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New Pakistani Spy Chief To Step Back From Politics, Focus On Security

Rizwan Akhtar
Rizwan Akhtar

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his hand-picked army chief, General Raheel Sharif, have agreed on the selection of the country’s third-most powerful official: the head of Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.

The move comes amid indications of a tug-of-war between Pakistan’s elected government and some elements of the powerful military establishment over key internal and external policies.

Major-General Rizwan Akhtar’s appointment as director-general of the ISI must also be viewed through the prism of the government’s fight against militancy and the recent political turmoil triggered by opposition leader Imran Khan and populist cleric Tahirul Qadri, whose supporters have been staging an antigovernment sit-in in Islamabad for the past one-and-a-half months.

The outgoing ISI chief, Lieutenant General Zaheerul Islam, and a coterie of senior generals, reportedly have been unhappy over moves by Prime Minister Sharif to tighten his government’s grip over foreign policy, particularly toward Pakistan’s key neighbors, Afghanistan and India. Tensions have also been reported over the government’s refusal to let the former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, leave Pakistan. Musharraf is facing charges of high treason for imposing emergency rule in November 2007.

The ISI has long been seen as playing a decisive role in the formation of political alliances inside Pakistan, as well as executing key foreign policy decisions, such as supporting militant organizations in Afghanistan.

Within the Pakistani establishment, Akhtar is regarded as apolitical. His appointment, many Pakistani analysts and commentators say, suggests that Prime Minister Sharif and army chief Sharif (the two men are not related) are serious about preventing the ISI from again intervening in politics.

"(Akhtar’s) record is very important," says columnist and television presenter Nasim Zehra. She noted that Akhtar has vast experience fighting militancy and sectarianism, including in Karachi, where he led a paramilitary force called Pakistan Rangers. He also served in the northwestern South Waziristan tribal district, where he commanded the 9th Infantry Division.

Zehra says she does not believe the new ISI chief intends to play any role in the resolution of the ongoing political turmoil. She predicted that Akhtar will seek to end any involvement by the ISI or army in the political struggle.

Apart from the political deadlock in Islamabad, the most important challenge faced by the Pakistani government remains the threat of militancy and sectarianism. In a bid to restore the legitimacy of the state, in mid-June the government launched a massive military operation in the North Waziristan tribal district, where militants were operating without impunity. According to military officials, hundreds of militants have been killed and security has been returned to 80 percent of the region.

However, independent observers question the military’s claims. They believe the army is still pursuing a policy of favoring "good" Taliban – those whom the government believes it can work with – and "bad" Taliban, with whom reconciliation is not possible. Although the Pakistan army denies having an inconsistent approach toward Taliban factions, analysts believe the army has taken little action against militants, such as the Haqqani Network, who don’t attack targets inside Pakistan but instead launch operations across the border in Afghanistan.

A defense analyst, retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood, said the army in the past pursued a policy of supporting some religious extremists who were deployed to foment instability. But he argues this policy has been undergoing reconsideration among army leaders. "Pakistan is retracting from that policy of supporting militants," Masood said.

Analyst Masood describes Karachi, the country’s largest city, as a sort of mini-Pakistan, where all the challenges faced by the government are on open display. Masood said he expected Akhtar to rely on the experience he gained as ranger chief in Karachi to curb the activities of militants, sectarian groups and foreign interests in the turbulent port city.

Masood said he also expected Akhtar to discourage interference by military officers in the political tumult in Islamabad. "I believe this will send a message to the Dharna Walas (those staging sit-ins) that if they want to achieve anything, that can be done only through the (political) system," he said.

Akhtar, who will assume his new position in early October, is a graduate of the Command and Staff College in Quetta, the National Defense University, and the Army War College in the United States.

Ahmadullah contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.