ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - At the height of the storm which swept Pakistan after the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani spoke for 1- hours, then told his officers they could ask whatever they wanted, and lit a cigarette.
“This is a very delicate situation,” he said, in answer to a question about relations with the United States at the National Defense University on May 19. “It’s not an easy one.”
“If we come out of it, keep our relevance and show them we are part of the solution, not part of the problem, we will succeed,” Kayani said in one of a series of “town hall” meetings he held to revive army morale.
Those meetings have since fueled speculation - particularly in the United States - that the most powerful man in Pakistan, by opening himself up to questions, is fighting for survival.
Participants at the meeting, however, said Kayani showed no outward sign of being under pressure as he sat in full dress uniform at a table on the same level as his audience.
Equipped only with a file, ash tray and glass of water and facing rows of some 80 officers along with a few civilians, he patiently answered questions from all ranks.
“In uniform, we tend to see everything in black and white,” Kayani said when a young colonel asked why Pakistan kept a relationship United States if Washington did not trust it.
“In the real world there are a lot of grey areas and you have to deal with it.”
A Reuters correspondent attended the meeting, but since it was off-the-record did not report it until after participants themselves relayed to the media versions of what Kayani had said. Kayani’s comments were reported by participants and verified by Reuters.
The Pakistan army, the last line of Defense in a country battling a growing Islamist militant insurgency, has come under intense pressure since U.S. forces found and killed bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad on May 2.
Its inability to find the al Qaeda leader and to detect the U.S. helicopter-borne raid in which he was killed has left it facing its most severe crisis since its humiliating defeat by India in the 1971 war in which then East Pakistan won independence as Bangladesh.
In some ways it is even worse than 1971, when state-run media suppressed the worst of the news in a war happening far away from the traditional heartland of the country.
This time, U.S. forces carried out a raid undetected deep within the heart of Pakistan, not far from the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy.
That same month militants attacked a naval base in Karachi and blew up two maritime patrol aircraft.
Nobody knows what is going to happen next.
Yet no one expects Kayani to step down any time soon, or at least not until he has restored confidence within the army. And nor do they expect his most senior officers to turn against him.
“The army as an institution is under attack so if the Corps Commanders ask him to leave, that unleashes a very explosive dynamic,” said Imtiaz Gul at the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.
“That’s why the Corps Commanders will never ask him to step down.”
In inviting questions, Kayani was following a military tradition where officers encourage their men to express their doubts before going into battle, but after the orders are given, expect them to be followed without question.
“In the military, it is regarded as a reflection of loyalty if you are frank,” said General (retired) Ehsan ul-Haq, when recalling meetings of the Corps Commanders, the army’s top officers with command over troops across the country.
“There is a discussion (among the Corps Commanders), but there are no fireworks,” said Haq, a former head of the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“There is a lot of poise and dignity in how you address issues.”
At the evening meeting at the National Defense University, Kayani, far from appearing on the defensive, actively encouraged questions.
When a young female student put up her hand to ask a question and the officer running the event said there was no more time - it was by then nearly midnight - Kayani insisted on answering it.
The student asked about the threats Pakistan faced. Kayani in response made no mention of Pakistan’s traditional rival India — the subject did not come at all in four-hour long session. “What worries me is the indirect threat and that is the economy,” he said. “If you want to be secure ... you have to address your internal situation and the economy is the major issue.”
And rather than relying on the Americans for money, Pakistan should reform its economy and raise taxes domestically. “We have to stand up on our own feet and we cannot do this unless we have a strong economy,” he said.
U.S. media reports that Kayani is fighting for survival have infuriated the military which sees them as a deliberate attempt to malign the army.
Those have been accompanied by unprecedented domestic criticism of the army, which peaked after Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad was kidnapped in Islamabad and beaten to death at the end of May.
Shahzad had previously spoken of being threatened by the ISI over his reporting, and suspicion immediately fell on the powerful intelligence agency. It denied involvement.
And while the army still enjoys high approval ratings in Pakistan, its critics accuse it of sucking up scarce resources in military expenditure focused on India.
They also blame it for cultivating Islamist militants in the past for use against India, who are now increasingly slipping out of its control and turning on Pakistan.
There are, moreover, unquestionably strains within the military, a Muslim army which for 10 years has been asked to suppress the anti-Americanism which threads through society and fight in a campaign which many see as “America’s war.”
Some of those strains rose to the surface this week when the army said it had arrested a brigadier over links to the banned Hizb-ul-Tahrir, an Islamist political group seeking to overthrow the civilian government and establish an Islamic theocracy.
Kayani himself has also been the subject of private grumblings in the military after he obtained last year a three-year extension to his term of office to November 2013 - effectively strangling promotions further down the line.
But barring another big unexpected event which dents the army’s credibility further, there appears to be little evidence to suggest that Kayani is about to be forced out.
Over tea, biscuits and sandwiches which followed the meeting at the National Defense University, he appeared relaxed and smiling as he chatted to participants.
“As long as you are in the (army chief’s) seat, there is no threat to you,” said Imtiaz Gul.
Writing by Myra MacDonald; Editing by Robert Birsel