Friday, October 03, 2008




    A reshuffle in the top brass of the Pakistan army should normally not be a cause for any comment, much less excitement. However, the international and domestic backdrop against which the current reshuffle has taken place – four corps commanders changed (including that of the X Corps or coup Corps in Rawalpindi), a new boss for the ISI and a reshuffle within the ISI – makes it appear to be anything but a 'routine transfer and posting of senior officers', as described by the Pakistan army spokesman.

At one level, the reshuffle stamps the authority of the Gen Ashfaq Kayani on the Pakistan army. He has now placed his own people in the most pivotal positions of the army and eased out officials who were either not in sync with his thinking and style, or were identified too closely with the Musharraf regime. On another level, the changes made in the army are a sign that the political and military leadership are working in tandem because such a high level reshuffle cannot take place without the concurrence and approval of the prime minister and the president. At the very least, the civilians are deferring to Gen. Kayani's wishes on changes within the army and not trying to impose their own favourites on the army chief.

In the past, the civilians had often tried to limit the influence of the army chief by appointing their men as ISI chief or in other important positions. In her first term as prime minister, Benazir Bhutto appointed Lt Gen Kallue as the ISI chief and, Nawaz Sharif in his second term as prime minister had appointed Lt Gen. Ziauddin as DG, ISI. This was naturally construed as a sign of lack of trust in the intentions of then army chief, who in turn circumvented this by relying on the Military Intelligence rather than on the ISI. Even otherwise, merely the appointment of the ISI chief was not enough to ensure that the organisation would not act in a hostile manner towards the government of the day. While the ISI chief might be subservient to the civilian leadership, the armed forces officers in the organisation often looked upon the army chief as their ultimate boss. This not only reduced the effectiveness of the ISI chief, it also damaged the chain of command in the organisation, which was then be used by some officers to carry on with their own private agendas and wars.

To the extent that the appointment of Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha as the new ISI chief signals that the civilian government and the military are not going to work at cross-purposes in the war on terror, it needs to be welcomed. There is a possibility that the change of guard might lead to a change in the way the ISI and the army have been conducting operations against the Islamist insurgents in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Lt. Gen. Pasha's predecessor, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, was thought to be continuing with what President Asif Zardari has called the 'running with the hare and hunting with the hound policy of the Musharraf era'. This double-game which was exposed after the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul had led to the Americans publicly demanding a sweeping reform in the ISI. Lt. Gen. Pasha's elevation is therefore also a gesture to signal to the Americans that Pakistan is serious about weeding out rogue elements from the ISI.

According to an AP report, Lt. Gen. Pasha acknowledges the price Pakistan was paying for its past sponsorship of radical Islam and is reported to have told a media briefing that "We pumped in millions of dollars for establishing it, and now we are up against it". Pasha is believed to be a hawk in the war against the Islamists. In an article in the New Yorker, Steve Coll quotes Shuja Nawaz, the chronicler of the Pakistan army, as saying that Pasha had revealed to him "an internal debate within the Army about the need to reorient the Army toward counterinsurgency in order to fight the Taliban." Although this debate is continuing, it is to be expected that Pasha's appointment could tilt the balance in favour of the faction in the army that wants to exterminate the Islamist threat. Shuja Nawaz also suspects that with the backing of Gen. Kayani, Pasha "will be able to exercise much greater control down to the contractor level of I.S.I., which is the operational level where former military officers and other contractors in the spy agency have the closest interactions with Islamist clients."

The change of face in the ISI is of course extremely important; but it will serve no purpose if this change is not accompanied by a change in the outlook, character, attitude, threat perception and method of functioning of the personnel manning the organisation at both the policy and the operational level. In other words, unless there is a complete overhaul of the ISI, and the army breaks away from its jihadi ethos, merely a change at the top will make no difference. Pasha will ultimately be judged by his performance as an administrator who not only ensures that orders get implemented and black sheep in the organisation are weeded out. And this is the easier part.

The bigger problem that Lt. Gen. Pasha will face in reforming the ISI is that the moment he tries to break the long standing links between the ISI and the Islamists, the ISI will lose a lot of its influence among Islamists. It was the patronage and sponsorship of the Islamists that enabled the ISI to develop such close links with the jihadists and have a terrific network of informants. If now the ISI jettisons its association with the Islamists, it will have a devastating impact on its ability to penetrate these networks and get information about their activities. It is also possible that there will be some resistance at the operational level from personnel who have been very closely involved with the jihadists and have in fact been reverse indoctrinated by them. In fact, there are reports that much of the military strategy of the Islamists is today being directed by former ISI officials who have now joined the ranks of the combatants fighting the Pakistan army and the NATO troops.

These officials are familiar with the tactics and capabilities of the Pakistan army and know of ways to counter any offensive by the Pakistan army. This makes it an imperative for the army, as indeed the ISI, to reorient and alter its tactics if it wants to succeed against the insurgents. However, this is not something that can be done overnight and merely through a change of guard. More importantly, if the ISI and the army continues to differentiate between 'good' jihadis and 'bad' jihadis – striking deals with the former and battling against the latter – Pakistan will never be able to win the war against home-grown and officially nurtured terrorists.

The Pakistan army and the ISI will also have to use all its resources and influence to also create a national environment against the Islamists. Many of the journalists who have been on the pay-roll of the Pakistani intelligence agencies and played a stellar role in promoting an extremist ideology will now have to be instructed to make a U-turn.

Clearly then, Pasha and his boss, Gen. Kayani, are in a rather unenviable position and face the monumental task of rescuing Pakistan. Whether or not they are up to this huge responsibility is something that will be known only in the months ahead. Until then, it would be premature to sing hosannas for the reshuffle in the top brass of the Pakistan army.


    <1290 Words>                    3rd October, 2008




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