WASHINGTON, March 20: Chief of the Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Kayani had an unscheduled meeting with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton soon after the governor deposed the provincial government in Punjab on Feb 25. US special envoy for Pakistan Richard Holbrooke also attended the meeting, which, according to the sources, focussed on the political situation in Pakistan.
Before this meeting, the Obama administration had made it a point not to raise politics in its discussions with the army chief.
A cursory look at Mr Kayani’s itinerary showed that military and security matters dominated the general’s agenda in Washington.
During his week-long stay in the US, the general met Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen and US Army Chief General George Casey. He also met CIA Director Leone Panetta, National Intelligence Director Admiral Dennis C Blair and Special Operations Command Commander Admiral Eric T. Olson to discuss security matters.
But he was not scheduled to meet those officials who deal with political matters because the Americans wanted to assure the new democratic set-up in Islamabad that they sincerely wanted to strengthen democracy in Pakistan.
During Gen Kayani’s stay in Washington, another important Pakistani delegation was in town. It was headed by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and included the ISI chief and Director General Military Operations.
As Mr Qureshi later said at a news conference, it was the first time that a minister was heading a delegation that included two senior military officials and the purpose was to convey the message that “all branches of the Pakistani government were united under the new political set-up in Islamabad”, as the foreign minister said.
Ambassador Holbrooke also stressed this point when he told several US media outlets even before the foreign minister’s delegation arrived in town that this time the ISI chief was coming as a member of a delegation headed by a civilian.
But attitudes in Washington changed on Feb 25, when the Supreme Court verdict declared Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif ineligible to contest elections or hold public offices and later the government imposed governor’s rule in Punjab.
“It was seen as a reckless move in Washington,” said an insider. “The Americans hoped to see true democracy in Pakistan, not divisive power politics.”
US policy-makers felt that President Asif Ali Zardari’s policies could trigger street violence and might lead Pakistan to yet another military rule. “And they wanted to avoid both,” said a source familiar with the US thinking on this issue.
“So they decided to invite Gen Kayani to the State Department and hear his views on the latest political developments in Islamabad.”
Later, the National Public Radio, one of the most respected media outlets in North America, did a programme on Mr Kayani, pointing out that the general “is the key to US strategy in the region”.
Diplomatic observers in Washington noted that the dismissal of the Punjab government caused US policy makers to think that such actions could endanger America’s main objective: fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda militants with Pakistan’s help.
“So they decided to go back to their old ally, the military, to consult how to react,” said one such observer.
The Americans and the Pakistani military, however, agreed that while the army should play its role in strengthening the current political set-up, “there’s no room for yet another military takeover,” the observer said.
“And the impression the Americans got from Gen Kayani was that he also did not want another military government in Islamabad,” the observer added.
During the same visit to Washington, Gen Kayani had assured US lawmakers that the army had no desire to take over the government.
The most interesting assessment of Gen Kayani’s views on this issue came from Admiral Mullen who told reporters on March 13, when Mr Kayani was busy reducing tensions between President Zardari and Mr Sharif, that the Pakistani army chief did not want to take over the government like his predecessor Pervez Musharraf did in 1999.
“I have had upwards of 10 interactions with Kayani. He wants to do the right thing for Pakistan. But he is in a very tough spot,” Admiral Mullen said in an interview.