence agents and contractors infesting the area.  In places like Swat and South Waziristan, General Kayani engaged his Army against the Pakistani Taliban and its allies only when no option remained, accepting American technical and training assistance for units involved in these counterinsurgency activities all while masking the fact that Pakistan had done so.  Over the same period, General Kayani repeatedly resisted launching the Pakistani Army against militant groups in North Waziristan as these posed no real threat to the Pakistani state and had utility as a proxy militia against Indian interests in Afghanistan.  Army resistance led to the controversial expansion of the American drone campaign in those areas of Pakistan—an expansion that General Kayani refused to acknowledge had his military’s tacit acceptance, but that his military information agency continued to publicize across Pakistan as an unacceptable violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

At the same time, General Kayani repeatedly oversaw transmission of expansive shopping lists for American military hardware transfers that would have helped Pakistan gain direct control of weapons far more conducive to a conventional war against Indian forces—like F-16 airplanes and armed aerial drones—than in a fight against tribal militants.  American scrutiny denied most of this equipment. Kayani’s six-year tenure also coincided with a rapid and disturbing expansion in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programs, including the biggest growth in nuclear warheads by any country in the world during the period. More disturbing still, Pakistan invested seriously scarce financial resources in advancing nuclear program elements making it increasingly likely that Pakistan might soon deploy battlefield nuclear weapons for use against Indian conventional military might.

Finally, General Kayani oversaw the military-intelligence response to the successful American raid of the Osama bin Laden Abbottabad, Pakistan compound.  Seriously embarrassed by the American surprise, General Kayani let it be known that he felt a crisis of confidence against his leadership brewing in junior military ranks.  Kayani’s response artfully side-stepped serious discussion of how bin Laden could have been hiding in plain sight while tarring the Pakistani civilian government with the brush of being too lax in allowing American intelligence operatives access to the country—access that enabled the clandestine raid that embarrassed the military.   At the end of the day, this Pakistani military-intelligence response limited the fallout to but one major casualty: the civilian government’s Ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani who resigned in November 2011 under extreme military pressure for revelations that he’d helped generate a confidential memo shortly after the bin Laden raid asking for Washington’s help in forestalling a military coup and in curbing the power of the Pakistani Army.

Thus, when I think of General Ashfaq Kayani—a man whom I first met in 2005 when he was ISI Director and whose policy choices and decisions as Pakistan’s CoAS I followed closely over the past six years—I’ll think of a domestic promise kept against the backdrop of unrealized potential to improve the fractious relationship with the United States.  To Washington’s great frustration, Pakistan’s military support for the Taliban and the Haqqani network endures and Pakistani civilian governments remain severely limited by Army preferences against better ties with India and Afghanistan or of unqualified action against all terrorists in the country.  For better or worse, General Kayani owns this legacy.  Given the disturbing downward trajectory of Pakistan’s national situation, one can be forgiven for thinking that it might be for worse.


Thomas (Tom) F. Lynch III is a Distinguished Research Fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.  As a U.S. Army Colonel, he was also the Special Assistant for South Asian security matters for then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen from 2008-2010 interacting with General Kayani multiple times in these capacities.  The opinions expressed in this commentary represent his own views and are not those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the United States Government.


Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

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7 thoughts on “General Kayani and U.S.-Pakistani Relations, 2007-2013

  1. Is Gen. Kayani more responsible than Mullah Omar or UBL in keeping the war effort going for the Taliban and AQ in the author’s opinion? Would the Taliban have been defeated by now if not for the Pak Army?

    Just had to ask…

    1. Matt: Thanks for the question. Without Pakistan military-intelligence support, Mullah Omar’s Taliban would have been fully defeated or suborned into an Afghan political process by now. Without its Pakistan sanctuary, the Taliban would not remain a viable insurgent group. The matter of al Qaeda is different. Actions by Pakistani military and intelligence leaders could have made life far more miserable for al Qaeda leaders and sympathizers across Pakistan, but could not in my opinion have defeated them there. Elements of al Qaeda would have remained throughout the Muslim world. However, Pakistan’s more proactive involvement in pursuing al Qaeda leaders from 2002-2011 would likely have more quickly and completely led to the killing or capture of its most important leaders that had not already fled to Iran or other parts of the Middle East. Best, Tom Lynch

  2. Hello. I have three questions.

    1) Does the Pakistan military actually have the capacity to take on all the militant outfits in the country? In your opinion is that a feasible expectation given that they’ve had serious issues with military morale and proficiency engaging just the ‘bad taliban’? Is there a possibility Pakistan would collapse?

    2) Don’t you think its a bit of a contradiction to criticize the Pakistan army for resisting civilian interference in military matters while also expecting them to launch military operations that the civilian government and all the major political parties venomously oppose?

    3) You constantly refer to the Pakistan army “supporting” the good taliban but what does this support exactly entail? When Mike Mullen said the Haqqanis were ‘a veritable arm of the ISI’ the White House distanced itself from these comments and there was widespread acknowledgment that this was an exaggeration. So does “supporting” just mean ignoring their presence or active military assistance?


  3. All of these are very good questions, and the subject of much confusion in the give-and-take of semi-truths and not-so-truths that get prominence in an undiscerning press.

    First, Pakistan’s lacks some capacity to effectively eliminate all of its militant groups. But this limitation is dwarfed by its lack of will to do so. Part of this is tied to the fact that there would be blowback violence within Pakistan, although not likely to the degree that might collapse the Pakistani state. Another big part of this, however, is that to call-out and attempt to eliminate all the radical Islamist militants Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex has attempted to manage over the past 30+ years would require PakMIL/ISI to place these groups as more of a security threat to the state than India. This remains anathema to PakMIL/ISI – yet is the crux of the problem that is more about will than capacity.

    It is wrong to state that Pakistan’s civilian governments universally oppose eradication of major militant groups. The Pakistani People’s Party (PPP) under President Zardari was especially interested in elimination of all the radical groups. Zardari even enlisted a retired military 3-Star to pen a draft government national security strategy in 2009 that called all militants the major threat to Pakistan. That draft – and that retired general – were sent packing by the Pakistani military once his activities were known. The PLM-N of Nawaz Sharif has played a cynical game in the last two years, coddling up to militant leaders that control vote banks while promising international lenders and governments that it will be firm against militant groups eventually. Thus, the cycle of disinformation and disengenuousness continues.

    Pakistan’s ISI supports “good” militants in many and multifaceted ways. For the best english discussion of these activities I recommend that you read Stephen Tankel’s, “Lashkar-e-Tayibbah: Storming the World Stage” (2011). Let me just summarize by saying that the ISI, under top management by PakMIL senior generals, runs its own external operations branch (ISI-S) which has a chief function of negotiating with, managing and sometimes intimidating the top militant outfits across Pakistan and including in its western provinces. This support is financial, it is logistic and it is provided because Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex views these groups as essential in the event of a war with India – a war where India’s conventional military mass might otherwise crush Pakistan.

    As to Admiral Mullen’s comments about ISI-Haqqani network before Congress the month before he retired, these were spot-on and were things he’d warned Kayani about in private conversations multiple times from 2008-11, stated in the open in a Pakistani newspaper in Feb 2011 and that were “distanced from” by the U.S. Administration after Mullen’s Sep 2011 Congressional testimony because (1) It could do so an not undermine a retiring CJCS; (2) It wished to show a good-cop, bad-cop public image without giving out the sources for how America knows what it knows about the ISI-Haqqani links AND because the WH didn’t want Congress to cut off all aid to Pakistan – something likely if there was not some ambiguity introduced into the public discourse about Pak ISI’s relationship with groups known to be killing American servicemen and women in Afghanistan. Thus, it is important to parse the words at this time carefully. The WH might be able to truthfully say that the words “veritable arm” were an exaggeration by Mullen without questioning the truth behind even a slightly lesser interpretation. I would contend to you that this was precisely what was done.

    For better or worse, this is often how diplomacy is conducted — Stalin became “Uncle Joe” in the allied press thanks to Churchill & Roosevelt desires for there to seem a unity in the “big 3” fighting Hitler even as US & British diplomats and military officers grumbled angrily about the egregious human rights abuses and nefarious aims of the USSR across Eastern Europe from 1943-on.

    Thanks again for several great questions.

    Best, Tom Lynch

  4. Thank you for your response Tom.

    I would like to share some of my thoughts.

    You maintain that because the Pakistani army considers these Islamist militants useful in case of a war with India they refrain from cracking down on them.

    I find this assumption problematic.

    I admit Pakistani generals, and officers in general, are not great critical thinkers but it is unlikely that even they believe 20,000-40,000 ragtag militants can make much of difference against India’s overwhelming military superiority. Pakistan already has 500,000 active, relatively well-trained army personnel with another 500,000 in reserve. The addition of a militia untrained for conventional war would not make much of difference against the Indian considerable armored corps, air force or navy.

    There is no evidence to suggest that Islamist militants are part of Pakistani war planning or doctrine against India. Instead supporting or tolerating these independent and often antagonistic armed factions in country actually threats the means Pakistan is building to counter the Indian military: tactical nuclear weapons. Should the militants acquire any of these increasing number of warheads they would be a threat not just to army’s prestige but to its control of the state.

    If there is a convincing reason why and how the militants are useful to Pakistan I have yet to hear it.

    I feel you also underestimate the challenges Pakistan faces in cracking down on Islamist militancy.

    Your story about Zardari hiring a 3-star to pen a strategy against militants is most probably true but the PPP’s official position was not to support an operation against the Haqqanis in North Waziristan (they were even less likely to support one against LeT in Punjab). The PPP and ANP despite their ostensibly moderate ways did not endorse military operations for fear of being politically outmaneuvered. Keep in mind Kayani repeatedly called for political backing against the Taliban throughout this time.

    The present center-right government too campaigned to power on the promise of making peace with Islamist militants, and in spite of what it tries to tell the west has thus been unwilling to sanction operations.

    I personally empathize with the view that the Pakistan army (given its considerable influence) should take proactive military action against militants despite opposition from the civilian governments (provincial and national) but I admit this will not conform with the traditional western view of civilian control over the military. I hope you too appreciate this dilemma.

    Moreover much of the violence will happen outside the purview of the law in Pakistan because the courts are just too inefficient, corrupt, compromised and scared to convict terrorists. The conviction rate of terrorists in Pakistan is abysmal and prison breaks are common. The judiciary has been unwilling and unable to accommodate the military’s desires for special terrorism laws and courts. We will see a lot more of the type of extrajudicial killings we saw the army doing in Swat.

    The Pakistan army probably has the capacity to destroy militancy. But the country will resemble Algeria during the civil war or at the very least Egypt cracking down against the Islamists recently. Democracy and the rule of law would not be sustainable if the Pakistan army would launch the crackdown today. This means no American administration could or would publicly support it.

    This means that Pakistan can reasonably calculate that a comprehensive crackdown is not worth it at this point. Though I admit ideological sympathy is probably a contributing factor in this decision, I think much of it is pragmatism.

    I also disagree with the claim that the Haqqanis are veritable arm of the ISI. By your own admission the ISI interacts with militant by negotiating with, managing and sometimes intimidating them. This is hardly how you treat your veritable arm. If anything the Pakistani-Haqqani relationship seems to be more antagonistic than US-Pakistani one (which doesn’t include intimidating each other’s leaders). This is what I have learnt from the impressive literature produced on the Haqqani Network by the CTC at West Point. I look forward to reading Stephen Tankel’s book so thank you for the recommendation.

    Despite these disagreements I appreciate your interest in and knowledge of Pakistan and enjoyed your article.

    Happy holidays!


  5. Thank you Kumail.

    Let me offer two comments in response to your thoughtful statements:

    I don’t believe that I underestimate the challenges Pakistan must now face to dis-establish the militant infrastructure it has constructed over the years in order to complicate India’s conventional military planning and to conduct irregular and guerilla attacks against Indian interests in Jammu-Kashmir, Afghanistan and greater India. Far from it, I believe these costs are high and articulated well in two works by Stephen Tankel that I strongly commend to you. The first, already mentioned, is Tankel’s 2011 book, Storming the World Stage. The second is Tankel’s September 2013 US Institute of Peace monograph, Domestic Barriers to Dismantling the Militant Infrastructure in Pakistan at http://www.usip.org/events/domestic-barriers-dismantling-the-militant-infrastructure-in-pakistan.

    We will have to agree to disagree on the manner in which the Haqqani Network is a critical ISI irregular militant asset in struggles against perceived Indian agents and other provocateurs in Afghanistan and in the FATA (aka: a veritable arm). You are right to note that this relationship is not one of absolute control. Instead, it is one of effective, well-choreographed management that has bumptious moments but is far more cohesive than not. I refer you to two very useful English references on the matter: Jeffrey Dressler, The Haqqani Network in Kurram: The Regional Implications of a Growing Insurgency (2011) at http://www.understandingwar.org/press-media/pressrelease/isw-releases-new-report-haqqani-network-pakistan; and Matthew Waldman, The Sun in the Sky: The Relationship Between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan Insurgents (2010) at http://www.aljazeera.com/mritems/Documents/2010/6/13/20106138531279734lse-isi-taliban.pdf.

    Best to you,

    Tom Lynch