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

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


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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.