The chosen one: Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam named new spymaster

The Karachi corps commander will take over from Shuja Pasha.

Sumera Khan March 10, 2012


The government on Friday appointed a new head of the country’s premier military intelligence unit, quashing rumours of another extension for Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha.

Lieutenant-General Zaheerul Islam will step into Pasha’s boots as director-general of the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) after serving as the commander of the V Corps, a key army administrative unit that is based in Karachi.

“Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has appointed Lt-Gen Zaheerul Islam, corps commander Karachi, as new director general of the Inter Services Intelligence,” the PM’s office said in a terse statement.

The appointment of Lt-Gen Islam, whose nomination was supposedly backed by President Asif Ali Zardari, was finalised on Friday evening.

Outgoing chief

Islam takes over from Shuja Pasha, who was appointed in 2008 and was granted a one-year extension in March 2011. According to sources, Pasha had requested the army chief in December to relieve him of his duties as the ISI chief.  He is scheduled to retire on March 18.

Pasha’s tenure as ISI chief was overshadowed by a single event – the killing of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011.

Some in the US accused the ISI, of “at best incompetence and at worst complicity” after bin Laden was found to have lived in a compound – a stone’s throw from the country’s largest military academy – for up to five years.

Consultations before appointment

According to credible information, consultations over the appointment had been ongoing between the prime minister, president and Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

Sources said that the prime minister had already told his cabinet ministers and advisers that they would announce the decision on Friday.

A reliable source, who is also a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party’s Central Executive Committee, told The Express Tribune that the issue of an extension for Pasha came under lengthy discussion in the March 5 meeting of the core committee.

During the meeting, a surprising majority of participants had recommended that the prime minister settle all issues with the military and judiciary, in the spirit of the party’s reconciliation policy.

The source said that the members had assured prime minister that the CEC would endorse his decision to extend Pasha’s tenure.

“Any such decision will be taken in the larger interest of national security and interest. After detailed consultations, keeping in view the sensitive regional situation, the decision will be announced,” the source quoted Prime Minister Gilani as saying.

It was further revealed by the source that the prime minister was in favour of Shuja Pasha and spoke to the president in this regard.  However, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Chuadhry Nisar Ali Khan expressed his dissatisfaction over the proposal.

In a strong-worded press conference, Nisar said that if the government decided to grant an extension, “it would be a duping the nation once again”.

After Nisar’s opposition, the premier dropped the idea and asked the defence minister to send him nominations of officers eligible for the post.

Incoming spymaster

Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam, 56, was born into a military family and belongs to the Punjab Regiment. He had passed out from the 55th PMA long course.

Islam commanded a division in Murree before being promoted.

He has also served as the deputy director general of the ISI between 2007 and 2008.  He was then promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and was posted to Karachi.

Lt Gen Islam will be the 18th director general of the ISI since 1959 – the inaugural year when the premier spy agency was headed by Brigadier Riaz Hussain. Analysts say the incoming director-general has held some of the most important posts in the army since his commissioning in 1977, and is seen both inside and outside the military as an experienced and professional soldier.

Defence analyst Talat Masood, himself a one-time lieutenant general, views Islam’s appointment as a “good choice”, adding that he enjoys the respect and confidence of his colleagues, as well as the army chief.

“(Islam) has the confidence of the people who matter,” Masood said. “The institution also needed to change; this injects new thinking and energy into the organisation.”

Others, however, believe that policies will remain unchanged within one of the country’s most powerful institutions and will still be directed by General Kayani.

“The role of the ISI does not necessarily depend on an individual, but it’s a policy that is designed primarily by the army chief. I think there will be continuity of policy,” said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.

Masood heaped praise on Shuja Pasha for his performance, which he said was incredible – except for the May 2 US raid.

Shuja Pasha has done a stupendous job especially when Pakistan was going through a rough patch with both the US and Afghanistan,” he said.

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