ISLAMABAD, July 22 It was the night of the general by all accounts. A quiet Thursday evening sprang a major political surprise when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appeared on the television screens to announce in a brief speech that he, after consultations with President Asif Ali Zardari, had decided to relax the rules and grant an extension of three years to Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Gen Kayani, who was scheduled to retire on November 28, 2010, will hence stay on to com-mand the army for another full term.
With this development came to an end the speculations rife since last year that he could win an extension. But more importantly, last night's announcement also made Gen Kayani, the upright soldier who has to date not stopped winning accolades for his professionalism and for keeping a distance from politics, has become the first army chief in decades to be given an extension by a democratically elected civilian government.
At the same time, the current government has become the first civilian government to forgo its right to choose a chief of army staff and instead decided to continue with the one chosen by its predecessor, a military man.
However, it's noteworthy that a former PPP prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, had also offered an extension to Chief of Army Staff Gen Waheed Kakar in 1996 but the latter had refused to accept it.
The three extra years means that Gen Kayani will prove to be the longest lasting player of all the faces currently holding centre stage in Pakistan — he will be here to bid farewell to President Zardari whose term ends on September 2013 and Prime Minister Gilani whose tenure will last till March 2013.
The announcement which has been on the minds of most political players and observers and international friends and foes for months now came after a series of significant meetings and events in Islamabad. On July 15, Gen Kayani met the president and the prime minister and a day later there was a corps commanders meeting.
It is being conjectured that the meeting with the political leadership took place after the idea had been floated. It was then put before the army high command on July 16. Clearly it was then that the proposal became a decision for all intents and purposes.
Military sources said there was a consensus among the army commanders that Gen Kayani should accept the extension.
It is noteworthy that the very night the corps commanders met some news channels reported that the COAS had been given a two-year extension by the government. Whether or not the leak was accidental, it perhaps provided the impetus to the government or the army chief to decide that the decision should be made public to put an end to speculations.
However, as a journalist noted on television, the players involved decided to delay the decision till after the visit of the Indian external affairs minister and of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as they did not want anyone to find linkages between the extensions and the foreign guests. Nonetheless, there were rumours that Mrs Clinton, during her meetings with the Pakistani authorities, had brought up the issue of Gen Kayani's extension but the US Embassy rejected these as baseless, adding that the decision was an internal matter of Pakistan.
As the announcement was made, the focus turned to the impact it would have within the military. After eight years of the rule of Gen Pervez Musharraf, who kept giving himself extensions, there were observers who had concerns that another extension for another chief of the army would take the institution of the military down bad memory lane. They feared that this would have a poor impact on the morale of the military rank and file which Kayani had painstakingly built over the past two and a half years.
Of particular concern were the generals whose promotion may be blocked because of the delay in Kayani's departure.
However, it appears that the decision would perhaps affect only one three-star general, Lt-Gen Khalid Shamim Wyne. He will be the senior most serving general on November 28, 2010 -- the original date of retirement of Gen Kayani. His chances of making it to the army chief are now non-existent.
As a result, speculations are now rife that Gen Wyne would be made Vice Chief of the Army Staff. However, sources were not forthcoming and said that no decision had been taken yet to appoint a Vice Chief of the Army Staff. Neither is it clear what will happen to Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Gen Tariq Majid who is set to retire in October this year. He was not mentioned by the prime minister in his speech.
Mr Gilani said the extension had been given in the interest of continuity at a time when the war on terror was successfully continuing against the elements who wanted to impose a system of their choice on the country.
He praised Gen Kayani for his commitment to democracy, recalling that the military chief had termed democracy inevitable for peace and development in the country.
He gave Gen Kayani all the credit for the success of the current military operations, and said that the chief was actively involved in the planning and execution of the operations. It was because of the general's role in the war against militancy that he had been given a new term.
Most analysts welcomed the decision in the hours that followed the announcement. In fact, there was general support for the decision; the dissent that was expressed was cautious and reserved even though earlier during the debate over the possible extension, it was clear that a number of analysts and defence experts had reservations about a military general accepting an extension immediately after Musharraf's long tenure.
However, there is no doubt that internationally Pakistan's army chief has won over hearts and minds completely. Since the middle of 2008 when the Pakistan military had launched its offensives against the local Taliban in many parts of the country's northwest, most western leaders and diplomats are convinced that Gen Kayani would fight the war that Musharraf had not taken seriously.
This international constituency had become one of the first to lobby for his longevity for the sake of the war against militancy. That domestically this issue was also under consideration was obvious from media leaks and reports that appeared in the press sporadically but consistently.
However, where the military's and Gen Kayani's public relations campaign ruthlessly won over any opposition or dissenter, there was never any indication -- till this month -- that he would agree to stay beyond his mandated term.
This was partly because Gen Kayani, who replaced Gen Musharraf as army chief in 2007, took various steps to improve the army's image. One of the most significant steps was taken in January 2008 when he issued a directive ordering military officers not to maintain contacts with politicians. Ahead of the general election of 2008 he announced that the armed forces would stay out of politics.
After the new government took over, he played a decisive but unobtrusive role in various political crises and won praise from some quarters. However, it remains to be seen if he can maintain his untarnished image as a professional soldier in a second unprecedented term.
Before his elevation to the post of army chief, Gen Kayani held important positions. He has remained Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Director General Military Operations (DGMO) and Commander of the all-important 10 Corps.
He also served as Deputy Military Secretary to Benazir Bhutto during her first term as prime minister.