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New ISI chief — time for the PM to pick and choose

Updated September 20, 2014

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PM Nawaz Sharif is faced with the difficult choice of picking a new ISI chief — AFP photo/ File
PM Nawaz Sharif is faced with the difficult choice of picking a new ISI chief — AFP photo/ File

ISLAMABAD: Barely in his second year in office, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is faced with the difficult choice of picking a new Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief — a decision that could have far-reaching consequences for the already strained civil-military relations.

Director General of ISI Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam, who was appointed as the spy chief in March 2012, is set to retire on Oct 1.

And for many reasons, the sit-ins and the floods have not stopped politicians, journalists and analysts from speculating on who will replace Gen Islam in this key post.

Know more: New ISI chief to be named soon: report

An extension for Gen Islam is highly unlikely; while the government is not too keen on the idea. It is also evident that the military is in no mood to ask for it. No wonder then that speculation is rife on the next man who will hold the position called DG I.

With the control that the head of the ISI enjoys on intelligence gathering within the country and the role the agency has played in Pakistani politics, the filling of the post generally attracts considerable attention.

And at the present juncture, the allegations about ISI having played a role in instigating the dharnas and the general state of the civil-military relations have added to the interest in Gen Islam’s successor.

So who can be a likely candidate?

According to the procedure, the army chief will recommend a panel of lieutenant generals to the prime minister for the latter to make the final choice.

However, at least once in the recent past, only one name was sent to the prime minister.

In 2012, the then army chief retired Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani sent only one name — Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam — to the PPP government for appointment as the ISI chief, not allowing the government any choice.

The government, which was recovering from the memogate controversy, accepted Mr Kayani’s proposal without much ado, a general who has now retired, disclosed to Dawn.

And while this time around the appointment will also take place against the backdrop of another political crisis, Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif is not Kayani and Prime Minister Sharif does not appear to be as willing to acquiesce as the PPP government then did.

But before the identity of the new head is unveiled, there will be another, military related development — five officers will be promoted to the rank of lieutenant generals to fill the vacancies created by the retirement of five lieutenant generals on Oct 1.

Besides Gen Islam, the other four who will hang up their uniforms on Oct 1 are Lt Gen Tariq Khan, corps commander of Mangla; Lt Gen Saleem Nawaz, corps commander of Gujranwala; Lt Gen Khalid Rabbani, corps commander of Peshawar; and Lt Gen Sajjad Ghani, corps commander of Karachi.

Therefore, before the army chief sends a list to the prime minister, he will first be carrying out some in-house promotions. And these newly promoted men could also be in line for the ISI post.

But what sort of considerations will guide Gen Sharif while selecting a panel to send to the prime ministers?

Those who keep an eye on military affairs suggest that the army chief will look at issues such as retirement date, experience of intelligence operations and political inclinations.

Gen Sharif, who has over two years in office, may want an ISI chief who will last as long as his own tenure. If this is how he thinks, eight lieutenant generals will no longer be in the running.

Analysts also suggest that the army chief, who does not have much intelligence experience, may want an ISI chief who is well versed with the system and can adequately assist him in intelligence matters.

Even though DG I technically works under the prime minister and is supposed to directly report to him, the army chief has traditionally been the spymaster’s de facto boss.

In the words of a defence analyst, “Gen Sharif would want a loyalist in office, while Prime Minister Sharif may also be looking for one.”

Extrapolating from this, it can be said that Gen Sharif would prefer a politically neutral officer. Any suggestion or hints of what the government may prefer would not help that particular officer; in fact, it may just kill his chances altogether.

As a matter of fact, if the army chief wants to sideline the government’s preference (provided he has been given a hint) subtly, he can simply appoint the officer for one of the corps commanders positions that will have to be filled before the ISI slot.

However, at the moment, this is simply conjecture as there is no information about whether or not the prime minister has a preference, let alone having expressed it.

In the absence of such information, it can be safely said that Gen Sharif will be looking for someone he can trust and this may be someone he has promoted himself. While he has already promoted one batch recently, the next set will be promoted on Oct 1, as explained earlier.

And analysts feel that it is among these groups that he will look for the men who can fill the critical slot.

It is noteworthy that former ISI, chief retired Lt Gen Shuja Pasha, was given the ISI assignment immediately after his elevation from major general to lieutenant general.

In addition, some observers point out that Gen Sharif has already given some important posts to younger generals — the appointment of Chief of General Staff Lt Gen Ashfaq Nadeem is a case in point.

Once these various considerations are taken into account, those who keep an eye on military affairs suggest that NDU President Lt Gen Javed Iqbal Ramday and DG Rangers Sindh Maj Gen Rizwan Akhtar should be watched. Maj Gen Naveed Mukhtar, who can also be promoted in October, is also one to consider as he has experience of intelligence.

Others likely to be considered are Lt Gen Obaidullah Khattak, Lt Gen Ikramul Haq (who were also promoted by the chief himself) and Lt Gen Zamirul Hassan, who was promoted by Mr Kayani.

However, it is not possible to say more with any certainty.

The final decision, after all, will be made by the men at the top. How few these are and who they finally choose remains to be seen.

Published in Dawn, September 20th , 2014

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that five officers will be promoted to the rank of major generals. They will be promoted to the rank of lieutenant generals.