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

Cleared for release by Joint Staff Public Affairs

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