ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani government on Thursday gave the country's top military official, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, another three years in his post, a move that analysts said would bolster Pakistan's anti-terrorism fight and cement its role in neighboring Afghanistan.
Kayani has won praise for leading Pakistan's fight against homegrown Taliban militants but he's also at the center of the country's controversial effort to influence the outcome of the war in Afghanistan by pushing Kabul to share power with Taliban insurgents.
In a nation with a history of military coups, the civilian government's decision will further enhance the power of the army chief, who leads Pakistan's dominant institution.
It's been only two years since the country emerged from its last period of military rule, and it's unprecedented for a civilian government extend the army chief's tenure to this extent.
Although he's resisted American pressure to crack down on Afghan militants in Pakistan, the move to grant more time to the U.S.-trained Kayani came as no surprise, but experts in and out of government had predicted one or two years at most.
The full three-year term was interpreted as a demonstration of the military's political power and Washington's lobbying clout, as well as the seriousness of the challenge that Pakistan faces in its battle with al Qaida-inspired extremists.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced the extension in a late-night televised address to the nation. "To ensure the success of these operations, it is the need of the hour that the continuity of military leadership should be maintained," he said.
Many in the government had wanted Kayani to have no more than one more year in office, according to a senior Pakistani official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Kayani's current three-year term ends in November, but the issue already had been the subject of months of speculation.
"He will become very powerful. This will enable him to consolidate his grip over the army," said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, the author of the book "Military, State and Society in Pakistan." "It is a risk (for the government), but that depends on the performance of the government.
"If Kayani continues to perform in the war on terror, he will become the most powerful person in Pakistan's political context."
Kayani launched full-scale military operations against Taliban extremists last year for the first time, after years of half-baked offensives by Pakistan's military since 2001. First he directed an operation against extremists who'd staged a takeover of Swat valley, in northwest Pakistan, and then launched an operation in South Waziristan, on the Afghanistan border, which was the base for the Pakistani Taliban, that continues today.
"You don't change horses in midstream," said Ikram Sehgal, a military analyst based in Karachi. "You want to keep the momentum going."
Kayani is credited with ensuring that the 2008 elections were broadly fair. However, the military has kept a tight hold over sensitive areas of policy.
"The army has gone back to the barracks but they continue to call the shots from behind the scenes," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of defense studies at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University. "The government has ceded a lot of control over security policy and foreign policy."
Policy toward the U.S., Afghanistan and India is run largely out of the military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Counter-terrorism also remains in the hold of the military, through its Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Kayani is a former chief of the ISI, which many say secretly backed the Afghan Taliban even after the country's official policy was to turn against them after 2001. Famously a man of few words, Kayani rose up the military ranks from humble origins: His father was an ordinary soldier.
The Pakistani military is resisting American pressure to launch a fresh offensive in North Waziristan, which is a refuge for Afghan insurgents. The Pakistani military says it's already fully stretched.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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