Pakistan Extends Gen. Kayani’s Term

By Zahid Hussain for The Wall Street Journal

Pakistan’s civilian government late Thursday extended the term of army chief General Ashfaq Kayani for three more years to ensure continuity in the military leadership at a crucial stage in the country’s battle against Islamic militants.  The announcement was made by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in a televised speech.

“The decision is taken to maintain continuity in the military’s command as the country is passing through very critical times,” Mr. Gilani said. Gen. Kayani, 58 years old, was appointed army chief in December 2007 and was to retire at the end of the year under normal tenure limitations.

The general has won praise for leading two successful military operations against Islamic militants last year in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and South Waziristan tribal region. But militants have regrouped in many areas and continue to unleash suicide strikes across the country.

More than 50,000 Pakistani troops are still engaged in fighting al Qaeda backed Islamic militants in the Pakistan’s troubled northwestern region, which borders Afghanistan. They are aided by unmanned U.S. drone strikes.

The war is seen as a crucial piece of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan as many Taliban fighters use Pakistan’s tribal regions as a safe haven.

A senior government official said Gen. Kayani’s good rapport with Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan, and other American military leaders was a major factor in the decision to extend his term.

“He has worked closely with the current American military leadership and it is important for both Pakistan and the U.S. at this point for Gen. Kayani to stay at the helm,” said the official.

Other analysts agreed continuity was important at the current juncture of the war. “His leadership is crucial at the time when Pakistani army is fighting a decisive battle against the militants,” said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent defense analyst.

Still, the extension of his tenure is likely to raise concerns among some pro-democracy activists about the pre-eminent role of the military in Pakistan.

The country has a democratically elected civilian government under President Asif Ali Zardari. But the country has been ruled more by military leaders in its 63-year history, most recently between 1999 and 2008.

Mr. Zardari’s government faces growing opposition and some analysts fear the army may step in again if they deem it necessary. Gen. Kayani, though, has focused on fighting militants. “We have to defeat them decisively,” he said during a recent discussion with a group of journalists.

Gen. Kayani received his commission in the Pakistani army in 1971. He served as the chief of Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, before his elevation to army chief.

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