Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Pakistan's top military leader, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, will serve in his post for three more years, Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani announced Thursday, a move that for the U.S. is likely to ensure that Pakistan maintains a dual strategy of battling home-grown insurgents while pursuing talks with militants fighting Western forces in Afghanistan.
The announcement, made by Gillani in a televised address to the nation shortly before 11 p.m., was far from unexpected. Kayani's term as chief of staff was due to expire in November, but the reserved 58-year-old military leader is widely popular across Pakistan and has been hailed for overseeing largely successful offensives against Pakistani Taliban insurgents in the country's restive northwest, particularly in the volatile Swat Valley and the Taliban's semiautonomous stronghold along the Afghan border, South Waziristan.
Though Gillani has the authority as prime minister to select the army's chief of staff, most experts believe it was Kayani's decision to stay on. Pakistan's constitution calls for the military to fall under the authority of the civilian government, but in reality the power held by Gillani and President Asif Ali Zardari are superseded by the clout and reach of the military.
In making the announcement, Gillani cited Kayani's performance in battling the Pakistani Taliban as a primary reason for the extension. "The nation is going through difficult times in this war against terrorists," Gillani said. Kayani "has successfully led us in this war, and his staying on is in our best interests."
With an additional three years ahead of him, Kayani now assumes the difficult task of stewarding Pakistan at a time when Taliban insurgents and affiliated groups continue to carry out attacks in the tribal border region and elsewhere in the country. Also, uncertainty still looms to the west over the outcome of nearly nine years of conflict in Afghanistan, and India remains a powerful, nuclear archenemy to the east.
In its dealings with Kayani, Washington has often heaped praise on the Pakistani general for his leadership against the Pakistani Taliban, a potent extremist force that until last year had enjoyed free rein throughout much of the tribal belt and had extended its reach to within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad.
Kayani's drive to uproot Taliban insurgents began more than a year ago with a large-scale offensive in the Swat Valley, a verdant, mountainous tourist haven for Pakistanis that had fallen into the control of militants. Within weeks, the army regained control over most of the valley, though periodic suicide bombings and ambushes continue to plague the region.
Then, in the fall, Kayani's military turned its attention to the hub for Pakistani Taliban operations, the rugged, lawless region of South Waziristan. The army succeeded in retaking most of the region, though many Taliban leaders and fighters found sanctuary in other parts of the tribal belt.
Despite those advances against Pakistani Taliban militants, Kayani and his army have balked at pursuing the Haqqani network, a powerful wing of the Afghan Taliban based in North Waziristan that focuses its attacks primarily on U.S., NATO and Afghan security forces fighting to stabilize Afghanistan. Underlying Pakistan's reluctance to battle Haqqani fighters, many experts believe, is the country's long-standing ties with the network's leaders that date back to when Pakistan backed Afghan mujahedin in its struggle against Soviet occupation.
The refusal to go after Haqqani has frustrated Washington, particularly because of the network's alliance with Al Qaeda. Though Pakistan has offered to broker peace talks between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the network's leaders, Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, Sirajuddin, the U.S. has been wary of that prospect, saying that Haqqani militants must lay down their arms and renounce Al Qaeda before they can be brought to the negotiating table.
During his tenure as army chief of staff, Kayani has been careful to avoid exerting the military's influence on the workings of the civilian government, given the country's difficult history under the rule of military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf that ended in 2008. But he also has increasingly forged a strong role in foreign policy, becoming a key player in the country's dealings with U.S. civilian leaders.
Kayani was appointed army chief of staff in November 2007, replacing Musharraf in that role. His resume includes a three-year stint as head of Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, from 2004 to 2007.