More powerful than prime minister? Pakistan appoints new spy chief | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 12.12.2016
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More powerful than prime minister? Pakistan appoints new spy chief

Pakistan has appointed Naveed Mukhtar as the Inter-Services Intelligence chief. The agency's main job is to deal with external security threats, but experts say the ISI is also deeply involved in domestic politics.

Lieutenant General Naveed Mukhtar, who succeeds General Rizwan Akhtar as the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) director general, was last based in the southern city of Karachi as the corps commander. He also served as the head of the ISI's counter-terrorism wing. Mukhtar also commanded Pakistani troops in the restive South Waziristan region near the Afghan border.

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 new ISI chief was appointed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the advice of the army chief General Qamar Bajwa. However, civilian premiers have very little say in matters related to security, defense and foreign policy. Hence, the announcement of Akhtar's promotion on Sunday, December 12, didn't come from the ministry of defense or the prime minister secretariat but through the military's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) department.

It is the second big appointment by PM Sharif in the past two weeks. Last month, the premier appointed General Qamar Bajwa as the country's new army chief. Bajwa succeeded General Raheel Sharif, under whose tenure experts say the military dominated almost all spheres of government.

"I don't think the new ISI chief will be any different from his predecessor. Naveed Mukhtar will carry the orders of his chief, General Qamar Bajwa. But the difference in the personalities of the outgoing ISI head and the incoming chief might make a slight difference," Zaman Khan, a Lahore-based columnist and a senior member of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told DW.

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.

"ISI's powers have increased manifold in the past decades. It has become so powerful that it will take a long time and enormous efforts by the civilian government to minimize it as per constitutional requirements. But the history tells us that the ISI has been stronger than the civilian government in Pakistan," Khan underlined.

However, some analysts believe that PM Sharif can bring the ISI under the civilian control. "It can be done, but we must not forget that Sharif's political career was nurtured by the ISI," Saleem Asmi, former editor of Pakistan Dawn newspaper, told DW.

Islamabad-based civil society activist Tahira Abdullah told DW that it would not be easy to control the military's spy agency, but that civilian leaders should keep making efforts regardless. "The civilian leadership should try to take control of the security and foreign policy affairs. At least, on matters like anti-terrorism and relations with India and Afghanistan, the civilian and military leaders should work together," Abdullah said.

A document released last year by the International Crisis Group (ICG) also advised Prime Minister Sharif to take matters into his own hands and democratize the country's anti-terrorism strategy "in order to replace an overly militarized response with a revamped, intelligence-guided counterterrorism strategy, led by civilian law enforcement agencies, particularly the police."

Consolidation of democracy

Outgoing ISI head Rizwan Akhtar has been transferred to the National Defense University in Islamabad. He was a close aide to Pakistan's former army chief, Raheel Sharif. Prior to his ISI job, Akhtar had headed the paramilitary Rangers force in the southern province of Sindh, where he supervised a major operation against criminal gangs and Taliban militants. Human rights activists, however, accused Akhtar's forces of being involved in extra-judicial killings and torture during the operation.

Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence - Rizwan Akhtar (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

Former ISI head Rizwan Akhtar has been transferred to the National Defense University in Islamabad

According to Nasir Tufail, a journalist in Karachi, Akhtar's human rights record was 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. Qaim Ali Shah, the former chief minister of the southern Sindh province, often complained that Akhtar didn't follow his government's orders," Tufail told DW.

Analysts say that despite the fact that Pakistan's civilian leadership has almost no control over the army and the ISI, it is still a good sign that PM Sharif is gradually asserting his authority. Nawaz Sharif did not succumb to the pressure from the military's supporters to extend the former army chief Raheel Sharif's tenure, and now he has appointed a new ISI chief as per constitutional requirements.

However, experts say the new army chief Bajwa and the incoming ISI head Mukhtar are likely to continue the same policies as their predecessors. They do not expect a policy change with regard to Afghanistan, India and China. Nonetheless, activists say it is a good omen for Pakistan that democracy is flourishing in the country.

Experts also say that the US administration would want to see a stronger civilian leadership in Pakistan which can take domestic and foreign policy matters into its hands and limit the role of military generals in politics. They say the regional and international situation would also favor Sharif if he chose to assert his authority. But the question remains: Will Sharif go for it?

Pakistan | China und Pakistan starten ihre Handelsroute (picture-alliance/AA)

PM Sharif was under pressure to extend the tenure of the former army chief, Raheel Sharif

The ISI-CIA ties

The ISI's relations with the US and its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have deteriorated since the killing of former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a US operation in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in 2011. Experts say that the US' decision to bypass the ISI and unilaterally go after bin Laden irked the Pakistani military and its intelligence service.

The two agencies worked closely during the Afghan War against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The ISI also collaborated with the CIA in hunting down the Taliban and al Qaeda leaders after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.

The ties, however, remained difficult throughout the past decade. The US repeatedly accused the Pakistani military and the ISI of backing some factions of the Taliban, a charge Pakistan has always denied.

Afghanistan Taliban Kämpfer in der Ghazni Provinz (Reuters)

The US needs the ISI in tackling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and beyond, say experts

"It is not possible for the ISI to slavishly cooperate with the CIA as was largely the case in the 1980s," said Farooq Sulehria, a London-based researcher. But Sulehria also points out that the US and the CIA won't give up on the ISI. "The US needs the ISI in tackling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and beyond. The ISI needs the US support too because it depends on it financially."

The so-called "Islamic State" (IS) terror outfit has also made huge gains in Afghanistan and is increasing its presence in the country. The group has claimed responsibility for a number of terror attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past few months.

"IS poses a big challenge to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has to be seen how Pakistan's new military leadership will deal with it," Farhan Hanif Siddiqui, an international relations expert at the Islamabad-based Quaid-e-Azam University, told DW. "But the problem is that the Afghan-Pakistani ties are deteriorating. The Pakistani army has to find a way to work with Kabul," Siddiqui underlined.