Change of command
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has finally put to rest the speculations doing the rounds that the ISI chief, Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha may be given another extension by announcing that Lt General Zaheerul Islam, Karachi corps commander, would replace him. Pasha is due to retire on March 18. The new incumbent is no stranger to the ISI, having served as its Deputy Director General. Given the controversies surrounding the premier spy agency in recent years, it is hoped that the incoming commander would return the ISI to its real professional duties, i.e. compiling intelligence for defence, and reverse the trend since long years of the ISI’s involvement in the politics of the country from behind the scenes. As far as the outgoing commander is concerned, his tenure (extended) produced many a controversy, some of which are still ongoing.
The biggest and most controversial event of General Pasha’s tenure was the discovery and elimination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, within a stone’s throw from the Pakistan Military Academy. The ISI was accused of incompetence or collusion for not exposing the al Qaeda leader’s whereabouts in the garrison city for over five years and its failure to detect the unilateral US raid. After the American SEALs raid had killed Osama bin Laden, an unprecedented session of parliament to look into the whole affair saw Pasha offering to step down, but the parliamentarians never took him up on his offer. Instead, the government set up a commission of inquiry into the episode, which is still in process. No heads rolled after the Abbottabad debacle. The second controversial episode of Pasha’s tenure was the so-called memogate affair, in which Mansoor Ijaz was privileged by Pasha’s surreptitious visit to him in London, following which the ISI and military chief, General Kayani, deposed before the Supreme Court that Ijaz’s allegations had substance. Subsequent developments in the memogate case, particularly the proceedings of the memogate commission, which allowed Ijaz to depose by video link, have so far failed to produce solid evidence substantiating the charges against ex-ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani or indeed, President Asif Ali Zardari. Incidentally, as a sign of Ijaz’s unreliable character, he had written that Pasha had toured some Arab capitals to seek support for a military coup against the democratically elected government.
When the question of extensions to Generals Pasha and Kayani was first mooted, we took the position that changing horses in midstream when the war against terrorism was at its peak was not a good idea. With hindsight, it is possible to argue that the higher purpose of continuity of command in the middle of a war failed to take account of later developments. The two top commanders who received extensions became controversial after the two events outlined above. Military command extensions have a chequered history in Pakistan. Mostly, these were the result of military dictators self-anointing themselves when in power (Ayub, Zia, Musharraf). What such extensions tend to produce is heartburn within the ranks of those with a legitimate expectancy to succeed the incumbents, and a breakdown of institutional continuity and consolidation of professional mores. These thoughts and an assessment of the events of last year may have weighed against the proposal for another extension for General Pasha. The opposition PML-N’s strong rejection of any such notion, as expressed by Chaudhry Nisar in a press conference the other day, may also have tilted the scales against General Pasha.
While normal retirement and change in command should now become the norm in the armed forces, it is far from certain that the ISI change in command will in any substantial way alter the present policy, framed by GHQ, to continue to support the Afghan Taliban against the US/NATO forces and the Afghan government, ostensibly while still posing as a strategic ally of the US. Most likely, it is going to be more of the same brew, particularly in the light of the anticipated withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan by 2014.