Abdul Waheed Kakar was born on 20 March 1937 at Peshawar, British India (now Pakistan). A nephew of Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar, he received his education at the Edwardes College, Peshawar. His ancestors belonged to the Kakar Pashtun tribe from what is now Balochistan. His great grandfather migrated north and settled in Peshawar.
Kakar was commissioned in the 5th battalion of the Frontier Force Regiment (5 FF) on 18 October 1959 in the 20th PMA Long Course. He is a graduate from Command and Staff College, Canada and National Defence College, Rawalpindi. He saw active service in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war with an FF unit in Chawinda and as brigade major of an independent infantry brigade in Sulemanki sector in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war – both scenes of major battles in the respective wars.
Later in his career, Kakar served as corps chief of staff to General Rahimuddin Khan and subsequently commanded an infantry brigade. Promoted major general in 1984, he commanded an infantry division in Sindh for three years. Later, he served as adjutant general at General Headquarters from 1987 to 1989. During that post, Kakar refused to admit a student in the Army Medical College, Rawalpindi, despite direct orders from President General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, but was forced to do so as the President ordered the increase of overall seats that accommodated the student. On being promoted lieutenant general in 1989, he was appointed Commander XII Corps at Quetta.
With Kakar's appointment, at least four senior generals were superseded: Lt Gen Rehem Dil Bhatti, commandant National Defence College, Rawalpindi; Lt Gen Mohammad Ashraf, commander IV Corps, Lahore; Lt Gen Farrakh Khan, Chief of General Staff (CGS); and Lt Gen Arif Bangash, quarter-master general (QMG). Among these generals, the last two opted to stay in the army.
After taking over as COAS, Kakar who forced both Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Nawaz Sharif to hand over their resignations at the height of the political and constitutional crisis in 1993. This resulted in the 1993 general elections, in which Benazir Bhutto came into power. After his appointment, a member of the National Assembly remarked, "the era of the Pakhtoons has begun." The president belonged to the Frontier province and so did the new Chief of Army Staff.
During his tenure, General Kakar is remembered for starting the Shaheen Nuclear Missile Project.
In September 1995, General Abdul Waheed Kakar discovered a plot by a group of army officers headed by Major-General Zahirul Islam Abbasi, acting in complicity with the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami a militant group, to assassinate him and Benazir Bhutto, the then prime minister, and capture power. This plan was foiled and those involved captured and arrested. General Abbasi was however released after a few years.
Mahmood Khan Achakzai, the then MNA had this to say about the new COAS in 1993, "this is not a General of the Sandhurst colonial brand. I welcome an enlightened man from the rigid mountains of loralai. He has the professional skills for improving the performance of the Pakistan Army. But more than that he is intelligent enough to comprehend politics and will promote the democratic process. General Waheed is not a religious extremist."