Army Chief Driving Pakistan’s Agenda for Talks


By JANE PERLEZ

KARACHI, Pakistan — In a sign of the mounting power of the army over the civilian government in Pakistan, the head of the military, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, will be the dominant Pakistani participant in important meetings in Washington this week.

T. Mughal/European Pressphoto Agency

Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has met with cabinet officials at the military’s headquarters.

At home, much has been made of how General Kayani has driven the agenda for the talks. They have been billed as cabinet-level meetings, with the foreign minister as the nominal head of the Pakistani delegation. But it has been the general who has been calling the civilian heads of major government departments, including finance and foreign affairs, to his army headquarters to discuss final details, an unusual move in a democratic system.

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has been taking a public role in trying to set the tone, insisting that the United States needs to do more for Pakistan, as “we have already done too much.” And it was at his request that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton agreed this fall to reopen talks between the countries at the ministerial level.

The talks are expected to help define the relationship between the United States and Pakistan as the war against the Taliban reaches its endgame phase in Afghanistan. It is in that context that General Kayani’s role in organizing the agenda has raised alarm here in Pakistan, a country with a long history of military juntas.

The leading financial newspaper, The Business Recorder, suggested in an editorial that the civilian government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani should act more forcefully and “shun creating an environment conducive to military intervention.”

The editorial added, “The government needs to consolidate civilian rule instead of handing over its responsibilities, like coordination between different departments, to the military.”

“General Kayani is in the driver’s seat,” said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of international relations at Islamabad University. “It is unprecedented that an army chief of staff preside over a meeting of federal secretaries.”

General Kayani visited the headquarters of the United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., over the weekend, and will attend meetings at the Pentagon with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Monday. He is also to attend the opening ceremony of the talks between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Qureshi at the State Department on Wednesday, a spokesman at the American Embassy in Islamabad said.

The most pressing concerns in the talks, according to officials on both sides, will be trying to establish confidence after several years of a corrosive relationship between allies, which only in the past few months has started to gain some positive momentum.

But the complexity of the main topics at hand — the eventual American pullout from Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s concerns about India — is expected to make for a tough round of talks.

On the positive side for Pakistan, the Obama administration has been rethinking its policies toward the country, said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States.

“There is a realization that some of its assumptions over the past year were not correct: that Pakistan’s security paradigm could be changed, that its military could be pressured,” Ms. Lodhi said.

Meanwhile, concerned about efforts by the Afghan government to engage in talks with Taliban rebels, who have important bases and allies on Pakistani soil, the Pakistani government will offer itself as a mediator in any such negotiations, Professor Hussain said.

He said that the message would be, “If you want to talk to bring the Afghan Taliban into the mainstream, you should talk to us.”

Tensions with Afghanistan have been raised by some of Pakistan’s recent operations against the Taliban, most notably the recent capture in Pakistan of a senior Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The former head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said Friday that the arrest had jeopardized back-channel negotiations with Mr. Baradar’s faction of the Taliban.

But the spokesman for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, Abdul Basit, said Saturday that Mr. Baradar’s arrest had nothing to do with reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan.

India’s growing role in Afghanistan was also high on Pakistan’s agenda. The spokesman for the Pakistani military, Gen. Athar Abbas, said Pakistan would be “conveying very clearly” its displeasure with India’s offer to help train the Afghan Army at the behest of American and NATO forces. Pakistan has made a counteroffer to train the Afghans, an offer that Pakistan knows is unlikely to be accepted but that it made to pressure Washington to stop the Indian proposal, Pakistani analysts said.

General Kayani arrives in Washington after what the Pakistani military considers a stellar nine months in fighting the Pakistani Taliban, first in the region of Swat and most recently in South Waziristan.

The militants, according to the Pakistanis, have been weakened in their bases in the tribal areas, but at a high cost. According to Pakistani Army figures, 2,377 soldiers were killed in the two campaigns. About 1 in 10 of those killed were officers, a very high rate, Professor Hussain said.

With those sacrifices and the heavy toll on army equipment in mind, Pakistan is expecting quicker reimbursement from the United States of its expenses in fighting the militants, General Abbas said.

Pakistan has complained that the United States has unfairly held up payments of $1.2 billion for 2009 under an agreement to help finance the fight against insurgents. For its part, Washington says its auditors need to satisfy Congress that the Pakistani military has properly spent the money owed.

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