The Washington-friendly general waiting in the wings could take over army's reins

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The Independent Online

General Pervez Musharraf has long been loath to part with his heavily decorated uniform. His "second skin", as he has characterised it, has been his chief source of support in the absence of a natural constituency. But now, as international and domestic pressure has become intolerable, he has said he will retire as the head of the country's most powerful institution at the end of the month.

He insists he will still retain the army's support and, to that end, he elevated a number of loyalist generals last month, anointing a 55-year-old golf enthusiast as his heir apparent.

General Ashfaq Kiyani has the rare quality of appealing to General Musharraf, his sponsors in Washington and Benazir Bhutto, the leader of Pakistan's largest party. The former head of the powerful ISI intelligence agency is routinely described as a demure, professional soldier noted for holding a number of key positions.

As director general of Military Operations in 2001-02, his expertise is said to have helped Pakistan avoid a disastrous confrontation with India.

According to the political analyst Zaffar Abbas: "General Kiyani not only excels in professional military matters and affairs of internal and external security, but also belongs to a rare breed of military officers who have a sound intellectual base."

General Kiyani is among those credited with turning the ISI away from its pre-9/11 warmth for the Taliban and other Islamist hardliners. He trained, among other places, at General Staff College, Fort Leavensworth, Kansas.

During the first government of Ms Bhutto, General Kiyani served as her deputy military secretary. More recently, he served as General Musharraf's envoy in power-sharing negotiations between the PPP leader and the government.

Under the power-sharing deal, General Musharraf was to become a civilian president, Ms Bhutto was expected to clinch a third term as prime minister and General Kiyani was to serve as the army chief – the promotion would mark the first time the head of the ISI has achieved the top rank.

"It would have been a formidable combination," says Talat Hussain, the director of current affairs at Aaj television. "For the first time, the US, the presidency, the army and the intelligence services would have combined with a mainstream political party."

That deal looks in doubt. Analysts have suggested Ms Bhutto's remarks calling for General Musharraf to go may have been triggered by signs from Washington.

She is said to have calculated that, with General Kiyani and other similar-minded generals poised to take over the army, an unpopular General Musharraf as civilian president would serve no benefit.