ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – In a move that could herald changes in Pakistan’s policy toward Islamic militants, the government on Tuesday named a new chief of its powerful intelligence agency.
Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, the director-general of military operations, was appointed to head the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, which has worked closely with the CIA and other U.S. intelligence organizations. But the Pakistani spy agency has also been tainted by historic ties, alleged by some observers to extend into the present, with the Taliban and other militant groups.
The change in command at the ISI appeared to signal a desire on the part of the Pakistani government to alter at least the image, if not the fundamental mission, of its premier intelligence-gathering organization. The previous agency chief, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, held the position for less than a year, an unusually short tenure at the helm of the ISI, which is sometimes described by critics as a “state within a state.”
Pasha has made public statements that reflect an awareness of Western unease over the ISI’s historic links to militant groups. But he has also been critical of what he describes as excessive use of military force against insurgents, particularly when wielded in a manner that exacts civilian casualties.
Pakistan’s new civilian government has attempted to assert some semblance of authority over the ISI, but so far has had only limited success. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani was forced to back down on an effort to bring the agency’s command and control under the civilian Interior Ministry.
The announcement of the high-level shuffle was made by Pakistan’s military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, himself a former chief of the ISI. Kayani made it clear that the military would retain control over the agency’s day-to-day operations, although it ultimately reports to the prime minister.
Although the ISI is believed to have provided crucial assistance to the United States in hunting down some senior figures in al-Qaida and the Taliban movement, its loyalties and motives have been widely questioned.
Afghan authorities earlier this year accused the ISI of helping militant groups who bombed the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and who tried to kill Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Islamabad government denied any involvement in those attacks.