Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) General Parvez Ashfaq Kayani, one of the most influential players on Pakistan’s power chessboard, may not have a ready-made answer to every challenge the country faces today, but he is indeed a politically correct and astute person. Issuing bombastic statements has never been his style. He is cautious, calculated and economical with words and likes to define himself as a general who takes into account ‘the grey area’ before deciding to act.

No wonder when a large group of senior journalists met him on a lazy Sunday afternoon in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, the general made sure that the politically correct message of constitutional supremacy, timely elections and peaceful transfer of power came across right at the start. The army chief’s talk, originally meant as an off-the-record session, eventually ended up as a widely reported, quoted and discussed event, though at first its contents hit the headlines in bits and pieces.

The credit of getting the embargo lifted should go to some persuasive journalists, who managed to get a nod from General Kayani and senior Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) officials to allow them to report part of the ‘politically correct’ message. Following the initial green signal, the media on its own expanded the scope of reporting, making a select part of General Kayani’s talk public. But even if the entire event has been reported verbatim, the army chief hardly uttered a word which could be deemed controversial. The general knows the art of speaking his mind and yet be mindful not to throw a loose delivery.

General Kayani’s widely reported strong pro-democracy stance should undoubtedly help calm the nerves of many front-line politicians, who till recently saw a grand establishment-backed conspiracy to derail the country’s fragile, but highly controversial and dysfunctional, democratic system. However, the general attempted to put at rest all the plots of a direct military intervention or installation of an army-backed technocrat setup for a longer-term in his opening remarks by saying that there would be no action outside the ambit of the constitution or the law. He also reiterated his commitment to the peaceful transfer of power to the majority party, saying that the army has no favourites.

However, Kayani’s commitment to democracy must have disappointed many of those civilians and men-in-uniform, who remain concerned about the crumbling writ of the state, growing lawlessness, challenge of extremism and terrorism, economic mismanagement, mis-governance and rampant corruption in the country. The critics of the current democratic setup advocate extraordinary measures, saying that the majority of the ruling elite members, who make it to parliament through elections, do not have the will and ability to tackle these extra-ordinary challenges.

But Kayani has resisted the temptation of acting as a saviour during both his terms as COAS. This aligns him to the politically correct ones, who see democracy – despite its high premium – as the only way forward. Whether Kayani’s belief in democracy is his vision or it stems from objective constraints remains a question that intrigues many analysts and political commentators. But if one talks of political correctness, then of course the general remains on the right side of the fence. In the last year in office as COAS before retirement, it is unlikely that he would upset the applecart despite all its rot.

While Kayani’s pro-democracy stance hit the headlines, it was the challenge of extremism and terrorism that consumed the bulk of Kayani’s time during his session with journalists. The general provoked some heated questions and debate when he said that one must differentiate between fundamentalists and extremists. “We all are fundamentalists because we believe in the principles of Islam”, he said. It is only the extremists, who need to be sorted out because they try to thrust their views using force and refuse to accept the point-of-view of the others, he said, explaining the stance that he also shares with his soldiers.

For some journalists, this definition of fundamentalism appeared too simplistic, especially in the Pakistani context where politically-motivated Islamists remain one step short of being extremists, and extremists one step short of being terrorists. Many members of the mainstream and highly organised and disciplined religious parties, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, have been found aiding and joining the Al-Qaeda-inspired militant groups responsible for targeting not just civilians, but also the nerve centres of the Pakistani armed forces.

The politicisation of religion has its cost, which the country has been paying dearly for a long time now. And ironically, the original sin of creating these monsters in the sacred name of Islam and jihad was committed by the military establishment itself during the dark days of former dictator General Ziaul Haq under the direct supervision of our American friends.

Although the military establishment has brought a sea change in its policy toward Islamist militant groups since 2002 and is trying to ensure that Pakistani territory should not be used to mastermind and launch terror attacks in other parts of the world and within the country, success has been limited. General Kayani blames this failure on the lack of political ownership of the war against terror, which prevents the army from going into top gear against militants.

The political fallout of any action against those seminaries and religious groups that directly or indirectly support extremism and terrorism seems to weigh heavy on the army chief’s mind. The same is the case for North Waziristan, where the army seems to find its hand tied despite the fact that this dangerous mountainous region remains the hub for all shades of local and foreign militants.

According to Kayani, another major obstacle in dealing with extremists and terrorists is the state’s inability to carry out an effective prosecution process.

The terror suspects, even if caught, hardly get convicted. Even if awarded death sentences in some cases, they have managed to escape execution because of the highly controversial decision of the PPP-led government to place a moratorium on the death penalty. During the last five years, one execution has been carried out in Pakistan, though more than 8,000 prisoners remain on death row. The gist of Kayani’s message remains that the armed forces are single-minded in confronting the challenge of extremism and terrorism. But at the same time, the general wants to tread this path carefully and sees the Afghan Taliban in a different context than the ones fighting Pakistani security forces and carrying out terrorist attacks across the country.

Some senior journalists, especially from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, spoke their hearts out as they gave details of the plight of their province and underlined the fast-eroding writ of the state and the establishment of a parallel power structure by militants there. The fear and dread of the local Taliban force people to corporate with them and dole out money in the name of the so-called ‘jihad funds’ even in a city like Peshawar, they said.

The political leadership wants peace talks with the Taliban because of fear and threat to their lives, a veteran from Peshawar pointed out. Politicians say that security decisions remain in the hands of the army leadership, said another senior journalist. People in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa feel that the state and security forces have left them at the mercy of the Taliban, he added.

General Kayani listened to the tirade by the journalists patiently, explaining his point of view on most questions and comments. But one may find it paradoxical that perception about the role of the army and its efforts in taking on militants are being viewed with scepticism by a strong section of the media. For the leader of a force that has sacrificed so much in the war against terror and is seen as the number one enemy by the local Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies alike, these doubts and questions about its role and intentions should be worrying. After all, perceptions matter in today’s world. Who else but the COAS should know that better?