A Pro for the Pakistani Army?

As you approach the entrance to the Pakistani army's general headquarters here, the dusty roads and traffic jams give way to the order of a military compound. Even the shrubs are manicured into the precise shapes of topiary.

The headquarters are only a 10-minute drive from the park where Benazir Bhutto was murdered in December. But in political terms, that is a world apart.

At its best, the Pakistani army has been a symbol of order and unity for this chaotic country in the 60 years since Pakistan was founded. At its worst, as in recent years when Pervez Musharraf was simultaneously president and army chief of staff, the military has been a politicized force that has added to the country's instability.

Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the new chief of staff, received a senior American military visitor Tuesday at his white stucco headquarters here. Tall and dark, dressed in his army sweater and khaki trousers, Kiyani looked every inch the soldier. To a great extent, Pakistan's future depends on whether he behaves as one -- and can rally the army and the nation to defeat an insurgency that threatens Pakistan's stability.

Kiyani's visitor was Adm. William Fallon, chief of Central Command, which includes Pakistan in its area of responsibility. Fallon later outlined his hour-long discussion with the Pakistani general. Fallon's account supports other recent evidence that Kiyani is a professional soldier who wants to rebuild an army whose reputation and morale were tarnished during the Musharraf years.

Fallon said that the new chief of staff "sees the army as an apolitical force" and that Kiyani pledged that "he wants free and open elections" on Feb. 18, a vote that was delayed after Bhutto's murder. In contrast with the Musharraf years, Fallon said, "I would expect the army gets a lot more attention now because the guy who's in charge only has one job."

"I'm encouraged that he seems to understand the necessity of doing counterinsurgency," Fallon continued. He said Kiyani will try to reorient the army from its focus on the external threat posed by India to greater recognition of the internal danger posed by Muslim extremists, especially the al-Qaeda terrorists who operate out of the Waziristan region in northwestern Pakistan, known here as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA.

Musharraf tried to subdue these tribal areas by marching troops in -- and ultimately was forced to accept a humiliating truce with the rebels. Kiyani plans a different approach, more in keeping with America's new ideas about counterinsurgency. "He knows that you can only do so much with military force," Fallon said. To contain an insurgency, "you need to take care of the population" through economic and social development.

Fallon said the United States plans to work with Kiyani and the Pakistani army on new programs that will bring more economic growth and the rule of law to the tribal areas, which since the days of the British Raj have usually been treated as ungovernable. The United States will help the Pakistanis train and expand the Frontier Corps, a local constabulary in the tribal areas that is now toothless. The United States also wants to provide training and equipment for Pakistani special forces, which would make it easier for them to operate jointly with their American counterparts.

The danger for Kiyani is that, like Musharraf, he will be seen as so close to the United States that he will lose credibility in his own country. Fallon recognized that problem when he cautioned about unilateral American actions that undercut Pakistani sovereignty. "I suspect there's a fair amount of sensitivity to a very visible U.S. footprint inside the country," he said.

Kiyani has shown other signs that he wants to lead the army away from its politicized role under Musharraf. He famously declared 2008 "the year of the soldier," and he backed up that call with two directives this month. One bans Pakistani generals from meeting with politicians without the chief of staff's approval. A second directive threatens to recall current or former officers who got plum jobs in civilian ministries during Musharraf's tenure as chief of staff. Kiyani has also appointed as the army's public spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, whose three brothers are among Pakistan's most respected journalists.

The stakes in Kiyani's success could not be greater for the United States. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation facing a growing Islamic insurgency. With a new chief of staff, Pakistan at least seems to have ended its state of denial about the seriousness of its problems. That's a beginning.

David Ignatius