( AP ) - Pakistan's next army chief owes his meteoric rise to Gen. Pervez Musharraf, but was once a confidant and senior aide to the Pakistani leader's archrival Benazir Bhutto. He is well-known in Washington but has a reputation for keeping his cards close to his chest.
One thing is clear: However Pakistan's political crisis unfolds, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani will play a key role in either propping Musharraf up or accelerating his political demise.
Musharraf has named the 55-year-old career officer to take control of Pakistan's 600,000-strong armed forces when he gives up his title as army chief, something Musharraf has said he expects to do by the end of this month.
But pressure is mounting on Musharraf to go further, by resigning as president and exiting the stage altogether. Musharraf declared emergency rule two weeks ago, disbanding the Supreme Court and jailing thousands of his detractors, including senior political leaders.
He has vowed to stay on as a civilian president, though his base of support appears to be thinning, both here and in Western capitals. Analysts say the support of Kayani and the other generals is vital to his political survival.
If Musharraf leaves the scene abruptly, Kayani could find himself in control of this nuclear-armed nation on the front lines of the U.S. war on terrorism. And even if Musharraf stays on as a civilian president, he will be reliant on Kayani's military for support.
A Western official told The Associated Press that while Kayani is viewed as loyal to Musharraf, "there are limits to his loyalty, and to the loyalty of the other commanders."
The official said Kayani would only abandon his former benefactor if Musharraf crosses certain "red lines," such as serious violence against protesters in major cities. Two children and an adult were killed when gunfire broke out during a protest in Karachi on Thursday, the first fatalities since Musharraf's emergency decree.
"The military leadership, including Kayani, is not at the point of contemplating a coup," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. "But the red lines have been moving closer. The president is seen increasingly as damaging the reputation of the military."
The official said there is little fear that Kayani would attempt to continue the military's eight-year hold on power, preferring to return the army to a behind-the-scenes role.
"All the people who know him say he would move as quickly as possible to get a civilian government back, and then stay on as army chief," said the official.
Pakistani analysts describe Kayani as an amiable and professional officer, with a modern, pro-Western outlook.
When pictured in meetings, the general appears stone-faced and serious, with dark bags under the eyes of a hawkish face. He is known to choose his words carefully, preferring to listen rather than to speak. He studied at the prestigious U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and is an avid golfer and sportsman. He is also a heavy smoker.
Kayani was born in the Punjabi district of Jhelum, an impoverished area in what has come to be known as the "Martial Belt" because of the many young men it sends to the military. Like Musharraf, he is said to have used intelligence and ambition to escape relatively humble roots and rise through an army that is otherwise dominated by the children of privileged elites.
He served as deputy military secretary under Bhutto during her first term as prime minister in the 1990s. When Musharraf and Bhutto began negotiations on power-sharing this year, Kayani was a go-between.
Bhutto said Friday that she had not had an opportunity to meet with Kayani since she returned from self-imposed exile in October. Asked if she trusted him to make a transition to democracy, Bhutto replied: "I respect Gen. Kayani, but i don't like questions of trust because I consider life always as about questions of interests."
Kayani was not in Musharraf's inner circle when the general seized power in 1999, but the president's faith in his loyalty is believed to be strong.
Musharraf appointed him top commander in the garrison town of Rawalpindi in 2003, a delicate position that has served as a launchpad for coup plotters. It was the commander of Rawalpindi that Pakistan's last dictator, Zia ul-Haq, entrusted with carrying out the details of his 1977 putsch against Benazir Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was ultimately hanged.
Musharraf tapped Kayani to head a probe into two 2003 al-Qaida-linked assassination attempts on the Pakistani leader's life. Musharraf rewarded Kayani for his investigation - dozens of people were arrested - by putting him in charge of the country's spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, before naming him to the army's No. 2 spot just last month.
As spy chief, Kayani met Western leaders and developed a strong rapport with senior officials in the Bush administration. He met last November with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and has also met with senior CIA and Pentagon officials.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who came to Pakistan on Friday to deliver a stern message to Musharraf that he must end emergency rule and free political prisoners, is expected to meet with Kayani and other military leaders.
In an interview with the AP on Wednesday, Musharraf said the army had such faith in his leadership that it was impossible that it would move against him.
Talat Masood, a former Pakistani general who is now a senior political analyst, said it is anybody's guess whether Kayani - who he described as a "capable officer" - would be willing to turn against his chief benefactor, or could gently persuade him to step down on his own.
"This," he said, "is something that no one can tell."