x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Pakistan army gets its choice for spy chief

The one-year extension given to the ISI chief last week is being seen as a sign of the army's continuing influence over a weak civilian government.

Pakistan's prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, left, has the nominal power, but Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, right, has the real clout.
Pakistan's prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, left, has the nominal power, but Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, right, has the real clout.

ISLAMABAD // The one-year extension given to the chief of Pakistan's powerful spy organisation last week is being seen as a sign of the army's continuing influence over a weak civilian government and ensures that its current regional and domestic policies will continue unimpeded. Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), is a confidant of the army chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani, who has sought to keep Gen Pasha by his side as Pakistan battles a Taliban insurgency.

The prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, announced the extension in a brief statement on Wednesday, but the act was seen as being forced on the civilian leadership by the army. According to the Pakistani constitution, the authority to appoint the ISI chief rests with the prime minister, but the current civilian government has had a turbulent relationship with the powerful military and the intelligence service.

The chief of the intelligence service carries a certain mystique given the absolute power that accompanies the post. The ISI chief is second only to the army chief in terms of power and clout. Any attempt by the political government to have a spy chief of its own choice and liking would have backfired, according to Pakistani defence analysts. Speculation had been rife for weeks that Gen Kayani wanted to retain the spy chief, leaving the civilian government with little choice but to oblige.

Gen Pasha, 57, was appointed as the head of the ISI in October 2008. At that time he replaced a general who was a trusted aide of Pervez Musharraf, who resigned the presidency in August 2008. Though having impressive military credentials, Gen Pasha lacked experience in the fields of intelligence and espionage. Previously, he was acting director of military operations and oversaw the army's campaigns against Pakistani Taliban militants in the restive North West Frontier Province. In that capacity, he interacted extensively with US and western officials, winning accolades for his professionalism.

"General Pasha has a lot of ingress with different power centres - both local and international," an intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. "It is a fact acknowledged by General Kayani," he said. "He is a very hardworking official, with a reputation of getting things done. He is a person who can get a policy implemented." Gen Pasha is viewed as determined and keen on dismantling the Pakistani Taliban leadership that has wreaked havoc in the country with suicide attacks against civil and military targets.

He is also said to be carrying out a purge of pro-jihadi elements in the lower tiers of the country's clandestine intelligence network. Gen Kayani, the army chief, is due to retire this year and some have interpreted the extension to Gen Pasha as insurance for his own stay in power beyond his retirement date. Both generals are moulded in the traditional mindset of the Pakistani military that views India as the great existential threat, and Gen Kayani continues to warn against Indian influence inside Afghanistan.

Pakistani interest in being a decisive stakeholder in Afghanistan explains its alleged support of the Haqqani network, a faction of the Afghan Taliban that is based in Pakistan's north-western tribal region and which the United States blames for cross-border attacks inside Afghanistan. The recent flurry of arrests of senior Afghan Taliban in Pakistan were of leaders thought to have broken contacts with the ISI and been in talks with the US-backed Afghan government, as it pursues reconciliation with willing factions. Observers say that the ISI was sending the message was that it cannot be excluded and will continue to act as a conduit and influence the future power structure of Afghanistan.

While military policy makers have tried to sell the extension of Gen Pasha as essential for "continuity of policy", dissenting voices have also emerged. "The most charitable explanation for Pasha's extension, and let's get real, Kayani's later this year, is that Kayani and Pasha are fighting the good fight," commented Dawn, the country's leading daily newspaper, in an editorial. "But that would also mean Kayani has decided to wage this struggle behind closed doors."

The ISI is often described as being a "state within a state", given its unfettered powers and general lack of accountability and transparency. For decades, it has influenced and shaped the country's domestic and foreign policy, much to the chagrin of the political leadership. Feared by many and revered by others, the ISI is alleged to be behind hundreds of disappearances of terror suspects and nationalist political workers in recent years.

The regional influence of the ISI grew after 1979 when the United States supported the guerrilla war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. The ISI became a conduit for money and weapons while at the same time developing a relationship with the US Central Intelligence Agency. After the Soviet withdrawal, the ISI supported the Taliban before abandoning its support - some say partially - after the September 11 attacks.

But anti-Americanism has steadily risen in Pakistani public discourse over the past several years. Despite being portrayed as an ally, Pakistan has a complicated and uneasy relationship with the US. Suspicion is a central feature of the relationship between the spy services as well, even as they continue to co-operate with one another. @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae