Pakistan Army Chief Hails Democracy in Announcing Retirement

Pakistan’s army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said he’ll retire next month when his term expires, ending speculation that he’ll stay on in a different role as the nuclear-armed country’s democratic transition takes hold.

Kayani, who served two terms after former dictator Pervez Musharraf appointed him in 2007, said he will step down on Nov. 29. His replacement will be chosen by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who resurrected his career after Musharraf ousted him in a 1999 coup, winning a May election that marked the first transfer of power between elected civilian governments in Pakistan’s 66-year history.

“It is time for others to carry forward the mission of making Pakistan a truly democratic, prosperous and peaceful country,” Kayani said in yesterday’s statement. “Institutions and traditions are stronger than individuals,” he said in dismissing “rumors” in the media about his future plans.

His successor will take charge at a time when Sharif’s four-month-old government is seeking talks with pro-Taliban militants to end a decade-long insurgency as the U.S. reduces troop levels in neighboring Afghanistan. The violence has contributed to an economic slump that prompted Sharif to secure a $6.6 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Coup Risk

“Sharif will act very cautiously in picking Kayani’s successor,” said Rashid Ahmed Khan, a professor of international relations at the University of Sargodha in Punjab province. “In Pakistan, where the army is still the most powerful institution, you will never want someone who is ambitious and has a political agenda. The risk of a military coup is always there.”

Pakistan’s military has ruled the country of 193 million people for more than half of its history. Kayani had a three-year term extended in 2010 to ensure continuity in the fight against militants.

Sharif’s office picks the new army chief with approval from the president, according to Pakistan’s constitution. The president, who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the ceremonial head of the state, is required to act on the prime minister’s advice.

During his tenure, Kayani removed soldiers from leadership positions in civilian institutions and appeared before parliament to justify military actions. Facing criticism after the U.S. strike that killed Osama bin Laden in the army garrison town of Abbottabad in May 2011, for instance, he explained to elected lawmakers why the army had failed to detect either the al-Qaeda leader’s presence or the raid.

During his term, the military also suffered its worst attacks by the country’s Taliban guerrilla movement, including an October 2009 assault that penetrated the perimeter of the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi. Militants in Pakistan killed more than 1,200 civilians, soldiers and police this year in more than 800 incidents from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, including 85 suicide and bomb attacks, according to the Interior Ministry.

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