ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had one less worry by Sunday evening.
Unexpectedly, a press release from the Inter Services Public Relations, the media wing of the armed forces in general and the army in particular, landed in various media houses and inboxes without any fanfare.
The short statement was of great significance as it contained a message from Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani that he would retire in November when his second three-year tenure ended.
This short and simple press release made it clear that now Prime Minister Sharif would have to choose from new contenders, instead of weighing the pros and cons of experience versus fresh blood.
He had taken over as the COAS in 2007 — when then COAS and president Pervez Musharraf was compelled to give up his army post in the face of great political opposition and turmoil. And though Kayani’s tenure ended in 2010, then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani gave him a three-year extension, a decision that had even then attracted controversy and criticism.
The ISPR statement made no bones about the fact that it was prompted by the speculation that had engulfed the country for days.
“For quite some time, my current responsibilities and likely future plans have been debated in the media with all sorts of rumours and speculations doing the rounds.
The subject of being entrusted with new duties has also come up in several reports. I am grateful to the political leadership and the nation for reposing their trust in me and Pakistan Army at this important juncture of our national history.
However, I share the general opinion that institutions and traditions are stronger than individuals and must take precedence.”
And having acknowledged the importance of institutions, he ended by saying, “My tenure ends on 29th November 2013. On that day I will retire.”
It was an unusual announcement as rarely do army chiefs in Pakistan announce their intention to hang up their uniform weeks before d-day. But clearly the COAS had realised the harm the random speculation was causing.
SPECULATIONS: It is noteworthy that the announcement came from the COAS himself and not the government. The latter simply reacted to the news on television channels when its members were asked to comment on the development.
For days now, Islamabad had been witness to speculations that like the PPP government that came earlier Sharif too had succumbed to pressure (be it military or American) and agreed to give Kayani an extension.
The rationale for this was no different from the one presented in 2010 — continuation of policies and a stable environment which was needed as the Americans withdrew from Afghanistan and Pakistan battled militancy.
The speculations became feverish after news stories by two international media outlets — one reported that Kayani was going to be elevated to the position of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee at the end of his tenure.
A second story in Wall Street Journal appeared to be even more damaging - citing unnamed military and civilian officials, it had claimed that Kayani was lobbying to keep a defence role.
It said he had pressed for a further one or two years in the same position but that this was difficult for the government to accept.
The story further reported that he was prepared to accept a revamped Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee job or to become an adviser to the government. “He could also be placated with the job of ambassador to the US,” the report said.
At the same time, the news channels too were discussing the issue. Many a talk show in recent days had discussed the possibility of an extension and the possible replacement.
And many retired military officers who were not averse to appearing in the shows and discussing the issue pointed out time and again that such discussions about the appointment of the army chief were not appropriate.
Though Prime Minister Sharif had not responded to the speculation, he had not helped matters when he refused to rule out an extension during an interview to the Wall Street Journal in New York in September.
This refusal along with the speculation had led to allegations that Sharif too yielded to the fears of a ‘devil he did not know’ as well as American pressure.
In fact, for longer there had also been speculation that the PML-N government was keeping the post of ambassador to the US vacant because it wanted Kayani to fill the post.
A senior military official when contacted said there was no veracity in the reports that the army chief, after his retirement, would either become national security adviser or be appointed as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States. “He will not accept any office,” he said.
However, despite the speculations that focused on his extension, there were also signs that another extension would perhaps not be palatable.
Those who had criticised the earlier extension were more vocal this time around.
In addition there was the fact that Kayani’s second term had not been as smooth as his first.
Having taken over after Musharraf, the first three years had been seen as rather successful — under the new COAS who was seen to be focused on his professional duties, the chain smoking and ‘thinking’ general had been praised for military operations that checked militancy and reducing the military footprint in politics.
However, the next three years brought a reversal of fortunes so to say.
The military’s reluctance to take the battle to North Waziristan; the ‘discovery’ of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad; ‘memogate’ affair and rumours of corruption with regards to family members, all led to allegations that Kayani too was interfering in politics and that the army was still maintaining its links with Afghan Taliban and hence reluctant to eliminate their Pakistani counterparts who were attacking Pakistan.
The most damaging was the US raid in May 2011 that took out Bin Laden. It led to allegations that ranged from the one that the military was complicit in keeping the world’s most wanted man hidden in Pakistan to the most gracious one that called the army so incompetent that it failed to notice that he was hiding in a cantonment town.
In addition, the two extensions given to DG ISI Shuja Pasha and Kayani’s own extension were reported to have caused resentment within the rank and file — after 10 years of having Musharraf blocked the promotions to the top, Kayani was now seen as guilty of the same charge.
This is one reason, critics allege, Pasha was retired earlier this year instead of being given another extension.
Kayani came to the limelight in October 2007 when he was promoted as a four-star General and appointed as Vice Chief of the Army Staff. On Nov 28, he became the Army Chief.
He is the only COAS to have held the position of Director General Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) before climbing to the top most position.