New Chief of Spy Unit Is Appointed in Pakistan

ISI chief Rizwan Akhtar (Credit:
ISI chief Rizwan Akhtar

ISLAMABAD, Sept 22 — The Pakistani military chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, on Monday appointed a close ally as head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, consolidating his power at a time of sharp tension with the country’s civilian leaders and fluctuating policy toward the Taliban.

The new ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, had previously led the paramilitary Sindh Rangers based in Karachi. He will replace Lt. Gen. Zaheer ul-Islam, who has led the ISI since 2012 and is scheduled to step down on Nov. 7.

The army spokesman announced the promotion of General Akhtar, who was also promoted from the rank of major general, among a reshuffle of five major military posts. But it was the appointment of the ISI chief, considered the second most powerful position in the military, that attracted the most attention.

Always shrouded in controversy, the ISI has in recent months come under particularly sharp scrutiny amid accusations of political interference and brutal tactics to control the media.

Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar Credit Pakistan Rangers, via Associated Press Under General Islam’s leadership, the spy agency was accused of trying to assassinate a senior journalist, Hamid Mir. And the military has been widely accused of supporting an opposition movement led by a former cricketer, Imran Khan, and a cleric, Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, that aimed to oust Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The military has publicly rejected both accusations.

Analysts said they expected that General Akhtar, who recently led a campaign against the Taliban in Karachi, was likely to shy away from such a prominent political role — at least initially. But there is little doubt that he inherits a strained relationship with the country’s civilian leadership, which was evident from the manner of his appointment.

Though the ISI chief theoretically answers to the prime minister, the fact that General Akhtar’s promotion was announced by the military was taken as a sign of the true line of authority.

Mutual paranoia is a central factor in poor relations among the military and civilian leaders, said Talat Masood, a retired general and commentator.

“The relationship has gone through a really bad patch, with all this speculation that elements in intelligence are supportive of Imran Khan and Qadri,” he added. “I think that will subside now.”

General Sharif and Mr. Sharif — they are not related — have been at odds over the fate of Geo, the television channel where Mr. Mir was the leading anchor before being attacked in April, and over street demonstrations.

Mr. Sharif’s supporters privately accuse the ISI of covertly playing a role in both dramas — possibly with a view to ousting Mr. Sharif, much as his last stint in power ended in 1999.

The ISI has a long history of undermining civilian governments in Pakistan. Although the previous army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, pledged to end the spy agency’s political role in 2008, it has continued to operate behind-the-scenes.

The ISI has also suffered several major embarrassments, including the American commando raid in May 2011 that killed Osama bin Laden near a major army training center in Abbottabad.

For American officials, though, General Akhtar may offer hope of an improved relationship. In a paper written during a period of study at the Army War College in Pennsylvania in 2008, he stressed the need to establish a stable democracy in Pakistan and to curb anti-Americanism in the country.

Later, he led anti-Taliban operations in the South Waziristan tribal agency, near the border with Afghanistan. In 2011, he became head of the Sindh Rangers, drawing praise from civilian leaders for his role in an operation against the Taliban and armed gangs linked to Karachi’s political parties.

“His role in maintaining peace in the city was remarkable,” said Sharfuddin Memon, an adviser to the home minister of Sindh Province. But human rights activists say the same period was marked by a rise in abuses by security forces, including abduction, torture and extrajudicial execution.

Declan Walsh contributed reporting from London.

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