Focusing the Spy Glass on Pakistan

Only in Pakistan does the appointment of a new spy chief elicit more commentary than say a Prime Minister under today’s political system, where the presidency holds the power strings. The appointment of Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha as the new head of the Inter Services Intelligence earlier this week has raised expectations about a change in the direction of the ISI and Pakistan in the war against terror and militancy in the borderlands with Afghanistan and inside Pakistan proper. While the changes in leadership of the army in general and at ISI by the new army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani hold much promise, military actions alone do not guarantee a change in direction of the fractured economy and polity of Pakistan. Without a clear sense of understanding and control by the civilian government of all aspects of governance, Pakistan risks muddling through a crisis that may worsen in the days ahead. On the Afghan border, the risk of confrontation with the United States remains. Inside Pakistan, the militants are on the prowl and challenging the writ of the state.

What does the appointment of General Pasha portend?

First, this is the formal assertion of power of the new army chief, who will complete his first tumultuous year in office this November, a year marked by the assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the holding of relatively free and fair elections, largely because the army provided security and refused to be drawn into the political process, and the formation of a short-lived coalition between the Pakistan Peoples’ Party and its erstwhile arch rival the Pakistan Muslim League of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Finally the past year saw the abrupt departure of President Pervez Musharraf, who once he had shed his uniform, lost his grip on power. He was succeeded by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Ms. Bhutto, who has taken firm ownership of her party. Throughout all this, General Kayani maintained a quiet but firm posture, stating repeatedly but not too often to provoke disbelief that he wished the army to return to its professional roots and leave governance of the country to the elected civilians. In a country that has seen too many army chiefs change their minds about this relationship with the civilians, many still believe that he may either change his stance or be forced to do so by deteriorating circumstances in the country.

By removing Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, a former close associate of General Musharraf from the ISI, Kayani has put in place his own close associate, someone who has been at the heart of decision making at army headquarters as Director General Military Operations. This is the office that prepares all military plans and coordinates thinking on strategies. Pasha, a bright, confident officer with twinkly eyes and an analytical mind, has had deep experience at this job and has been involved in crafting policy in the fight against militants inside Pakistan as well as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that border Afghanistan. FATA is home to the Afghan Taliban, the home-grown Tehreek-e-Taliban of Pakistan (TTP), and the Punjabi Sunni militant groups that were once favored by the ISI in the Kashmiri operations against India but now have broken out of control and tied up with Al Qaeda and TTP elements in the frontier region.

Pasha will be appointing three new deputies: major generals responsible for Evaluation, Operations, and Internal wings of the ISI. The previous incumbent in charge of evaluation, Major General Muhammad Mustafa has been promoted to Lt. General and made the Chief of General Staff at army headquarters. He had been a Kayani associate when Kayani was heading the ISI. The head of operations ( handling relations with Mujahidden groups in Kashmir and other similar groups), Major General Asif Akhtar, and the head of the internal wing dealing with counter terrorism and political issues inside Pakistan, Major General Nusrat Naeem, are reported to have been superseded for promotion by junior officers and moved to other jobs in the army itself. With his own appointees in these key positions, Pasha will have an opportunity to exercise control over the ISI from the get go. But the key will be his ability to control operations in the field, especially ISI contractors and field operatives who deal with the Afghan Taliban and whose performance will the basis of either close cooperation with or confrontation with the United States.

The issue that will continue to bedevil decision making at the ISI and in the civilian government in Islamabad is whether Pakistan will finally take a firm position against the Afghan Taliban, who, unlike the TTP, have till now not been seen as taking a hostile position against the army or the government of Pakistan. They rely on tribal affiliations to enter and exit from FATA surreptitiously; avoiding any battles with Pakistani army or Frontier Corps (FC) elements. Will Pakistan now take a firm position on dealing with them, telling them in effect; “You can come into FATA but cannot leave then to fight in Afghanistan”. If they refuse, Pakistan’s army risks opening yet another front in the counterinsurgency in its frontier region. Is it capable of doing that?

Pasha understands very well the shortcomings of the army, the FC, the local civil administration in FATA, and provincial and central governments in the war against the militants. In a long interview with me this summer, he explained the weaknesses of the system in place now and what the army is trying to do to shore up its end of the fight. But he described the need for a three-pronged strategy involving “development, political, and military” and analyzed the relative strengths and weaknesses of each part of this troika. His frustration with the lack of will of previous governments at the center and the provinces was palpable, as was his criticism of military actions that were not coordinated with and supported by development efforts. The absence of promised development assistance from the United States figured in his narrative as did the inefficiency of civilian bureaucracies that failed, in his words, to assess the situation with on-site visits in the FATA and application of funds to meet the urgent and basic needs of the people. Pasha’s own previous experience as head of the UN peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone informs his sensibilities about dealing with conflict and post-conflict situations. Like other generals and officers in the field in FATA and Swat, Malakand, and Dir inside the North West Frontier Province itself, he echoed the view that the army needs to avoid civilian casualties “since we are fighting inside Pakistan, against our own people”. The US needs to understand this reality too.

The Pakistan army is not equipped for the counterinsurgency. Its training is for conventional war. So is its equipment. It lacks adequate night vision goggles and attack helicopters and heli-lift capabilities, for example. The United States has promised to replace its outmoded goggles with newer more effective models and has offered some Cobra helicopters but not all of them have been delivered. Some are still being refurbished. The militants attack isolated posts in small numbers. The army cannot reach those spots in a hurry with enough troops to catch and destroy them when they are visible. The US needs to find ways of providing Sikorsky Blackhawks or even third party sales of MI-8 or MI-16 troop-lifting helicopters to meet Pakistan’s needs. It is replacing its own Blackhawk fleet with newer models. Even refurbished Blackhawks are better than none for Pakistan.

While Pasha will no longer be involved in the operational planning and preparedness of the army, he will be at the frontline of the dealings with the militants groups in the field. How he handles the relationship with the Afghan Taliban will be key to his success. He foresees the need for a tripartite relationship between the Political Agents, who represent the government in FATA, some Maliks, and the Mullahs or moderate elements of the Taliban. By bringing in the moderates he sees the chance to isolate the radicals. At the same time be recognizes that the age-old system of PAs and Maliks running the affairs of FATA cannot be resurrected. Things have changed on the ground and the people of the region are much more politically aware and active. Pasha also does not see a potential convergence between the Afghan and the local Taliban. The civilian head of the Ministry of Interior, Rehman Malik, has been reported as seeing a lack of difference between those two groups. In July, Malik was at the center of a controversial move to bring the entire ISI under the control of his ministry. How will this relationship now develop between Pasha and Malik? Pasha has been closely involved in Kayani’s frequent exchanges with the US commanders in the region and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. He was the one that Kayani took with him to the meeting on the USS Abraham Lincoln in the North Arabian Sea.

Now Pasha will report to both Kayani and the Prime Minister. And he will be a critical interlocutor in dealings with the United States. He brings to the job not only long experience in the military but also his UN experience and a sharp political sensibility, bolstered by the confidence of his army chief. Will he be able to win the confidence of the Prime Minister and President of Pakistan and that of the principal ally, the United States by changing the direction of the ISI? That is the question that only his actions can answer.

This piece also appeared on The Huffington Post