Continuity Amidst Change: Pakistan's New Intelligence Chief

March 19, 2012

Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani (second from left) with new Director General of the ISI Lt. Gen. Zahirul Islam (center). (Available at ispr.gov.pk)
 

Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) retired on March 18 after three and a half years of serving in the post. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s announcement of Pasha’s successor on March 9 ended speculation that the spy chief would be offered an extraordinary third extension.[1] Pasha’s successor, Lieutenant General Zahirul Islam, takes over at a delicate time for U.S.-Pakistan relations and Pakistani civil-military relations alike. His selection offers insight into how Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership intend to tackle the difficult challenges in the months to come.

 
Change or Continuity?

Prime Minister Gilani announced General Islam’s appointment nine days before the end of Pasha’s term. General Islam’s qualifications, previous postings and relationship with Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani reportedly make him the “safe choice” for the position and likely presages continuity of current policies rather than massive upheavals within the agency.[2]

General Islam, 56, hails from a prominent military family and graduated from the Pakistan Military Academy’s 55th “Long Course” in 1977.[3] He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry in the Punjab Regiment, which is Kayani’s parent regiment as well.[4]

General Islam also served as the chief of staff for the Army Strategic Forces Command, a major combatant command that most prominently oversees and commands Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.[5] He was the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 12th Infantry Division based in Murree, near Islamabad from 2006 to 2008.[6]

General Islam then moved to the ISI where he became Deputy Director General of the ISI’s internal wing responsible for “internal security, law and order, coordination with law-enforcement agencies and supporting counter-terrorism operations.”[7] He received command of V Corps, based in Karachi, and a promotion to Lieutenant General in 2010.[8] This command is an important three-star posting and receiving the job usually indicates the army chief’s favor.[9] During his tenure at V Corps, General Islam oversaw paramilitary operations targeting ethnic strife in Karachi during one of the most violent periods of civil unrest in Karachi’s history.[10]

 
The Challenges of the Job

General Islam comes to the ISI at a critical time for Pakistani internal civil-military relations and external relations with the U.S. and Afghanistan. 2011 was a turbulent year for U.S.-Pakistani relations and was rocked by crisis after crisis. These included the Raymond Davis affair, in which a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis, the May raid by U.S. forces that killed Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan and that was highly embarrassing for Pakistan’s military, public statements by senior U.S. officials including then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen accusing Pakistan of supporting the Haqqani Network, and the Salala Checkpoint raid in late 2011 during which a NATO operation on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border went wrong and ended up killing 24 Pakistani soldiers.[11] Pakistan shut down a U.S. drone base inside Pakistan and blocked NATO’s ground supply chain through Pakistan in retaliation. Pakistan’s parliament is currently deliberating on a comprehensive refashioning of relations with the U.S.

On the domestic side, the ISI and General Pasha in particular locked horns with Pakistan’s civilian government over the “memogate” controversy, when the military suspected the government of writing a secret memo to the U.S. looking for support in sacking the army’s top leadership in exchange for policy concessions vis-à-vis counter-terrorism and nuclear weapons. The army cooperated with a Supreme Court investigation into the matter allegedly without the permission of the government, and relations between the government and the army’s top brass frayed to the point where Prime Minister Gilani publicly alluded to the possibility that the army was planning a coup.[12] The ISI is also under pressure from a separate Supreme Court case aggressively investigating allegations of bribery, corruption and political engineering in the 1990s that reportedly saw the army funnel millions of dollars to favored political parties in an effort to topple the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government ruling at that time.[13]

Going forward, the new chief of the ISI will need to be able to continue to oversee Pakistan’s own ongoing efforts against domestic terrorists and insurgents, and continue the work of the current Director General of the ISI (DG ISI) in enhancing “the operational linkages between the ISI and the army.”[14] He will also need to continue managing the issue of relations with the U.S. and Afghanistan as the U.S. appears to draw down from the theater and simultaneously negotiate with different factions of the Taliban. This means interacting not just with the DG ISI’s own boss, Kayani, but also with the country’s domestic political leadership; America’s political and military leaders including the White House, the CIA, CENTCOM, ISAF and the State Department; Afghanistan’s political, military and intelligence leadership; the various other countries likely to try to influence the proceedings; and of course, the various Taliban factions and their sympathizers as well.[15]

 
The Future Spymaster

The events of 2011 and the resultant turbulence in U.S.-Pakistan relations had soured relationships between General Pasha and his U.S. counterparts.[16] The memogate affair in Pakistan similarly ruined relations between General Pasha and the sitting civilian government. The appointment of a new DG ISI affords all sides the opportunity to start afresh.[17] While General Pasha still managed to maintain a working relationship with his U.S. counterparts, General Islam will not carry the same baggage as his predecessor, which may allow him to “facilitate the improvement” of U.S.-Pakistan relations.[18] Additionally, General Islam has the advantage of having previously participated in senior-level training courses in the U.S. As a brigadier, General Islam attended the U.S. Army War College from 2002 to 2003.[19]

On the domestic front, General Islam reportedly received backing and a strong recommendation from President Asif Ali Zardari.[20] The choice of General Islam should also satisfy senior opposition politicians from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz who reportedly came out strongly against rumors that Gen. Pasha might receive an unprecedented third extension as DG ISI.[21] Being “media savvy” will also help General Islam deal with the diverse group of domestic and foreign political, military, intelligence and insurgent leaders with whom he will likely need to interact.[22]

General Islam is set to retire in 2014, soon after current Army Chief Gen. Kayani himself is due to retire and general elections are slated to be held in 2013.[23] This timeline simplifies organizational matters to a degree as the new army chief and civilian leadership would, theoretically, be free to choose their own DG ISI without being saddled by the choices of an outgoing crop of leaders.[24]

General Islam is reportedly very close to Kayani and his appointment signifies that Kayani is looking for a spy chief who will be able to support ongoing efforts on the diplomatic and military fronts.[25] General Islam has not only commanded an infantry division, a corps and participated in stability operations in Karachi, but he also, importantly, has previous experience as a senior leader in the ISI. Furthermore, General Islam was at the ISI soon after Kayani himself relinquished command of the organization and right as General Pasha took over the ISI reins.[26] He is, as a result, likely to be well-versed in the institution’s policies and have a good idea of the vision his boss is looking to implement within and through the agency.

 
Conclusion

The leadership of the ISI is changing hands at a critical time for both the U.S. and Pakistan. General Islam has all the right qualifications for a job as important as that of the DG ISI. For some in the U.S. and in Pakistan’s civilian government, General Pasha came to epitomize the intransigence and uncooperativeness of the ISI and the interference of the army in civil affairs; General Islam’s arrival may provide those parties the opportunity to move past such issues. That said, Kayani is the ultimate arbiter of Pakistan’s security policy and General Islam is Kayani’s choice likely because his previous postings and qualifications, closeness to the chief and shared vision mean he will help to continue and further Kayani’s vision for the army and for Pakistan’s relations vis-à-vis Afghanistan, the U.S., India, and other external relations.[27] The retirement of General Pasha and the selection of General Islam as the new DG ISI signals the end of an era at the ISI, but despite the impression of revision that such a change in command might allude to, continuity appears to be the main result of General Islam’s appointment. His curriculum vitae points to him being a conservative choice, close to the main decision-maker, and unlikely to hold or advance avant-garde positions in opposition to Kayani’s wishes. General Islam is a well-qualified, professional officer and a perfectly logical choice to be the new DG ISI. If one was looking for a signal that Pakistan is planning on breaking with its previous approaches, however, at least as far as its policies towards the U.S. and Afghanistan are concerned, General Islam’s new posting is not that signal.



[1] “Gilani appoints new ISI chief,” Dawn, March 10, 2012. Available at http://www.dawn.com/2012/03/09/gilani-appoints-new-isi-chief.html
[2] Declan Walsh and Salman Masood, “Pakistan Picks New Director for Spy Agency,” New York Times, March 10, 2012. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/10/world/asia/powerful-pakistan-intelligence-agency-the-isi-gets-new-leader.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print
[3] Sumera Khan, “The chosen one: Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam named new spymaster,” Express Tribune, March 10, 2012. Available at http://tribune.com.pk/story/348040/the-chosen-one-lt-gen-zahaeerul-islam-named-new-spymaster/
Wajahat S. Khan, “Aapbara auditions,” The Friday Times, February 24, 2012. Available at http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20120224&page=6
[4] Richard Leiby and Karen DeYoung, “Pakistan names new spymaster,” Washington Post, March 9, 2012. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/pakistan-names-new-spymaster/2012/03/09/gIQAmXUP1R_print.html
[5] Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Gen Zahir to replace Pasha in ISI,” Dawn, March 10, 2012. Available at http://www.dawn.com/2012/03/10/gen-zahir-to-replace-pasha-in-isi.html
[6] Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Gen Zahir to replace Pasha in ISI,” Dawn, March 10, 2012. Available at http://www.dawn.com/2012/03/10/gen-zahir-to-replace-pasha-in-isi.html
[7] Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Gen Zahir to replace Pasha in ISI,” Dawn, March 10, 2012. Available at http://www.dawn.com/2012/03/10/gen-zahir-to-replace-pasha-in-isi.html
[8] Wajahat S. Khan, “Aapbara auditions,” The Friday Times, February 24, 2012. Available at http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20120224&page=6
[9] Wajahat S. Khan, “Aapbara auditions,” The Friday Times, February 24, 2012. Available at http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20120224&page=6
[10] Wajahat S. Khan, “Aapbara auditions,” The Friday Times, February 24, 2012. Available at http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20120224&page=6
[11] Richard Leiby and Karen DeYoung, “Pakistan names new spymaster,” Washington Post, March 9, 2012. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/pakistan-names-new-spymaster/2012/03/09/gIQAmXUP1R_print.html
Declan Walsh and Salman Masood, “Pakistan Picks New Director for Spy Agency,” New York Times, March 10, 2012. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/10/world/asia/powerful-pakistan-intelligence-agency-the-isi-gets-new-leader.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print
[12] Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Gen Zahir to replace Pasha in ISI,” Dawn, March 10, 2012. Available at http://www.dawn.com/2012/03/10/gen-zahir-to-replace-pasha-in-isi.html
“Pakistan plot to overthrow government, says PM Gilani,” BBC, December 22, 2011. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16303012
[13] Declan Walsh and Salman Masood, “Pakistan Picks New Director for Spy Agency,” New York Times, March 10, 2012. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/10/world/asia/powerful-pakistan-intelligence-agency-the-isi-gets-new-leader.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print
[14] Wajahat S. Khan, “Aapbara auditions,” The Friday Times, February 24, 2012. Available at http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20120224&page=6
[15] Wajahat S. Khan, “Aapbara auditions,” The Friday Times, February 24, 2012. Available at http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20120224&page=6
[16] Chris Albritton and Mahwish Rizvi, “Pakistan PM appoints new head of ISI,” Reuters, March 10, 2012. Available at http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/03/10/pakistan-isi-idINDEE8280BY20120310
[17] “Reza Sayah, Nasir Habibi, Pam Benson and Adam Levine, “New spy chief for Pakistan,” CNN, March 9, 2012. Available at http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/09/new-spy-chief-for-pakistan/
[18] “Pakistan appoints new head of ISI spy agency,” Al Jazeera English, March 10, 2012. Available at http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2012/03/201239165540809604.html
Chris Albritton and Mahwish Rizvi, “Pakistan PM appoints new head of ISI,” Reuters, March 10, 2012. Available at http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/03/10/pakistan-isi-idINDEE8280BY20120310
[19] Chris Albritton and Mahwish Rizvi, “Pakistan PM appoints new head of ISI,” Reuters, March 10, 2012. Available at http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/03/10/pakistan-isi-idINDEE8280BY20120310
[20] “New spymaster: Lt Gen. Zaheerul Islam to succeed Pasha as ISI chief,” Express Tribune, March 9, 2012. Available at http://tribune.com.pk/story/347696/new-spymaster-lt-gen-zaheerul-islam-may-succeed-pasha-as-isi-chief/
[21] Sumera Khan, “The chosen one: Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam named new spymaster,” Express Tribune, March 10, 2012. Available at http://tribune.com.pk/story/348040/the-chosen-one-lt-gen-zahaeerul-islam-named-new-spymaster/
[22] Declan Walsh and Salman Masood, “Pakistan Picks New Director for Spy Agency,” New York Times, March 10, 2012. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/10/world/asia/powerful-pakistan-intelligence-agency-the-isi-gets-new-leader.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print
[23] Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Gen Zahir to replace Pasha in ISI,” Dawn, March 10, 2012. Available at http://www.dawn.com/2012/03/10/gen-zahir-to-replace-pasha-in-isi.html
[24] Wajahat S. Khan, “Aapbara auditions,” The Friday Times, February 24, 2012. Available at http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20120224&page=6
[25] Richard Leiby and Karen DeYoung, “Pakistan names new spymaster,” Washington Post, March 9, 2012. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/pakistan-names-new-spymaster/2012/03/09/gIQAmXUP1R_print.html
Wajahat S. Khan, “Aapbara auditions,” The Friday Times, February 24, 2012. Available at http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20120224&page=6
Sumera Khan, “The chosen one: Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam named new spymaster,” Express Tribune, March 10, 2012. Available at http://tribune.com.pk/story/348040/the-chosen-one-lt-gen-zahaeerul-islam-named-new-spymaster/
[26] Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Gen Zahir to replace Pasha in ISI,” Dawn, March 10, 2012. Available at http://www.dawn.com/2012/03/10/gen-zahir-to-replace-pasha-in-isi.html
[27] Sumera Khan, “The chosen one: Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam named new spymaster,” Express Tribune, March 10, 2012. Available at http://tribune.com.pk/story/348040/the-chosen-one-lt-gen-zahaeerul-islam-named-new-spymaster/