Pakistan has appointed a new head of its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) counter-espionage agency, indicating a possible revamp of its main spy programme after recent US criticism about its unreliability in the war against terrorism.
Western military experts and diplomats have accused some elements of the ISI of remaining loyal to Islamist militants in the war being fought by the US, its Nato allies and Pakistan in the country’s border region with Afghanistan.
Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the new director general of the ISI, previously served as the director general of military operations, where he was responsible for planning operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. He oversaw the recent destruction of a key Taliban stronghold in the Bajaur border region.
“General Pasha has the right set of qualifications to lead the ISI. I think General Ashfaq Kiyani (Pakistan’s army chief of staff) wanted to appoint someone who has a wealth of experience of the federally administered tribal areas,” said retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood. “This move is probably aimed at improving the level of confidence with our western allies including the US.”
General Nadeem Taj, the previous head of the ISI, has returned to the military to head an operational corps.
The first task for the new head of the ISI will be to confront western apprehensions and turn the agency into a key supporting vehicle for both Pakistan and its western allies. A 20 September suicide bombing attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad that killed 55 underlined western government concern that al-Qaeda linked militants and Taliban fighters are throwing the country into chaos.
The ISI played an important role in helping the US kill hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters in the years following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, but its effectiveness has eroded over the years.
“General Pasha’s advantage is that he already has a firm grip on the military needs. Now he has to focus on how intelligence gathering can be undertaken so that those needs are fulfilled not only for Pakistan but also the (western) allies,” a senior western defence official in Islamabad said.
However, critics pointed out that for Lt Gen Pasha to be effective the country’s civil and military leaders must approve significant internal changes.
“A new head of the ISI of course has the authority to refocus the agency. The question however is, how far will the top leaders such as the president, the prime minister and the army chief give approval,” said Ghazi Salahuddin, a newspaper commentator.