ANALYSIS / PAKISTAN
In Musharraf's shadow, a new hope rises
But it remains too early to determine whether Commander-in-Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani can play a decisive role in Pakistan
By DAVID ROHDE and CARLOTTA GALL
Islamabad _ Over the last several months, a little-known, enigmatic Pakistani general has quietly raised hopes among US officials that he could emerge as a new force for stability in Pakistan, according to current and former government officials. In late November, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani took command of Pakistan's army when the country's long-time military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, resigned as army chief and became a civilian president.
At that time Gen Kayani, a protege of Mr Musharraf's, became one of Pakistan's most powerful officials.
The Pakistani army has dominated the country for decades and the army chief wields enormous influence. Over time, as Gen Kayani gains firmer control of the army, he is likely to become even more powerful than Mr Musharraf himself. ''Gradually, General Kayani will be the boss,'' said Talat Masood, a Pakistani political analyst and retired general. ''The real control of the army will be with Kayani.''
But within weeks, Gen Kayani's loyalties _ and skills _ are likely to come under intense strain. The two civilian political parties that oppose President Musharraf are vowing to conduct nationwide street protests if Mr Musharraf's party wins delayed parliamentary elections now scheduled for Feb 18. The parties already accuse Mr Musharraf _ who is widely unpopular according to public opinion polls _ of fixing the elections. If demonstrations erupt, Gen Kayani will have to decide whether to suppress them.
What Gen Kayani decides will determine who rules Pakistan, according to Pakistani and American analysts. The decision also could affect whether the country descends into even deeper turmoil.
They predict that Gen Kayani will remain loyal to Mr Musharraf to a certain extent. But they say he will not back Mr Musharraf if his actions are viewed as damaging the army.
''He's loyal to Musharraf to the point where Musharraf is a liability and no longer an asset to the corporate body of the Pakistani military,'' said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and White House official who is an expert on Pakistan. ''They will say 'thank you very much for your interest in security affairs. Here is your ticket out of the country'.''
As he has risen through the military, Gen Kayani has impressed US military and intelligence officials as a professional, pro-Western moderate with few political ambitions. But the elevation to army chief has been known to change Pakistani officers.
Mr Musharraf was seen as uninterested in politics when he became army chief in 1998. A year later, he orchestrated a coup and began his nine-year-old rule of the country.
Gen Kayani has become an increasingly important figure to the Bush administration as Pakistan's instability grows and Mr Musharraf faces intensifying political problems, according to American and Pakistani analysts.
Mr Musharraf's declaration of de facto martial law in November was widely seen in Pakistan as an effort by him to crush his civilian opponents and cling to power, according to public opinion polls.
At the same time, many Pakistanis blame Mr Musharraf for failing to prevent the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto last month. They contend that the government did not provide adequate security.
Gen Kayani's personal views are difficult to discern. Since taking command of the army, he has continued his practice of never granting interviews.
In his first act as army chief, he declared 2008 the ''Year of the Soldier,'' an attempt to improve the weakening morale of the Pakistani army that was praised by US military officials. The army has struggled in combating militants, with more than 1,000 soldiers and police killed since 2001. Last summer, several hundred soldiers surrendered to militants, causing intense concern among Pakistani military officials. His early political moves as commander were two small gestures that were interpreted as attempts to ease simmering tensions between the government and civilian opposition parties.
Following the assassination of Bhutto on Dec 27, he sent soldiers to place a wreath on her grave and privately met with her husband.
On Thursday, Gen Kayani led the first meeting of Pakistan's corps commanders _ the dozen generals who dominate the military. It was the first time in nine years that Mr Musharraf did not attend. During the meeting, he stressed unity.
''It is the harmonisation of socio-political, administrative and military strategies that will usher an environment of peace and stability in the long term,'' the state-run news media quoted Gen Kayani as saying. ''Ultimately, it is the will of the people and their support that is decisive.''
The son of a junior officer in the Pakistani army, Gen Kayani is from Jhelum, an arid region in Punjab province known for producing Pakistani generals. Raised in a middle-class military family, he attended military schools and is seen as loyal to the army as an institution above all else. His appointment was popular among army officers, some of whom blame Mr Musharraf for hurting the army's image.
His career has included repeated military education in the United States. He received training in Fort Benning, Georgia, and graduated from the US Army's Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He also attended a 13-week executive studies course at the Asia Pacific Centre of Security Studies in Hawaii in the late 1990s.
In an army deeply enmeshed in Pakistani politics, he has declined to ally himself with any political groups, according to retired Pakistani military officials. As a junior officer, he briefly served as a military aide to Bhutto during her first term as prime minister in the late 1980s, but stayed away from politicians since then.
''Kayani throughout his career has shown little in the way of political inclination,'' said a senior US military official who has worked extensively with him but did not wish to be identified because of the sensitivities of Pakistani politics. ''He is a humble man who has shown a decided focus on the soldier.''
When he was appointed deputy army chief last fall, his first move was to visit the front lines in the tribal areas. Spending the Muslim holiday Id al-Fitr with soldiers prompted US military officials to praise him as a ''soldier's soldier''.
He is also an avid golfer and the president of the Pakistan Golf Association. Intensely private, he is the father of two children and spends great deal of time with his family.
In meetings, Gen Kayani is known to listen intently but rarely speak. He is so soft-spoken that one former US official complained that he mumbled, but he expressed confidence in Gen Kayani's ability to lead the army in the fight against militancy.
The senior US military official predicted that the Pakistani army would perform better under Gen Kayani than Mr Musharraf, who was often distracted by politics while serving as both president and army chief. AP