Pakistan may currently enjoy what seems to be a healthy if noisy democracy, but the office of army chief remains the most powerful one in the country certainly exceeding the effective control of any politician or civilian bureaucrat. And now Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, is showing that he is truly in charge of the military and hence the most powerful man in the country.
Just before midnight on Sept. 29, Kayani replaced the head of Pakistan's premier intelligence agency and elevated a slew of handpicked generals to key positions in a major shake-up of the military leadership. The most striking appointment is the promotion of Lieut. General Ahmed Shujaa Pasha to head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), one of the world's most powerful spy agencies routinely described, and decried, as a "state within a state." Pasha, who had headed military operations in the tribal areas, replaces Lieut. General Nadeem Taj, an appointee and relative of recently departed President and exarmy chief Pervez Musharraf, who was infamous for intertwining military and political affairs.
The reshuffling comes at a sensitive time for Pakistan's half-million-strong and nuclear-armed military. In the Bajaur tribal agency along the Afghan border and in the Swat Valley, it is locked in fierce and enervating operations against the Pakistan Taliban. At the same time, the army's relations with its sponsors in Washington have sunk to a fresh low after the ISI was accused of aiding Taliban militants, and the ensuing breakdown in communication between the U.S. and Pakistan saw a flurry of unauthorized American air strikes that targeted militants in the tribal areas. U.S. special operations forces also mounted their first known ground assault within Pakistani territory this month.
Some observers in Pakistan criticized the personnel shake-up as a response to U.S. pressure. The changes came just weeks after Richard Boucher, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, publicly demanded that reform of the ISI be carried out. They also followed last weekend's secret meeting between Pakistan's recently elected President, Asif Ali Zardari, and CIA head Michael Hayden about what the U.S. intelligence agency called the "double game played by Pakistan's spy agency." While in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly, Zardari told Roger Cohen of the New York Times, "The ISI will be handled; that is our problem. We don't hunt with the hound and run with the hare, which is what [former president Pervez] Musharraf was doing."
However, others argue against the notion that the U.S. forced the reforms on Islamabad. The timing of the promotions was not extraordinary and the changes were made "on the basis of merit," says Talat Masood, a retired general turned military analyst. "These postings were in the normal course of events, with many of the officers due for rotation or retirement," he says. "General Kayani used this opportunity to bring in new people according to his [priorities]."
Yet one of Kayani's priorities, analysts say, is restoring relations with Washington, the source of more than $6 billion in military aid since 2001. "There has been a strain in relations between the Pakistan army and the Pentagon," says Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a military analyst, referring to the recent U.S. unilateral actions that sparked sharp condemnation from Kayani as well as public outrage. "The army wants to deal with this through talks and negotiations. Now, with these promotions, you have a team at the top that is in line with General Kayani's thinking on terrorism and militancy in the tribal areas. There was a lot of skepticism about General Nadeem Taj's commitment to fighting militants." By appointing Pasha, who has been leading the military's campaign in the tribal areas and has been noted for speaking out against Islamabad's previous policy of supporting the Taliban, "General Kayani has an ISI chief who is behind in policy, and the American complaint has been answered," adds Askari-Rizvi.
In the wake of the July 7 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, the ISI was accused of being involved with and helping the Jalaluddin Haqqani network, which was blamed for the attack. Indeed, the dispute between Islamabad and Washington appears to center on the activities of the Haqqani network and other militants blamed for mounting cross-border attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan, which have led to a spike in violence in its eastern provinces this year. According to Pakistan military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas, this may be because "the priorities are mismatching." While the U.S. is focused on Afghanistan, the Pakistan army sees the battle currently raging in Bajaur as its priority, he said. "We cannot risk opening up another front while we don't have the resources."
While the Pakistan army strenuously denies the charge of coddling the re-energized Taliban, its chief military spokesman concedes that the army maintains "indirect" contact with an assortment of militant groups it once cultivated. "Which agency in the world would break its last contact with them?" asked Abbas in an interview before the promotions were announced. However, critics contend that the Pakistan army is not yet prepared to sever its links with its former clients in the militant underworld, perhaps as a way of ensuring some kind of influence over Afghanistan, where radical Islamists are once again threatening the stability of the pro-U.S. regime.
Nevertheless, the change at the top of the ISI is likely to be welcomed by Washington and may even relax tensions with Islamabad, analysts say. While the shake-up helps Kayani advance a more coherent response to the challenge of rising militancy, it also underscores the army's enduring clout. The ISI nominally falls under the purview of the Prime Minister, but on this occasion the civilian government merely gave formal approval to a decision by the military leadership. Two months ago, the civilian government attempted to bring the ISI formally under its control. The move was vetoed by the armed forces, proving again where power truly lies in Pakistan.