The announcement of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appointing Lieutenant-General Zahirul Islam as the new DG-ISI [Director General Inter-Services Intelligence] created hopes in certain quarters that the Agency which is considered to be all pervasive in politics both internal and external in Pakistan and an extension of the Army may be finally falling under civilian control. This is significant as the next step could also be the Pakistan Army finally becoming answerable to the elected leadership of the country. Does this announcement prove that ISI is under civilian control, the jury may remain out on this one for it is too early to tell, but it could well be the first signs of change?
The appointment came about after much speculation over another extension to the present incumbent, Lt General Shuja Pasha who was on a one year lease so to say. The opposition to an extension to General Pasha in the country in the wake of many controversies during the past year was stiff. The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML N) was most vehement in its resistance to Pasha, possibly this also played into the government’s hands to deny Pasha an extension. PML N Chief Nawaz Sharif even appealed to the Army to stay out of politics. Thus playing safe the PML N has sought that he should not be given an extension.
That Pasha is not acceptable as the ISI chief in future is also evidence of the likely clout he may exercise during the forthcoming elections for the intelligence agency has the capability to make and mar prospects of parties as well as candidates that it has been able to do so in the past. Reports indicate that the Army and ISI are behind propping up the Tehreek Insaaf a Party led by former cricket captain Imran Khan and has also led to formation of Pakistan Defence Council with Hafeez Saeed, the man behind Mumbai 26/11 a key leader.
As an autonomous agency that has enjoyed immense powers in all fields of political and security in Pakistan the ISI has a larger than life image that has been built up over the years. Answerable to the Army Chief who has also been frequently the head of state and government in Pakistan the Agency has been a proactive for intervention in virtually all crisis the nation has faced and in the name of national interest has been indulging in paying off political parties as much as fostering insurgency across the borders of the country particularly in Jammu and Kashmir. The ISI has also been actively involved in Afghanistan and with 2014 coming up when International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will vacate the country, the intelligence agency seen to have tentacles controlling the Taliban is expected to play a major role.
Under the circumstances thus the role of the ISI Chief is considered seminal and even though Lt Gen Pasha has come under some controversy his successor Lt-Gen Zaheerul Islam is more than likely be a traditional ISI chief rather than attempt to carve a new role for himself and the agency as many are hoping. Yet change may be inevitable given greater public scrutiny of the agency’s activities and involvement in cases such as the death of journalist Saleem Shahzad and many disappearances in the country as well as the major internal security challenges that the country is facing on all the fronts, unless there is a review of the ISI role and functioning, Pakistan may not be able to recover from the abyss so to say.
The appointment of Lieutenant-General Zahirul Islam as the chief of the Pakistani intelligence agency the all pervasive ISI may also hopefully bring an end to acrimony that existed not just at the level of the government and the intelligence agency but also the ISI and the American intelligence CIA due to various differences that had arisen during the tenure of the incumbent Lt Gen Shuja Pasha. Pasha soon fell from grace after the raid on the Osama Bin Laden hide out in Abbottabad in May 2011 for he was not able to justify the presence of the terrorist leader in the heart of the country near a military cantonment. Frequent rows with the CIA and finally the Memo gate that was a direct accusation being made by the ISI and the Army against the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government was perhaps the final straw leading to his retirement. There was also considerable pressure from the opposition the PML N for extension of Pasha thereby easing the case for the PPP. How Lt Gen Islam is able to manage the relations with the Americans as well as the civil government remains to be seen?
Lt Gen Shuja Pasha is likely to shift from the ISI to the Strategic Planning Division (SPD) which controls nuclear weaponisation in Pakistan. This in a way signifies how the Pakistan Army will continue to retain power in the country by keeping the triggers of power intelligence and nuclear weapons under its thumb. Thus perhaps despite the orders from Mr Gillani, the Army may continue too retain power in Pakistan in the months and years ahead?