The new spymaster: Aabpara’s new top gun

Published: March 10, 2012
Interestingly, Islam is among the batch of officers who have been ‘groomed’ by the Chief of Army Staff in the ‘new look’ ISI.

Interestingly, Islam is among the batch of officers who have been ‘groomed’ by the Chief of Army Staff in the ‘new look’ ISI.

He’s the new boss of Aabpara, but he’s not the same as the old boss. Lt-Gen Zaheerul Islam, the designate DG-ISI, just like the incumbent but soon to retire Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence Lt-Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha, is also an infantryman, but hails from different regiment: the famed Punjab (Pasha is from another celebrated wing of the infantry, the Frontier Force).

Unlike Pasha, who took over the ISI after a stint as Director General Military Operations with little high-level intelligence experience, Islam has previously served in the ISI as a two-star major general, and also commanded the very cushy V Corps in Karachi. He’s a certified paratrooper and alpine-trained, and hails from a prominent military family of war heroes who’ve worn lots of brass.

Islam’s Karachi Tenure

The V Corps stint in Karachi is a complicated job. Like the IV Corps in Lahore, it’s regarded as a choice posting which only those officers close to the Chief of Army Staff get to hold. Firstly, it features command of the 25th Mechanized Division, which watches over every spot of land from Malir to upper Sindh, making it the largest land covering formation in the Army. But Islam was not just watching over Pakistan’s eastern deserts, a likely axis of a conventional war with India if it ever comes, during his corps command. From his office on Shahra-e-Faisal, Islam’s tenure has featured overseeing Karachi during the ‘target killing’ turbulence of 2010-11, the arrests of prominent militants and terrorists (some with links to the Taliban), as well as the reorganization of the DHA. The PNS Mehran attack occurred down the street from his headquarters. The man has obviously been exposed to an eclectic brand of soldiering in Pakistan’s largest, and perhaps most complicated, city.

Islam’s Previous ISI Stint

Zaheerul Islam is not an unknown quantity within the ISI. He was reportedly DG Internal, dealing with domestic and counter-terrorism ambits as a major general under a younger and pre-extension General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Interestingly, Islam is among the batch of officers who have been ‘groomed’ by the Chief of Army Staff in the ‘new look’ ISI. Before 2004, those who served as top-guns at Aabpara had a very different promotion stream than those who didn’t. Generally, in a classic bifurcation that was almost traditional, Rawalpindi’s spooks were different from its soldiers. However, and perhaps in his own image, Kayani has streamlined some of Army’s best and brightest to also pass through the ISI.

What Now?

Thus, the ISI has, especially under Kayani, become a type of ‘finishing school’ for Army’s top brass. Islam, besides holding the right command, staff and operational posts, is among those ranks of ‘soldier spies’. Critically, in the context of ongoing military operations within the country, his infantry background is also going to matter, for the ISI, officially sans its ‘political wing’, is gradually reverting to what it was formed to do: provide field intelligence for war. As most of the operations and engagements in FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan continue to be infantry-dominated, Islam’s foot-soldier background will be critical.

Also, especially after his very glasnost style stint at Karachi, where he often interacted with the press, expect him to be more media savvy, if not maintain a higher profile, than Pasha. As he is a known organizer, also expect him to recalibrate, if not redux, the ISI’s at least six known sub-directorates: Analysis, Counter, Internal, Media, Special and Technical. But don’t expect any game-changing turnarounds, for Islam is a few batches more junior to his boss, Kayani, than Pasha was, and the COAS isn’t going golfing till at least November 2013, when Islam could well be in the final three or four finalists who are gunning for the top slot at Chaklala Garrison.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 10th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (22)

  • Skeptic
    Mar 10, 2012 - 2:27PM

    “hails from a prominent military family of war heroes who’ve worn lots of brass.” Yeah right…. i dont get it, we havent won a single war and yet we have war heroes, whole families of it…The author should have put it this way…. since he had an army background he had a better chance than the rest… national politics, army all dominated by established families. Good luck to all the rest…


  • Mahesh Patil
    Mar 10, 2012 - 3:02PM

    Indian the news is as under,is it true?
    Pakistan’s new ISI chief, Lt Gen Zahir-ul-Islam, is the nephew of Indian National Army hero Shah Nawaz Khan and through him, shares a tenuous link with Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan.


  • usman786
    Mar 10, 2012 - 4:30PM

    Hope he is a true soldier not a politician who compromises and does not closes eyes after seeing evil or says its not my job like coasRecommend

  • tanvir
    Mar 10, 2012 - 5:14PM

    Guys we won 1965 war, proxy war against Soviet Union and slowly but gradually we are winning the attritional war on terror as well. In the hate against Army’s political role which I myself dont like, we should not let facts obscured.


  • faraz
    Mar 10, 2012 - 5:44PM


    We lost 1965 war, Afghans won against soviet union and terrorists were once our strategic assets


  • SS
    Mar 10, 2012 - 5:53PM

    We didn’t win 1965 war. Air force did quite well and Army had few successes here and there… other than that it was at best a drawn match. 1971 war was lost politically before it even began, 1948 kashmir incursion a moderate success mainly due to volunteer forces and Kargil was a strategic disaster. Proxy war in Afghanistan in 80s was indeed a success, but more a success of spy agencies aided by foreign funding than the overall military….and the long term costs of that adventure more than outweigh the benefits of that success. Overall a very average record for an institution that takes up huge chunk of national resources. It doesn’t mean that the military is not capable… it simply means that the most capable of militaries is ineffective if not supported by a politically stable and functioning state and a strong economy. Its in military’s own best interest to help grow a democratic, economically viable and stable state… otherwise it might not have anything left to defend in the long run.


  • Ali Hasan
    Mar 10, 2012 - 6:04PM

    This is true. We have won no war. 1965 too is falsely credited as a win in our history books.


  • Talha
    Mar 10, 2012 - 7:03PM

    @Mahesh Patil:

    Yeah, that is correct.

    He is related to Shahnawaz Khan, I don’t know in what capacity though.


  • DILU
    Mar 10, 2012 - 8:18PM

    After seeing comments under this article it is now clear that whatever US has invested in pakistani media is paying them back. Many commentators are thinking about their own army using the eyes of Indians and Americans. These Pakistanis should not hate there army more than they love Pakistan.


  • Indian
    Mar 10, 2012 - 8:32PM

    1965 war was a draw, it was not Indian victory as misleadingly taught in Indian textbooks


  • Singh
    Mar 10, 2012 - 8:57PM

    Recently Kargil.Ring any bell?


  • Falcon
    Mar 10, 2012 - 10:28PM

    I see his positives as expected media savvyness, expertise in domestic law enforcement, and training under Kayani (who is one of the best generals Pakistan had). His negative is that he has apparently leap-frogged few ranks so he might be struggling to fill in shoes bigger than his. As a whole, the good thing about this army influenced breed of ISI leadership is that it will help Army bring back ISI under its control. Despite the perceptions floating around, it seems there have been fears in the armed forces since last decade or two that ISI has spun out of control and needs to be brought back under army control. As democracy matures, role for armed forces and ISI will diminish anyways, leading to civilian supremacy.


  • Mar 10, 2012 - 10:35PM

    Good luck General sb, we have very high expectations from you


  • Salman
    Mar 10, 2012 - 10:37PM

    1965 was a stale mate , it was not a win but certainly not a defeat. Pak did well with their limited army that time.


  • Ali Naqi Hamdani
    Mar 11, 2012 - 12:06AM

    Considering his credentials, Gen Zaheer definitely seems a competent and well deserving officer for the TOP ISI slot. But, my point is that journalism is a very sensitive job and professional journalist must exercise restraint in condemning/glorifying a person or an idea. Its objectivity and conservativeness that should prevail rather impulse and flameboynt journalism. One shouldn’t sound like a “Marsia Nawees” rather than a journalist.Recommend

  • ali
    Mar 11, 2012 - 12:09AM

    @Skeptic indians are not invited here to show their opinion


  • Uzair Javaid
    Mar 11, 2012 - 1:30AM

    @ FARAZ and SS: which credible one-sided indian story have you guys been reading to show yourselves having the most different opinion?? Did you ever see a territorial loss?? Its people like you who just to give people a feel of being different and well educated on facts, start promoting the indian made version of the stories of the wars.


  • Mar 11, 2012 - 8:27AM

    Hindus from across border should atleast use their own names. We won 65 as India got DEFEATED in its stated goals. 71 was a pre planned separation with all global powers & our own power circles accomplices. Kargil was a planning disaster but soldiers faught valiantly. So Pak Army – generals is still the best.


  • Sadaqat Ali
    Mar 11, 2012 - 1:49PM

    It seems like an article that is published before every appointment of this order, in power circles ,about what to expect from the new guy and is always proved wrong afterwards.What we all do not understand is that Army is not about individuals.It has its own way of implementing its ideologies at the end of the day no matter who is at the helm of the affairs.These policies remain rooted to the appointment and it takes a certain amount of initiative to carve out space for some change.
    On the classic topic of military -civil divide, i will like to advice my fellow brethren that do not exalt the military to such extent that they believe its their right to rule and do not try to weaken their resolve and strength so that they become incapable to do what they are supposed to.Strike a balance, its your army, made from people within you.Do not let your own inadequacies and shortfalls dictate your opinions and let yourself play in enemy’s hands.Threats to Pakistan are a reality! not some made up concerns like those of US.We are in state of constant war, battles won and lost every day, not all known to everyone.Its time we all get our minds out of the prejudices based on plots in Dha’s , business enterprises , better school and hospitals, and unite as one nation, standing proudly besides our armed forces not behind them.


  • Z.Khan
    Mar 11, 2012 - 7:02PM

    To some extent point raised by Sadaqat Ali is agreed. However all are missing one basic fact as it requires lot of courage to accept it. Seed of superiority complex to fellow civilians is deeply sown and then fertilized in the minds of military officers. All this happens when one steps in PMA Kakul. After having served for couple of decades in this organisation I am speaking out the truth. Every officer in uniform is taught and expected to behave superior to his fellow civil counter parts, be it in administration, management, politics, education and so on. Similarly, when military officer puts red tape on its collars it becomes then irrelevant which branch he comes from. Infantry back ground or experience as corp commander does not mean that some one can prove good DG ISI.
    The fact is military has vested interests and clearly defined policies which it has to implement for its survival. Until now there are no indications that military will stop interference in security and foreign policies. Top brass of military still claims (due to its inherent superiority complex) that civil elite lacks the required capacity/competence to handle these delicate matters. Appointment of Ms Khar as Foreign Minister and Mr Mukhtar as Defence Minister already support this view point. Startling revelations in Ashgar Khan case also clearly supports this view point Where civil elite stands and to fetch monetary benefits the extent to which they can go is coming obvious day by day.
    Agreed that due to media bold reporting top military brass might become more careful but to expect that with the change of a spy chief the organisation will get overhauling will be living in fools paradise. US President Obama made so many tall claims of change before getting in to White House. However when he landed he found a different world having tight compartments of rules and regulations and was forced to follow it. So is the case with new spy chief. If he has to survive he has to fit himself to get moulded with existing business of the ISI. Further one has to see current COAS will remain on his head and might be outgoing spy chief also getting appointment closely related with ISI. So please do not expect any major change with the change of a face.


  • Sadaqat Ali
    Mar 11, 2012 - 9:37PM

    The problem with Pakistan has been that whenever military slapped the civil society with coups and decades of dictatorship, civil society never raised itself upto the challenge on the contrary presented other cheek as well.This seed of superiority can only be eliminated from the minds of a young Officer if he knows there is an efficient, well oiled and dedicated Government behind him that will support him and the nation he fights for. In adverse times and will safeguard what he fought for and will not compromise on the sacrifices he gave.Why is there no such complexes in an Indian officer?..It is only because he knows there is a strong government and country besides him and he is subordinate to them.Today is not the era of Ayub khans and Yahya khans.Times have changed.There is also change in mindset of officers today.They are aware of the fact that civil government is the only option for Pakistan.The only area of problem that remains is the question in minds of top Brass that If God forbids Pakistan goes through its demise how will they digest the fact that they had the means to save Pakistan but they held the principles of idealism dear to them.Its a big dilemma.The course Pakistan is on at the present is no different.It is now matter of survival for Pakistan.We can no longer ignore the icebergs of massive economic failures and internal conflicts that have hit us.Let us not talk of butterflies and flowers.We need to save Pakistan NOW!. and we better find a solution that does not involve military adventurism as it will be a disaster in itself.


  • Hashmi
    Mar 12, 2012 - 12:25PM

    Let us all put oour voice together and request the new ISI chief to engineer a coup against this govt. becuase we have lost all hope from Kayani.


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