Farzana Shaikh: The man who really matters in Pakistan

The president's reputation is being further damaged by the floods while the head of the army's authority is thriving on them

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Whatever David Cameron may say, looking both ways is by no means peculiar to Pakistan. For while Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari has looked the other way as his country drowns in the worst floods in living memory, the world has looked to him for decisive leadership. Yet, it has chosen to ignore that the real wielder of power – General Ashfaq Kayani – may be quietly tightening his grip and burnishing the credentials of his ever-ambitious army.

Even before the onset of the catastrophic floods, which prompted Kayani to head to the worst affected areas of the north-west ahead of any other political leader, it was clear that the military was gearing up to expose the government as unfit to look after Pakistan's interests.

Within days of Cameron's ill-judged statement in India last month accusing Pakistan of "exporting terror", Kayani had swung into action. In a widely publicised move he ordered the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), General Shuja Pasha, to cancel his participation at a security summit with his British counterparts.

Although Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani has since maintained that no such summit involving Pasha was ever scheduled, the announcement of Pasha's withdrawal had been carefully orchestrated to ensure maximum impact. It coincided with angry street protests against the government, led by religious parties.

They not only denounced Cameron's statement but, more significantly, strongly condemned Pakistan's elected government for its supine response and its failure to defend the country against its enemies. The powerful subtext of these demonstrations was that the army alone was capable of rising to the challenge.

This perception that the army is the best judge of the country's interests is not, of course, new to Pakistan. But having suffered a blow to its image during the Musharraf years, the military under Kayani has worked hard to rehabilitate itself. After taking over as army chief in 2007, Kayani made sure he cultivated the impression that he and his army were set to turn the page and renounce politics for good. Hailed by his peers at home and abroad, notably in the United States, as the "soldier's soldier", many pointed to his professionalism. It was later singled out as the key to explain the army's gains against militants in Swat and in vast swathes of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (Fata).

Kayani's good offices in ensuring "free and fair" elections in 2008 and in making possible the restoration last year of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry (sacked by Musharraf) further enhanced his standing.

Even the ISI, long reviled at home as a sinister political force that favoured military dic tators, appears on course for rehabilitation under Kayani's stewardship. It has emerged relatively unscathed by the recent WikiLeaks revelation and been embraced by a once hostile Pakistani media as "our ISI".

But it is also clear that, if needed, Kayani would not hesitate to play a hard political card and assert his power vis-à-vis the elected government. This was sharply demonstrated in 2008 when, following the Mumbai attacks, he overturned the government's decision to send the head of the ISI to help Indian authorities with a joint investigation.

No less telling was the rejection by Kayani's team of corps commanders in 2009 of the government's plans to accede to the US Kerry-Lugar bill (approving aid to Pakistan's civilian sector worth $7.5 bn over five years) that required the military to be made accountable to the country's elected leaders.

These signals notwithstanding, there was a broad consensus that Kayani harboured no political ambitions. Indeed, many believed that he would prove his point by refusing an extension of his tenure due to expire in November 2010 on the grounds that not to do so would run contrary to the very professionalism on which Kayani had built his reputation.

Their expectations were shattered when Kayani accepted an unprecedented three-year extension – the first such extension granted by an elected prime minister in line with his constitutional prerogatives. (All others have been the prerogative of Pakistan's military leaders.)

But the timing of Kayani's extension, following hard on the heels of a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the manner in which it was confirmed (a dramatic, nationally televised statement by Prime Minister Gillani instead of a routine press statement), have now fuelled doubts about Kayani's real intentions.

They stem from reports of Kayani's increasingly close ties to senior members of the US military and from fears that, as in the past, the US could undermine the position of Pakistan's already fragile civilian authorities.

It is no secret that the powerful chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff committee, Admiral Mike Mullen, was a key backer in favour of extending Kayani's tenure because the war in Afghanistan was too delicately poised to allow a change mid-stream.

Indeed, US support has been crucial to Kayani – a rather curious fact when one considers that Kayani was head of the ISI during precisely the period (2004-2007) when the ISI is said to have played its double game in Afghanistan most assiduously.

But what is indisputable is that, at the moment Kayani's stock and that of his army could not be higher (and yesterday, remarkably, he was praised to the skies in the liberal newspaper Express Tribune), President Zardari's and his government could not be any lower. That difference is likely to widen in the days to come as Kayani basks in the glow of a grateful public impressed by his army's decision to donate one day of its members' salary to flood victims and repulsed by Zardari's expensive foreign tour when the country was in mourning .

Be that as it may, it behoves the international community to ensure that it does not look the other way should the military in Pakistan use this national calamity to further its political fortunes. To do so would be not only to renege on international pledges to strengthen Pakistan's fragile political institutions. It would also gravely compromise the many sacrifices made by ordinary Pakistanis who, more than 60 years after the creation of their state, have yet to have a say in how they are governed.

Farzana Shaikh is an associate fellow of Chatham House and the author of 'Making Sense of Pakistan'

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