Pakistan’s army chief has signalled that he intends to rein in the Inter-Services Intelligence. But can he bring about a change in the institution’s strategic vision — and does he want to do so?
“Since the birth of Pakistan,” Zulfikar Ali Bhutto wrote to his daughter in 1978, “crisis has followed crisis in rapid escalation.” He went on: “The nation is gripped in her worst crisis, standing in the middle of the road between survival and disintegration.”
Last month, the chief of army staff, General Parvez Ashfaq Kayani, made the latest of a series of moves to help Pakistan step away from that dangerous place. In a bid to stave off a potentially calamitous confrontation with the United States, he appointed Lieutenant-General Shuja Nawaz Pasha Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
Lt. Gen. Pasha’s predecessor, Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj — a distant relative of the former President Pervez Musharraf — became a focal point of global ire during the year he served as Pakistan’s spymaster. In the U.S., he was seen as the architect of a policy of continued Pakistani support for Islamist terror groups operating in Afghanistan. The U.S. troops responded by initiating cross-border raids into Pakistan, raising the spectre of a full-blown confrontation.
Lt. Gen. Taj’s tenure in the ISI also saw renewed skirmishes along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, where an India-Pakistan ceasefire had held since 2002. Afghanistan and India held the ISI responsible for sponsoring the July 7 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, an operation investigators believe Pakistan’s covert service had sub-contracted to the Lashkar-e-Taiba. China, too, is believed to have grown increasingly restive following the ISI’s failure to act against the Taliban after two of its nationals were kidnapped in August.
By appointing Lt. Gen. Pasha, Gen. Kayani has signalled that he intends to rein in the Islamist hardliners in the ISI. But can he bring about a change in the institution’s strategic vision — and does he, in fact, want to do so?
In July, Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani met to discuss how the ISI might be reformed. Mr. Hayden persuaded Mr. Gilani to bring the ISI under the direct control of the Interior Ministry bureaucracy — sparking off a bruising battle between the fledgling political government and the generals. Not surprisingly, the politicians backed off. Predictably, tensions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border continued to rise, exploding in a series of fire exchange between the Frontier Corps and the U.S. troops.
Last month, Gen. Kayani lashed out at the U.S. for sending commandos into Pakistan, saying his forces would protect the country’s sovereignty “at all costs.” “No external force is allowed to conduct operations inside Pakistan,” he said just a day after Asif Ali Zardari refused to condemn the cross-border raids at his first press conference after being sworn in President. Gen. Kayani added: “There is no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border.”
Despite the polemic, it was clear that Pakistan would have to make some changes in the ISI to sustain its relationship with the U.S. Gen. Kayani, significantly, turned to a relatively junior officer, just promoted from Major-General, to head the ISI: a position that, ever since General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq’s years, has been considered more prestigious than commanding a corps.
As DGMO, Lt. Gen. Pasha’s performance was, at best, mixed. He was asked to coordinate operations against the Taliban-linked Tehreek-e-Nifaaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) after it took control of large swathes of the Swat valley last year. Lt. Gen. Pasha turned to the jailed former head of the TNSM, Sufi Mohammad, for help. For a while, it appeared the divide-and-rule tactic had paid off. In January 2008, Lt. Gen. Pasha announced that Pakistani troops had retaken the Swat valley. However, it soon became clear that what the army proclaimed as the TNSM’s defeat was in fact a tactical retreat into the hills. Soon, the Islamist group retook much of Swat — with support, some accounts have it, from the ISI — and a grinding battle still continues.
Lt. Gen. Pasha’s record in Pakistan’s Bajaur area was not dissimilar. In August 2008, operations were ordered against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Again, Lt. Gen. Pasha claimed to have delivered death blows to the Islamist armies, only to see his vanquished enemies regroup with the ISI’s assistance and again take on the Pakistan army and the Frontier Corps.
In practice, this record suggests, Gen. Kayani will be calling the shots in the ISI, which he headed from October 2004 to October 2007. His tenure was less than lustrous, marked by the breaking of the A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation scandal, the insurgencies in Waziristan and Balochistan, and waves of suicide bombings in Pakistan. Worryingly, it saw a marked escalation of terrorist operations against India, including the 2006 serial bombings in Mumbai.
General Kayani’s Army
Last month’s transfers mark the birth of an army made in Gen. Kayani’s image, dominated by officers he has handpicked. Lt. Gen. Tahir Mehmood now heads the Rawalpindi Corps, considered the third-most important military position in Pakistan, after the Chief of Army Staff and the ISI Director. Pakistan’s Corps at Bahawalpur and Karachi also have new commanders, Lt. Gen. Muhammad Yousaf and Lt. Gen. Shahid Iqbal.
Well before last month’s transfers, a discreet purge of the former President Musharraf’s key aides had begun. Major-General Athar Abbas, whose three brothers are reported to be working in the media, was brought into head the office of Inter-Services Public Relations to smooth the troubled relationship between Pakistan’s feisty press and the General Headquarters. Lahore Corps commander Lt. Gen. Shafaatullah Shah was replaced by Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmad, and Mangla Corps commander Lt. Gen. Sajjad Akram by Lt. Gen. Ijaz Ahmad Bakshi. Brigadier Asim Saleem Bajwa, Gen. Musharraf’s handpicked choice for the Rawalpindi-based 111 Brigade — the formation which has spearheaded each coup in Pakistani history — was replaced by Brigadier Rao Fahim.
Each of these transfers, however, was handled with tact and care, to avoid the appearance of a witch-hunt. Both Lt. Gen. Akram, who was appointed in April 2006, and Lt. Gen. Shah, who was given his command in September 2005, were removed after substantial terms in office. Gen. Kayani personally attended a farewell dinner for Brigadier Bajwa, who was removed from 111 Brigade only after he had been cleared to attend a prestigious training course in the U.S. Lt. Gen. Shah was made Colonel-Commandant of the Baluch Regiment, Gen. Kayani’s parent formation, after having been moved from the Lahore Corps to the GHQ. Major-General Waheed Arshad, who was removed from the ISPR, was made Director-General of Planning at the GHQ, a position previously held by Gen. Musharraf’s close confidants Major-General Khalid Kidwai and Major-General Ahsan Saleem Hayat. He has now been made Vice-Chief of General Staff.
Even Director-General of Military Intelligence Major-General Mian Nadeem Ijaz — a relative of Gen. Musharraf who played a controversial role in the removal of Chief Justice Muhammad Iftikhar Chaudhury — was given charge of the Bahawalpur-based 26 Mechanised Infantry Division after he had been relieved of his command. The army was at pains to dispel the notion that Gen. Ijaz was being punished for his political misadventure, noting that he had been appointed DGMI in February 2005 and was therefore due to be moved in the normal course.
Gen. Kayani has also reached out to his rank and file. He declared 2008 the Year of the Soldier, frequently visited forward positions and, on one occasion, invited a group of subedar-majors to the army headquarters for a conference on working conditions. Gen. Kayani’s personal background, some believe, has shaped his conduct. The son of a non-commissioned officer, he represents the changing class character of Pakistan’s military command — in particular, the rise of officers from the socially conservative middle and lower-middle class to top leadership positions.
Soon after taking office, Gen. Kayani ordered his officers to sever contact with politicians — a break with the Musharraf era that signalled his hopes of rebuilding an apolitical, professional army. What remains unclear, though, is what vision of Pakistan the institution he is rebuilding will stand for.
Escalation of violence
The army chief hoped to disengage his troops from a gruelling and unpopular counter-terrorism campaign. Instead, the violence in the northwest has escalated. His efforts to purchase peace by reaching an accommodation with Islamists have yielded nothing. Despite the horrific terrorism Pakistan has faced in recent years, its military establishment has chosen not to act against Islamist terror groups operating from its soil —organisations which include not just the Taliban but also the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Lashkar and the Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami. Few in Pakistan’s military establishment are willing to acknowledge that the urban terrorism in its cities, like the conflicts in the northwest, is the outcome of the state’s long-running use of jihadist terror as an instrument of foreign policy.
No great imagination is needed to see where this unresolved crisis could lead. Back in 1971, just two months after Gen. Kayani was commissioned into the army, civil war led to its decimation. It seemed inconceivable that Pakistan’s future could be anything other than democratic. Just six years later, though, an Islamist military despot overthrew Bhutto, leading the country into a still-unfolding crisis.
Once again, Pakistan is perched between survival and disintegration. Unless Gen. Kayani succeeds in making a decisive break with the past, he will more likely than not be sucked into the political swamps in which his predecessors found themselves mired.