ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — As President Pervez Musharraf grows more unpopular in Pakistan, his newly named successor as army chief is seeking to distance the institution from the Musharraf regime and pull back its virtual occupation of the top senior ranks of civilian ministries and state corporations.
Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was named to the top military job in late November, took two steps this week. First, he barred all senior military officers from meeting directly with Musharraf without prior approval and prohibited officers from having any direct involvement in politics. Second, he recalled many army officers from civilian job assignments.
Kayani's new path could help restore the image of a military that's bruised by association with Musharraf's excesses during eight years of rule since a 1999 coup and weakened by the worsening domestic security situation.
It also could be the Pakistan military's best chance to defeat an increasingly aggressive Islamist insurgency and check rising political violence in a nation that's fast becoming the central front in the Bush administration's battle with Islamic radicalism.
Musharraf had placed more than 1,000 active and retired officers in lucrative and powerful jobs in various ministries, such as those for education, transportation, railways, sports and culture, as well as semi-autonomous institutions such as the National Highways Authority and the sprawling Water and Power Development Authority.
While senior officers in Pakistan have for decades expected such posts as a reward for their military service upon retirement, Musharraf's embedding of hundreds of active-duty officers in prominent civilian posts sparked cries that the country's bureaucracy was being militarized.
Kayani's ban on senior army officers meeting directly with Musharraf or politicians appeared designed to undercut interference in the upcoming election.
"Some of the commanders were being used by Musharraf to hobnob with politicians," said retired Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan's intelligence service.
The top army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, wouldn't confirm how many active-duty officers would step back from civilian posts or how soon it would occur.
"It's not clear. I cannot say anything more," Abbas said.
But Gul said the army chief's office already has notified some active-duty officers in civilian posts that they must return to their military careers.
"Symbolically, it's very important. They (the active-duty officers in civilian posts) have become a symbol of domination of Pakistani civilian affairs," said Absar Alam, chief of the Geo-TV newsgathering bureau in the capital.
"It has brought down the image of the army," added Gul. "The army has gotten into every nook and cranny of the administration of this country."
Retired army Lt. Gen. Kamal Matinuddin said in an opinion column in The News, a national daily, that the retreat from the civilian posts "will also keep the army officers away from certain corrupt practices, which come their way when heading lucrative appointments in the civil sector."
Retired officers are the first to acknowledge that the army's standing has fallen.
"He knows that the army is not popular now. The reason is that it's been in politics so long. It's come under severe criticism," said retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a political commentator.
"The Pakistan nation used to love the army. Now, I will not use the word 'hate,' but there's a true disaffection toward the army," Gul said.
What has political observers peering most into the tea leaves, though, is the evolving relationship between Musharraf, who was forced to shed his uniform and control of the army late last year, partly due to pressure from Washington, and Kayani, the 55-year-old general who now holds the military reins.
It's unclear whether the new army chief is acting with Musharraf's cooperation in restricting the army's role in politics and non-military government agencies.
Musharraf picked Kayani, a member of Pakistan's dominant Punjabi ethnic group, partly because he felt he'd earned Kayani's loyalty. Kayani had taken part in several investigations into assassination attempts on Musharraf's life earlier in the decade.
"On the other hand, Kayani is enigmatic and Musharraf unpopular," said James Revill, a scholar at the Pakistani Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford in England. "Should internal conflicts in the (tribal areas) worsen, or further violent protests occur as the elections get closer, then Kayani may choose to abandon Musharraf for the sake of the army and the country."
Parliamentary elections in early January were postponed after the Dec. 27 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister and the nation's most popular politician. The vote is now scheduled for Feb. 18, although a spate of suicide bombings and the apparent reluctance of Musharraf to approach elections that may remove him from power have heightened day-to-day uncertainty.
Even as Pakistan's political environment remains chaotic, retired military officers say the army is simply weary of governing.
"I'm quite convinced that the army is rethinking its own policy of involvement in politics. Whether General Kayani is really thinking about that change and can carry along the institution is yet to be seen," Masood said.