Pakistan's military chief General Ashfaq Kayani on Sunday appeared to be distancing the country's influential army from direct involvement in next month's parliamentary elections, in an apparent bid to keep the army out of the controversy likely to precede and possibly follow the elections.
Those elections (which were earlier set to take place on January 8 but were delayed until February 18 due to frictions following the December 27 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto) are widely seen to be the last chance for President Pervez Musharraf to oversee a peaceful political transition while also lifting his sagging credentials.
In the past year, Musharraf's position has been undermined after he clashed with a number of his foes, ranging from former judges, protesting lawyers and members of opposition political parties to civil society activists and journalists.
Musharraf's decision to impose a nationwide state of emergency on November 3 was reciprocated with widespread domestic and international condemnation, which only strengthened after hundreds of civil society activists and lawyers were arrested in anti emergency protests.
The president finally succumbed to international and domestic pressure in November and retired from the influential army, accepting for himself a less influential role as just a civilian president rather than keeping dual charge as president-cum-chief of army staff.
Musharraf's successor as army chief was General Ashfaq Kayani, who served for three years till October 2007 as head of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the elite counter espionage agency. Kayani is a widely respected military officer who, according to western defense officials and Pakistani analysts, is keen to remain out of politics.
On Sunday, the PR office for the armed forces said in a statement; "Conduct of elections as per Constitution is the sole responsibility of the Election Commission (the government department responsible for overseeing elections) and Army will not be involved in the election process". The statement added that the army will only be available to assist with law and order duties as required by the government but will not have any other role in the conduct of elections.
Analysts said the statement appeared to be an attempt to prevent the military from getting embroiled in a controversial election, especially as a number of opposition leaders have already questioned the extent to which elections will be free, fair and impartial. Musharraf's opponents warn that he will use his influence to ensure the victory of candidates who favor him. There are also lingering concerns over a recurrence of bloody violence on the streets of Pakistan, similar to the violence that followed Bhutto's assassination.
"What the army is saying is that they don't want to take the blame for whatever happens after the elections, and they don't want to take responsibility for the controversy if elections are not seen to be free and fair" said retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a respected Pakistani commentator on security affairs, in an interview with CBS News.
Nasim Zehra, a Pakistani commentator on political affairs also speaking in a CBS News interview, added; "The military's statement must be seen as part of the process in which the army wants to be seen by the public in a constitutional role. It's an attempt to rehabilitate the army's image."
Western defense experts based in Pakistan said General Kayani was keen to see his troops increasingly deployed against al Qaeda and Taliban militants fighting Pakistani security forces in the country's regions bordering Afghanistan. The military's involvement in domestic political disputes will only divert its attention from ongoing anti terrorism operations, said one expert who spoke to CBS News on the condition of anonymity.
"By forcing the Pakistan army to become neutral in politics, General Kayani is trying to avoid landing himself and the army in controversy" said one senior Western defense expert based in Islamabad who spoke to CBS on condition of anonymity. "He (Kayani) probably knows the upcoming elections will be messy" added the defense expert.