On August 26, 2008, Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, touched down for a secret meeting on an aircraft carrier stationed in the Indian Ocean. The topic: Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The summit had been arranged the previous month. Mullen had grown anxious about the rising danger from Pakistan’s tribal areas, which Islamic militants were using as a base from which to strike American troops in Afghanistan and to plot terrorist attacks against the United States. He flew to Islamabad to see the country’s army chief of staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Kayani is Pakistan’s most important general, commanding its 550,000-man army. By some accounts, he is also the ultimate source of power in a militarized society that reveres its generals more than its politicians. Mullen had been blunt with Kayani: The United States needed Pakistan’s army to take on the militants flourishing along the border, he said. The days of Pakistan looking the other way--cutting deals and playing double games with the radicals--had to end.
It was hardly a painless request; the Pakistani military is organized for warfare against its arch-nemesis India, and many of its mid-level officers are sympathetic to the Taliban and, at best, wary of the United States. When the United States argues that smashing militants along Pakistan’s northwest border will improve the security of both countries, officials in Islamabad are often skeptical. In his conversation with Mullen, however, Kayani had agreed. He had even requested a second meeting, with other top Pentagon officials, to plot a comprehensive strategy.
Finding a location was tricky. The Pakistani army was already fighting militants in the Bajaur tribal area, and the general couldn’t be too far from the theater. But a parade of U.S. generals arriving in nearby Islamabad with marching orders for the army could inflame anti-Americanism. So Mullen proposed meeting on the USS Abraham Lincoln, which was then patrolling the waters south of India and Pakistan. Several weeks later, the Joint Chiefs chairman alighted on the Lincoln in a C-2 Greyhound propeller plane. He was met by an impressive roster of American generals, including the top commander in Afghanistan, David McKiernan; Special Operations Command chief Eric Olson; and soon-to-be CENTCOM commander David Petraeus.
Landing by helicopter was Kayani, wearing green army fatigues and a black beret. Kayani has dark, sunken eyes, which lend him a mysterious air, one that matches his taciturn style. “He is sphinxlike,” says a congressional foreign policy aide who has dined with the army chief. “I wouldn’t want to play poker against the guy.” Together, the generals huddled for hours, as they planned how the U.S. and Pakistani militaries could cooperate in a crackdown on the radicals. (Kayani, a notorious chain smoker, emerged for regular cigarette breaks on the carrier’s deck.) “It was about this time that Kayani started to lay out in broad strokes what his strategy was going to be, how he was going to attack this,” says a Pentagon official.
Mullen was impressed. Unlike many of his countrymen, Kayani seemed to understand that, when it came to fighting the militants, Pakistan’s interests aligned with America’s. “[H]is principles and goals are to do what’s best for Pakistan,” Mullen told reporters when he returned from the Lincoln. “And everything he’s done … indicates that’s absolutely the case.”
Almost a year and a half later, Washington is still trying to assess Kayani’s reliability. His army has thrust into the tribal areas, as promised--most recently with an offensive into the Al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan. But that campaign has captured or killed precious few militants; most have simply fled to new havens nearby. It remains to be seen whether Kayani and his compatriots continue the fight in earnest, or whether their efforts have been designed mainly to impress their American patrons, who send billions of dollars in military aid to their impoverished country. Kayani, after all, has rejected America’s most important request: that he take on Afghan Taliban groups within his borders, especially the fearsome commander Siraj Haqqani, who operates largely unthreatened in the safe haven of North Waziristan, where he also provides shelter to Al Qaeda operatives. As recently as mid-January, Pakistani officials told U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that any new offensive against militants would have to wait at least six months. Thus, a critical question remains unanswered: In the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, can Michael Mullen count on Ashfaq Kayani--and, by extension, Pakistan--as a reliable ally?
It was a chilly mid-December morning in Afghanistan as Mullen flew by Blackhawk helicopter from Kabul’s Bagram Airfield past the operatic snowcapped peaks of eastern Afghanistan, toward the Pakistan border. He landed at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Thunder, located outside the city of Gardez in Paktia province. Paktia is among Afghanistan’s most dangerous areas, thanks to its proximity to Haqqani’s North Waziristan base. At FOB Thunder, Mullen toured a joint command center staffed by Americans working alongside Afghans at long tables in front of laptop computers. One Afghan officer studied a detailed digital map showing the peaks and valleys of the local area. A monitor nearby displayed the live feed from a drone that appeared to be circling a rocky peak.
Mullen paused to talk to a commander of local Afghan army forces. “What are your concerns?” Mullen asked. We need more weapons, the general said. “Minister Wardak gave me the message on weapons,” Mullen replied, referring to his meeting the previous day with Afghanistan’s defense minister. The general also told Mullen that the AWOL rate for some units in the area approached 20 percent. Mullen nodded. “We know that has to get better,” he said.
As Mullen spoke, a large video screen above him carried updates about critical events in the area. EXPLOSION--PAKTIYA, GARDEZ DISTRICT, it presently announced. SIZ KIA, 12 WALKING WOUNDED. According to later reports, a bombing at the office of a USAID subcontractor that morning killed five non-American employees. The attack was most likely carried out by the Haqqani network, operating with impunity as Kayani’s forces mopped up to the south.
Although Mullen didn’t mention the Gardez bomb, he looked concerned all the same. But then, Mullen always looks concerned. He is tall and lean, and, with his ever-present wire-rimmed glasses and laconic manner, he can seem more like a high school science teacher than a senior admiral. Mullen was born in 1946, in Los Angeles, the oldest of five children. His father was a Hollywood publicist who represented the likes of Julie Andrews, Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, and Steve McQueen. His mother worked for a time as Jimmy Durante’s assistant. Mullen was an aimless teenager when a friend’s father, a Beverly Hills cop, encouraged him to consider attending the Naval Academy. “I had no long-term goals,” Mullen confessed to me on the flight home from Afghanistan. “My original plan was to leave the Naval Academy after two years.” But Mullen took a shine to the Navy and wound up climbing its ranks steadily--from commanding a gasoline ship to serving on a destroyer that shelled North Vietnam to leading U.S. naval forces in Europe. In 2005, he became chief of naval operations. Two years later, Gates unexpectedly chose not to reappoint then–Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace to a second two-year term. Gates feared his reconfirmation hearings would become a bitter forum for debating Iraq, and he wanted to find someone with no political exposure to the war. From his Navy perch, Mullen had little involvement in Iraq policy, making him a safe alternative.
Few tears were shed for Pace. Under Congress’s 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, the Joint Chiefs chairman is meant to be the “principal military advisor” to the president and the secretary of defense. But both Pace and his predecessor, Richard Myers, allowed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to bully them and served more as parrots than independent arbiters. Mullen, who was granted a second two-year term last September, concedes the nebulous nature of his job. “I am the nation’s most senior military officer,” he joked at a New York dinner last year, “but I do not command any troops. I do not field any equipment. I do not plan or execute operations, and I am not responsible for any particular region of the world. In fact, the more I talk, the more I want to ask myself, ‘What am I doing?’” Yet his tenure has been an important element of America’s tonal and philosophical shift from the chest-thumping of the high Cheney-Rumsfeld era. In a memorable December 2007 statement to the House Armed Services Committee, Mullen said of the country’s military engagements abroad, “In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.” It was a frank concession that the military was overstretched. “He’s exceptionally forthright, honest, and no-bullshit--especially for a guy with that many stars on his shoulder,” says the congressional foreign policy aide.
Despite his showbiz roots, Mullen can be stiff, and he speaks in clunky jargon. Before a December USO performance at an air base in western Iraq, Mullen introduced the comedian Dave Attell as “someone who I know will be impactful in his humor.” (Attell subsequently regaled the troops with decidedly impactful jokes about sex toys, horny midgets, and masturbating with the aid of gravy. Mullen had already left the scene, thankfully.) But he does understand the power of public opinion. Last year, Mullen penned an article for the military publication Joint Force Quarterly decrying “a certain arrogance” in America’s approach to strategic communications. “Good communication runs both ways. It’s not about telling our story,” Mullen wrote. “We must also be better listeners. … [W]e need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate.” Such frank talk was unusual for a senior military man, and it impressed public diplomacy specialists. Mullen’s emphasis on listening also put the admiral squarely in line with Obama’s foreign policy. It was a sign that Mullen is as much a diplomat as a warrior.
During his December visit to Afghanistan, Mullen--who strongly supports Obama’s troop surge--held a shura with a group of local elders on a U.S. base in Kandahar. “I would rather listen than speak,” said the admiral, who wore a tan desert camouflage uniform. “Tell me what you think I need to understand that I may not understand.” Mullen sat patiently as the men, grizzled under their turbans and dusty robes, bombarded him with rambling complaints about corruption and unemployment. He didn’t flinch when one tribal elder, upset that some Taliban detainees were being released by corrupt Afghan security forces, made a suggestion: In the future, he said, “just kill them on the ground. Do not turn them over to the Afghan forces.” At the session’s end, Mullen assured the men that he’d heard their concerns, especially on corruption. Of the detainees, he added diplomatically, “The solution to just kill them on the street probably won’t work for us.”
Mullen’s most important diplomatic mission, however, is not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan. Mullen had visited the nation just once before he became Joint Chiefs chairman. But, the more he grew concerned about the safe havens in Pakistan, the more he realized that Kayani was the key to doing something about the problem. He set out to cultivate a rapport with the general, and the two plainspoken military men found a connection. “We genuinely like each other,” Mullen told me. The two have now met at least 15 times and spoken on the phone countless more, discussing everything from how the U.S. and Pakistani militaries can coordinate their operations against the Taliban to the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. But, along with his pressure on Kayani to move against the radicals, Mullen has demonstrated America’s willingness to help. In early 2009, for instance, Kayani told Mullen that, to fight in the tribal areas, he would need more helicopters. But standard U.S. Blackhawks wouldn’t suffice. He needed the Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters on which most Pakistani pilots were trained. Mullen “shook the apple tree,” according to Captain John Kirby, a top Mullen aide, and tracked down ten of the choppers in U.S. inventory. “By midsummer, Kayani had them all,” says Kirby.
Meanwhile, Mullen has tried to show Kayani that he’s got his back in Washington, where Pakistan-bashing is easy and abundant. At the Pentagon, Mullen has called Kayani “an extraordinary individual.” In 2008 Senate testimony, he called Kayani “a very great leader” who “has the right focus.” Last April, Mullen even penned a gushy tribute to Kayani for Time magazine: “Here is a man with a plan, a leader who knows where he wants to go,” he wrote. Mullen is not the only one who believes in the Pakistani general--Kayani “fundamentally gets it,” says a senior American official in Islamabad--but the admiral’s public praise is unmatched. Mullen “has been a great support to Pakistan,” says Brigadier General Nazir Butt, Washington attaché for Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense. In recent policy debates about Pakistan, Butt says, Mullen “was the lone voice that I could notice defending the institution of the Pakistani military in Washington.”
On February 26 of last year, Ashfaq Kayani arrived at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for his induction into the Army’s International Hall of Fame, created to honor the college’s prominent foreign graduates. In 1987 and 1988, Ashfaq Kayani, then in his late thirties, spent two years training in the United States (first in an officer course at Fort Benning, Georgia, then at Fort Leavenworth). Wearing a tan uniform with a red collar, Kayani fondly recalled his Kansas days. Recounting a reunion he’d had with his former American classmates the day before, Kayani said their rapport was as easy as it had been in 1988. “That was the kind of depth of interaction and understanding that we had developed,” he said. “[T]his has helped to develop a very good, very deep understanding with the Pakistan army and the U.S. Army, which we carry to this day.”
The warmth that Kayani feels toward the United States is likely the exception rather than the rule, however. Congress severed all military ties to Pakistan in 1990 to punish the country for its pursuit of nuclear weapons, ending exchange programs like the one that brought Kayani to Fort Leavenworth. Those ties were restored when the United States re-embraced Pakistan after September 11, and new exchange programs are underway. But many American officials fret that a “lost generation” of mid-level Pakistani military officers has been created, one whose members loathe the United States and have none of Kayani’s cultural ties to it. Certainly, anti-Americanism is rife in Pakistan, where the continued campaign of U.S. drone strikes against militants has driven Barack Obama’s approval ratings to an abysmal 13 percent. Given such antagonism, the United States is extraordinarily fortunate to have a man with Kayani’s Western-friendly background running Pakistan’s army.
Unlike Michael Mullen, Kayani is the son of a military man, from a working-class area of Pakistan’s northeastern Punjab province. Apart from a passion for golf--Kayani is the current president of the Pakistan Golf Federation--his life is utterly dedicated to the military. Kayani calls his army uniform his “second skin,” and one of his first actions as deputy army chief was to spend the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Fitr with troops on the front lines. He studiously avoids talking to the press (although American officials say he keeps a close eye on U.S. news coverage of Pakistan), and, with his American guests, he is friendly but decidedly no-nonsense.
Kayani is a protégé of former president Pervez Musharraf, who put him in charge of investigating two attempts on his life in December 2003. Kayani, then a mid-level army officer who had commanded units along the tense border with India, impressed the president. (“When Kayani got tough, the problems of coordination disappeared and the agencies started working like a well-oiled machine,” Musharraf later wrote.) He placed Kayani in charge of Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in 2004, then named him his successor as army chief three years later. Kayani’s term expires in October, but American officials don’t rule out the possibility that he will be granted an extension or another top military job.
Though he holds no political rank, Kayani may be Pakistan’s most powerful man--perhaps more so than the country’s embattled president, Asif Ali Zardari. After the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, for instance, Zardari promised India that he would send the current ISI chief, Ahmed Shuja Pasha, to New Delhi to cooperate with the investigation, according to Daniel Markey, a former Bush State Department official and Pakistan specialist. Kayani objected and, Markey says, “That [promise] had to be walked back.” Kayani also played an integral role in brokering the return of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in fall 2007, as Musharraf’s grip on power was faltering, Markey says. And Kayani may have held the country together during a March 2009 political crisis. Zardari’s chief political rival, Nawaz Sharif, was defiantly rallying his supporters in the streets of Islamabad, threatening the president’s grip on power. Kayani refused Zardari’s request to stop Sharif’s march by force. But, according to David Ignatius of The Washington Post, Kayani did instruct Sharif to return home to Lahore--which he did. Despite this influence, however, Kayani is said to have no aspirations to the presidency, believing that military involvement in politics sullies the army’s prestige.
But Kayani’s campaign against the Islamists may pose a different sort of threat to the military’s standing. Many Pakistanis fail to understand why their army is fighting its own people--and incurring severe casualties (2,400 dead so far, more than double the U.S. toll in Afghanistan)--when they consider India their true enemy and an existential threat to their nation. The perception that Washington is forcing Pakistan’s government to do its bidding doesn’t help. Taking on the radicals, says Nazir Butt, “was a big strategic decision, and a big policy U-turn, and the nation was not ready for that. Launching operations and fighting your countrymen is not that easy. But, somehow, this doesn’t get registered in Washington.” In this sense, Kayani, too, is taking a risk of his own. Assuming, that is, that he means to finish the job.
On the morning of December 16, 2009, Mullen and Kayani boarded a helicopter in Islamabad and flew a few dozen miles to the northwest, over the gorgeous Colorado-like mountain landscape of Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Last spring, the picturesque valley was overrun by Taliban fanatics who torched schools--flogging, beheading, and sometimes even skinning resisters. After terrorizing Swat, the Taliban advanced to within 60 miles of Islamabad. By summer, the army had begun a counteroffensive that eventually drove the militants back. Now Mullen was seeing the restoration of Swat for himself. At one point, the helicopter passed over the Malam Jabba ski resort, which the Taliban had torched. “You know, Fazlullah used to be a chairlift operator at Malam,” Kayani had told Mullen earlier, referring to a top Taliban commander. Back on the ground, the Pakistanis were eager to demonstrate their gusto for the chairman. From a high bluff, Mullen looked down as a few dozen Pakistani Frontier Corps troops reenacted the storming of a village, complete with live mortar explosions and attack helicopters zooming overhead.
On a flight from Islamabad to Kandahar that night, Mullen told reporters that he had once again been impressed by what he saw. “To see how much progress has been made--for all intents and purposes the insurgents are gone.” Asked to grade the Pakistani army’s counterinsurgency technique--which the United States has urged Kayani to employ in lieu of brute force that incurs collateral damage and breeds more insurgents--Mullen didn’t hesitate. “It’s exceptional. I give them an ‘A.’” Though Mullen was not able to visit South Waziristan, he was pleased by reports of progress there. “Kayani laid out this plan to me in early 2009. He has executed everything he said he was going to do,” Mullen said.
But the job is far from done. “It will be important for the army to continue its pressure in other areas of the FATA,” says Shuja Nawaz, a Washington-based expert on the Pakistani military, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The obvious next step is to pursue the militants into North Waziristan, home of Haqqani and his Al Qaeda allies. But, as recently as a December meeting with Petraeus, Kayani reportedly refused U.S. demands to pursue Haqqani. The general claims that his hands are full with operations in other areas. More relevant, perhaps, Haqqani has longstanding ties to the Pakistani military, which supported him during the Soviet era in Afghanistan. For now, Mullen seems to accept that there is only so much that can reasonably be expected from Kayani. “He’s done an awful lot,” Mullen replied when I asked about Kayani’s reticence to take on Haqqani. “Over two hundred thousand of his troops are engaged. He’s shifted from the conventional threat on the Indian border. … He’s lost hundreds and hundreds of soldiers in the fight.”
But then, Mullen returned to the essential question. “We have to get at the Haqqani network,” he told me, “we have to get at the Al Qaeda safe havens.” That cannot be done without Kayani’s help. Ultimately, however, that step serves America’s interests far more than those of Pakistan. Haqqani targets Americans, not Pakistanis. With their past ties to him, the Pakistanis also see Haqqani as a useful ally against possible Indian influence in Afghanistan, should the United States abandon the country as it did after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal.
For all the personal kinship, it may be that pushing Kayani to the next and hardest stage of his offensive will require old-fashioned realpolitik, a stronger appeal to his self-interest. Washington may need to offer Kayani not just better helicopters for counterinsurgency, but the thing Pakistan wants most: military hardware to defend against India. “Pakistan will drive the hardest bargain they can,” says the congressional aide. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was the same dynamic that defined the relationship between Musharraf and George W. Bush, who sold Pakistan 36 F-16s in 2005--only to find that Pakistan was again cutting deals with the tribal-area radicals. “We have been telling ourselves for years that the Pakistanis are finally coming around. The hard truth is that the Pakistani army has played us very well,” says a U.S. government official who focuses on the region.
Mullen is gambling that he won’t be burned by yet another Pakistani double-deal. But there may be limits to what even the best-cultivated relationship can accomplish in a situation so tangled with old resentments and competing national interests. “One thing Mullen cannot do all by himself is to change how the Pakistanis look at America,” laments a Pakistani official. “This is a very American way of thinking--that an individual can swing everything. It can actually put people here into thinking there could be solutions that don’t really exist. So he can help the Pakistani military make certain choices, or help the Americans understand why certain choices are being made. But he cannot turn the ship of Pakistan in a narrow stream. Kayani can’t, and Mullen can’t.” Let’s hope he’s wrong.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.