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Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The much waited change of command in ISI. What about the reforms?

Welcome change of guard at ISI

In a “major” reshuffle in the Pakistan Army, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General Lt Gen Nadeem Taj has been replaced by newly promoted Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha. The change of guard at the ISI will attract attention because it formally required the approval of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani under whose constitutional tutelage the country’s top spy agency is formally supposed to function. If Mr Gilani had so wished, Gen Taj would have continued to remain in place. But this hasn’t happened because COAS Gen Ashfaq Kayani wanted it otherwise and the PM had no objection. Gen Taj’s move to the Gujranwala corps, however, is important for his career and will not be viewed negatively. The move is interesting because Prime Minister Gilani has been critical of the intelligence establishment of the country in general. He had made an attempt — unsuccessfully — to put the ISI under the Interior Ministry. However, after the Marriott Hotel blast on September 20, he had reason to complain once again, which added to the general public objection to the effectiveness of the intelligence agencies against terrorism in the country, which seemed to have a free hand in choosing and executing its targets. Above all, it was embarrassing that employees belonging to the ISI were attacked and killed repeatedly in Rawalpindi.

It would, however, be wrong to attribute this change to objections raised in Washington against the “double face” of the ISI, even if the change of the top man in the ISI will probably be looked at with favour by the US. The change should not normally be viewed as change of policy, but the exit of General Taj will be seen in some circles as a prelude to change of policy in the agency. Changes of personnel have taken place in the past. General Musharraf had announced during his tenure as army chief that purges had been carried out in the ISI to ensure observance of the changes of policy he had initiated after 9/11.

The US administration should normally have no basis for commenting on an institution created by the parliament in Pakistan, but comment did come on the basis of Pakistan’s commitment to war against terror. The plaint was indirect and it pertained to the leaking of information that the NATO-ISAF command in Afghanistan shared with Islamabad in respect of the planned attacks on the centres of Al Qaeda terrorists in the Tribal Areas. The implication was that the ISI was protecting the elements it was committed to fight. The reaction in Pakistan was understandable. Public support to the ISI increased and the American objection was rejected.

There is also reason to believe that the PPP cannot be too fond of the ISI as an institution. Past history clearly indicates improper use of the agency made by an establishment suspicious of the worldview of the PPP. Its leadership has been hounded by the improperly politicised officers of the ISI, starting from maltreatment received by the founder of the party, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and ending with its martyred leader Ms Benazir Bhutto, who actually accused members of the ISI of plotting her assassination. In her memoir she clearly hints at receiving inside information from the ISI revealing plans to harm her if she returned to Pakistan from her exile.

The ISI was misused during the sad years of the 1990s when the two mainstream parties, the PML and the PPP, were locked in a life and death struggle for power. The most embarrassing moment came when functionaries of the ISI were caught red-handed trying to overthrow the government of Ms Bhutto and had to be removed from service. It is in fact the ISI which is which is largely responsible for the general impression in Pakistan that the army doesn’t like the PPP as a party, a dangerous impression nurtured in Sindh pointing to the Punjabi prejudice against the smaller provinces. Intercepts of General Musharraf’s telephone conversations conveyed this message quite clearly; and General Nadeem Taj was known to be a protégé of General Musharraf.

There is no disagreeing with the general plaint about lack of counter-intelligence in Pakistan. While the ISI is vigilant about India and reacts swiftly to any moves made by it to harm the security of Pakistan, its ability to intercept and interdict moves by the terrorists — resulting in the death of a large number of people — remains limited if not suspiciously defective. This has led many to assess the ISI negatively, accusing it of not letting go of the former proxy elements it nurtured who have turned against Pakistan and are killing innocent citizens. Also, the ISI needs to work towards removing the general tendency of Pakistanis to hold the ISI responsible for bombings that are clearly the work of the enemy.

There are two points of note in this change of command. One, the new DG ISI is handpicked by COAS General Ashfaq Kayani, and not by PM Gilani. He was DGMO in charge of the anti-terrorist operations in FATA and directly responsible for implementing the policy of the COAS there, first under General Musharraf and then under General Kayani. He was scheduled to retire but has instead been promoted, indicating the degree of trust he now enjoys with COAS Kayani. Two, Maj-Gen Nusrat Naeem, who was DG-Counter-Intelligence, the number two position in the agency, has also been promoted and replaced by another hand-picked Kayani man, Maj-Gen Zahir-ul-Islam, who was GOC Murree. Significantly, neither the PM nor President Asif Zardari has tried to influence General Kayani’s choice, indicating a welcome degree of trust between the new military and new political leadership. This is also noteworthy because of the PPP’s earlier attempt to bring the ISI under the control of the interior ministry. Clearly, under Gen Pasha, the ISI will be retooled to deal with the internal threat to the state from terrorism in FATA. This is great news. (Daily Times)

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