US relations on the agenda for Pakistan's new spy chief
ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's new spymaster faces a tough task fixing ever-worsening ties with the United States, but analysts say he is unlikely to reform an institution accused of helping militants in Afghanistan.
Yusuf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, on Friday appointed Lieutenant Gen Zaheer ul-Islam as the new chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, the main spy arm of the Pakistani military, ending weeks of speculation he would extend the term of Lieutenant Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, due to retire on March 18.
Under Gen Pasha, relations between Pakistan and the US have hit a low, especially after American forces located and killed Osama bin Laden in the military town of Abbottabad in May, without warning Pakistan of the raid.
US air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two border posts in November, prompting Islamabad to block supplies for US and Nato-led troops in Afghanistan shipping through Pakistan.
Gen Islam's appointment came days before parliament opens a debate reviewing ties with the US but analysts say the review is mainly for the powerful military and its intelligence wing to lay down the ground rules for working with Washington.
The military is the single most powerful institution in Pakistan and has ruled the country for half of its existence.
"The main challenge for the new ISI chief is the relationship with the United States. His input is pivotal in reviving these ties," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based analyst.
Analysts say Gen Islam's appointment may do little to change the powerful ISI, but may open new opportunities for improving ties with the US.
"General [Islam] is likely to facilitate dialogue with the United States because Pasha's position had become somewhat static. General [Islam] does not carry that baggage and can show more flexibility in talks," Mr Rizvi said.
But that is unlikely to see an immediate sea change given the state of distrust between Islamabad and Washington.
The US suspects that the ISI keeps ties with militant groups that have attacked foreign and Afghan forces in a bid to secure its interests in Afghanistan once foreign forces leave that country.
With a hostile and more powerful neighbour, India, to the east, Pakistan is particularly anxious about developments in Afghanistan, especially as the border cuts through tribal areas where ethnic loyalty is more important than national identity.
"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," the Express Tribune newspaper said in its editorial on Sunday, referring to Pakistan-US ties.
Given the ISI's perceived influence over the militants, Gen Islam, who was a deputy head of the IS from 2008-2010I, is expected to play an important role in persuading the Afghan Taliban to join talks to end the war in Afghanistan.
Another challenge for Gen Islam is quelling a growing tide of the home-grown Islamist militants who have killed thousands of people, including several ISI officials, in a growing problem fuelled by instability in Afghanistan and the unpopular involvement of the US in the region.
Gen Islam's appointment comes at a time when the ISI is coming under increasing scrutiny at home as well.
Dubbed by critics as a "state within a state", politicians have long accused the ISI of political meddling.
Last week, a former ISI head, Asad Durrani, admitted in the Supreme Court that he had distributed millions of rupees among the opposition politicians in 1990 on the instructions of the then army chief Gen Aslam Beg to stop the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto from coming to power. Bhutto, the twice-elected twice-dismissed prime minister and the wife of the sitting president Asif Ali Zardari, was killed in a suicide attack in December 2007.
Updated: March 14, 2012 04:00 AM