Islamabad: Pakistan has appointed a new chief for the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), months after US officials questioned the reliability of the military’s premier spy agency in the war against terror.
A statement issued around midnight on Monday announced a major overhaul of Pakistan’s top brass by army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.
The musical chairs at high command will come under intense scrutiny from the intelligence community in the US and neighbours.
A 20 September suicide bomb attack that killed 55 people at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad underscored concern that Al Qaeda-linked militants and Taliban fighters could destabilize the nuclear-armed Muslim nation.
Lt Gen. Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, formerly head of military operations, has been appointed director general of ISI, replacing Lt Gen. Nadeem Taj.
Often referred to by critics as a “state within a state”, ISI is feared by neighbouring Afghanistan and India as well as Pakistan’s civilian politicians whose governments have been overthrown by military coups.
ISI has helped the US eliminate hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters since the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, but US officials have been concerned about diminishing returns from the alliance.
US fears that some ISI agents might be playing a double game supporting Islamist militants came to a head after a suicide bomb attack outside the Indian embassy in Kabul killed 58 people in July.
The New York Times reported then that US officials believed Pakistani agents had tipped off militants ahead of US missile strikes against Taliban and Al Qaeda targets on Pakistani territory.
After halting prior notification and increasing missile strikes, the US went a step further in early September, carrying out a commando raid on a Pakistani village on the border with Afghanistan that provoked a storm of protest in Islamabad. The US has privately urged Pakistan’s six-month-old civilian government to exert more control over ISI, according to officials who requested anonymity.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s government made a botched attempt to bring the agency under the ambit of the interior ministry in July, and backed off immediately rather than provoke a backlash within the army. While Kayani has been broadly supportive of Pakistan’s return to civilian-led democracy, senior officials say he has made clear the army will look after its own affairs while the government gets on with running the state.
In his previous post, Pasha oversaw offensives against militants in the tribal lands bordering Afghanistan and deployments to guard against cross-border militancy. He is expected to overhaul several sections of ISI.
“Two heads have been changed and some rapid reshuffling is expected soon, as these have been due for long time,” a senior military official, who requested anonymity, said. Taj had been ISI chief for less than a year, having been promoted to the sensitive post by former army chief Pervez Musharraf, who was forced to quit as president last month to avoid impeachment.
Kayani, who had been ISI chief until last October, has made a series of appointments to reshuffle the top brass. Taj, who was seen as close to Musharraf, has been made commander of the Gujranwala Corps rather than sidelined.
Kayani replaced four of the nine corps commanders and appointed a new chief of general staff. He promoted a former commander of Pakistan’s crack commando force, the Special Services Group (SSG), to one of the most prestigious and sensitive posts.
The ex-commando chief, Lt Gen. Tahir Mahmood was appointed commander of the Rawalpindi Corps.
Kamran Haider contributed to this story.