There will be a temptation to think that the appointment of Lieutenant-General Zahirul Islam, as the new director-general of the ISI, will bring about a sea change at the premier spy agency. While it is entirely possible that General Islam will be less combative and more conciliatory than his predecessor Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the fact remains that simply appointing a new head is unlikely to have too much of an impact on the agency’s activities and performance of duties. As such, the most likely scenario is that the ISI under the new chief will continue on its path of trying to have it both ways — at least in the eyes of some — on the issue of militancy.
The most important challenge facing the new ISI chief is trying to repair the steadily-worsening relations with the US. Last year in September, Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman joint chiefs of staff, claimed that the Haqqani Network was a “veritable arm” of the ISI. The US has also been suspicious of the ISI’s role in the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad. Furthermore, relations with the US soured when the agency failed to find the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, however, one hopes that an attempt will be made to examine this under the new chief. General Islam is likely to be a familiar figure to the US, since he had previously served as a senior official in the ISI, before he took over as a corps commander in Karachi. But in the case of the US and the ISI, familiarity largely seems to breed contempt. The mutual suspicion between the two sides is so intense that one should not expect a complete change of tide especially since the newly-appointed chief is an established military figure.
Rebuilding the credibility of the ISI will be the general’s toughest task. The intelligence agency’s political activities are currently under scrutiny in the Supreme Court after the judiciary decided to take up Air Marshal (retd)Asghar Khan’s petition against the ISI’s funding of politicians in the 1990s. The US, while sure to breathe a sigh of relief that Pasha was not granted a second extension, will remain wary. Thus, the best start that can be made given the current situation is for the military to ensure that there is no such interference by the agency in the country’s political process.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 11th, 2012.