The prime minister appointed a new general to run Pakistan‘s powerful intelligence agency on Friday, signaling an important change in the military leadership at a pivotal moment in relations with the United States.
Lt. Gen. Zahir Ul Islam will take over as the director general of the agency, known as the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate or ISI, on March 18, replacing Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, said a spokesman for Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.
The ISI chief is the second most powerful figure in the military – and, some would argue, in the country. American officials have accused the ISI of supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and the agency is expected to play a significant role in peace talks that the Obama administration is trying to kick-start. The job shuffle had been expected, although there had been some media speculation that the government would extend General Pasha’s tenure instead of retiring him. Officially the ISI reports to the prime minister, but in reality it is controlled by the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who had a close partnership with General Pasha during the agency’s turbulent relationship with the United States in recent years.
A succession of spy scandals have brought the ISI’s relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency — and, more broadly, with the United States - to a historic low over the past year.
Tensions rose in January 2011 after a C.I.A. contractor killed two Pakistanis in Lahore, then worsened in May following the surprise American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, 35 miles north of the ISI’s Islamabad headquarters.
Last September Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional hearing that the pro-Taliban militant group known as the Haqqani network was a “virtual arm” of the ISI, triggering fresh tumult.
General Islam currently commands V Corps, also called Victory Corps, an administrative corps of the army based in Karachi. It is considered one of the most coveted posts in the army leadership, which analysts said was an indication of his good standing with General Kayani. Before that he served in the ISI, reportedly as head of the section that deals with domestic and counter-intelligence issues.
“He’s a safe choice,” said Wajahat S. Khan, a journalist who has written about internal military politics. “He’s served in the ISI, he’s from an infantry wing, and he’s pretty media savvy — which is what they need right now.”
Ikram Sehgal, a defense analyst based in Karachi, said General Pasha had been a “reluctant appointee” to the ISI, and only took the top job under pressure from General Kayani. Inside army circles, General Pasha has come under quiet criticism for steering the ISI into controversy.
The new ISI chief’s first job is likely to involve re-fashioning relations with Washington, which have been virtually frozen since a disputed shooting incident at the Afghanistan border in November that killed 26 Pakistani troops. At a special joint sitting of parliament, due to take place later this month, Pakistan’s politicians will debate the broad contours of a new policy towards the United States.
But the core elements of the relationship are widely expected to be decided in private, principally by General Kayani and General Islam, representing the military, in consultation with the civilian leadership of President Asif Ali Zardari.
One likely obstacle will be C.I.A. drone strikes in the northwestern tribal belt, which are widely unpopular. Despite the recent diplomatic freeze, the American attacks are continuing. In the latest strike reported Friday morning, 12 people died in South Waziristan tribal agency, a Pakistani intelligence official told the Associated Press.
General Islam comes from a military family. He was born in Rawalpindi, the garrison town that is home to the army headquarters, and his father served as a brigadier in the army while his uncle, Shah Nawaz Khan, was a prominent figure in the Indian National Army, which fought alongside Japanese forces against the British army during the Second World War in South Asia, said Mr. Sehgal, the analyst.
Three star generals seem run in General Islam’s family — two of his cousins are retired lieutenant generals, Mr. Sehgal added.
General Islam’s appointment makes him a possible future candidate for army chief. Under General Kayani the ISI, once considered a backwater of sorts in the army’s top ranks, has become a “finishing school” for the top job, said Mr. Khan, the analyst.