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Asia

Pakistan's new ISI chief and the military's face-saving act

Pakistan has appointed a new head of the country's powerful spy agency, the ISI, amid reports that the army generals are not on the same page over the future of PM Sharif's embattled civilian government.

The appointment of Lieutenant General Rizwan Akhtar, who is set to replace the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Agency's (ISI) current chief Zaheer-ul Islam on October 8, comes amid a month-long political turmoil in the South Asian country. The military, including the ISI, is accused of orchestrating an anti-government movement demanding the resignation of the civilian Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over allegations of electoral fraud.

Constitutionally, the ISI is responsible for dealing with external security threats, but pro-democracy activists say that in practice the organization has been deeply involved in the country's domestic politics.

The ISI chief is appointed by the prime minister on the advice of the army chief. However, civilian premiers traditionally have very little say in matters related to security, defense and foreign policy. Hence, the announcement of Akhtar's promotion on Monday, September 22, didn't come from the ministry of defense or the prime minister secretariat but through a tweet by the army spokesperson Major General Asim Bajwa.

Experts say that the outgoing ISI chief had become very controversial and the army leadership did not want him to continue his job. Not only was Islam accused of backing opposition leaders Imran Khan and Tahir ul-Qadri, he was also slammed by rights activists for the ISI's alleged role in the kidnappings of separatists in the western province of Balochistan. Earlier this year, prominent Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir accused the ISI and its chief of attempting to murder him.

A powerful position

The director general of the ISI - once called "the state within the state" by former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani - is considered the most powerful person in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation after the military chief.

Pakistani protesters tried to storm PM house (Photo: DW correspondent Islamabad, Pakistan)

Opposition parties have been protesting in Islamabad for more than a month

Akhtar, who is considered a close aide to Pakistan's army chief, Raheel Sharif, previously headed the paramilitary Rangers force in the southern province of Sindh, where he supervised a major operation against criminal gangs and Taliban militants last year. Human rights activists, however, accused Akhtar's forces of being involved in extra-judicial killings and torture during the operation. Previously, from 2007 to 2010, Akhtar was posted in the restive South Waziristan tribal district along the Afghan border.

According to Nasir Tufail, a journalist in Karachi, Akhtar's human rights record is dismal. "He was a controversial figure during his tenure as the director of paramilitary forces in Karachi. Many political activists were allegedly kidnapped by government agencies. Sindh's Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah often complained that Akhtar didn't follow his government's orders," Tufail told DW.

Political turmoil

But others say that Akhtar's appointment has little to do with his anti-terrorism credentials. What is more important, they say, is the new ISI chief's future role in dealing with Sharif's government and the ongoing protests. Analysts say that Akhtar's role in the current political impasse will be closely scrutinized and will determine the future of civil-military relations.

Army cief General Raheel Sharif (L) meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan (/PID) pixel

PM Sharif and the army haven't had good relations since the 1999 military coup

PM Sharif's supporters allege that the protest rallies led by Khan and Qadri have the backing of the ubiquitous army. Despite the fact that both politicians have repeatedly said that they will not support a military intervention, Pakistanis fear a coup-in-making.

The military is wary of Sharif's cordial moves towards the country's arch-rival India. The PM and the army are also not on the same page over the country's Afghanistan policy, and more so on the fate of the detained former military chief and ex-president, Pervez Musharraf.

Experts say that the ongoing protests against Sharif's government have already weakened the prime minister, with reports suggesting that he is ready to follow the army's dictates.

Institutional policies

Islamabad-based social activist and writer Arshad Mahmood says the military generals disagree about Sharif's potential ouster; therefore, Akhtar's appointment is probably aimed at bringing in a new face and, at the same time, attempting to ease tensions with the civilian government.

Pakistan's ISI chief Zaheer-ul Islam (Photo: EPA/PRESS INFORMATION DEPARTMENT / HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY)

Incumbent ISI chief, Islam, has been accused of backing the anti-Sharif movement

"It is widely speculated that the outgoing ISI chief and some other retiring generals wanted to overthrow Sharif's government. The anti-Sharif movement, however, has failed to achieve its goals, and now the appointment of the new ISI head along with some other top generals indicates that the military wants to offer an olive branch to the prime minister," Mahmood told DW.

Pakistan's Dawn newspaper summarizes the situation pretty well: "For Nawaz Sharif, the bottom line is that he doesn't want another Zaheer ul-Islam," the English-language daily quoted a defense ministry official as saying. "Somehow, the PM has never considered Islam his man. And that's been a source of great anxiety for him. So he wanted someone who doesn't have political leanings," the official added.

Defense and security analyst and former military general Talat Masood is also of the view that Pakistan's civilian and military leadership are now on the reconciliation path: "The ISI director general has been appointed with Sharif's consultation. Opposition leaders have the democratic right to demand reforms, but they should not create a situation in which the country's institutions cannot function," Masood told DW.

Observers say that both PM Sharif and the Pakistani military are now looking for a way out of the crisis, and that Akhtar could facilitate that.

But Mahmood says that it is hard to predict the future role of the ISI and Akhtar. "For the military, its institutional interests are supreme. One appointment does not represent a change of policy," he said.

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