The appointment of Pakistan’s new spy chief, Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar to head the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency on Monday, puts the new director-general in charge of executing Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan just when the United States is set to begin its drawdown at the end of this year.
Akhtar is a highly regarded, battle-tested commander with experience in bringing order to the sprawling megacity of Karachi—long overrun by criminal gangs—and fighting militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas—long overrun by the Pakistani Taliban. In Karachi, while his Rangers were effective, human rights groups raised concerns over extra-judicial killings that may have been committed by men under his command.
In both theatres, however, he would have relied heavily on ISI agents to know who to target and where to find them. He is now tasked with leading an organization charged with providing that kind of actionable intelligence against terrorists but which has long been accused by the U.S. and others of abetting both the Taliban and possibly al Qaeda.
“The war we are fighting is a war that is intelligence intensive,” Shaukat Qadir, a Pakistani security analyst and retired Brigadier, told the Daily Beast. “Both in the tribal areas or in the cities.”
Akhtar will take over from Zaheer-ul-Islam, who is set to retire on Oct. 1. Not much is known about Akhtar, other than his professional resume, but he is one of the most junior lieutenant generals in the Pakistani military, perhaps making him more loyal to the current Army Chief, Raheel Sharif. Akhtar’s appointment is seen as strengthening Sharif’s power.
“These appointees are taking key positions and they owe their jobs to Raheel Sharif,” Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defense analyst, told the Wall Street Journal. “This is Raheel’s first set of senior appointments and it strengthens his position.”
Akhtar attended the U.S. Army War College in 2008 where he won praise from his advisor, Edward J. Filiberti. “He’s the type of officer we would like to have in our own army,” the professor told the Daily Beast.
But other analysts say Akhtar is unlikely to make any major changes in policy. And based on his Strategic Research Project, “US-Pakistan Trust Deficit and the War on Terror,” (PDF) which he completed when he was at the U.S. Army War College, he holds traditional Pakistani views on his country’s relations with the U.S. and the region.
In much of the paper, he blames Pakistan’s problems squarely on the U.S. and the West. Pakistan’s role, in Akhtar’s view, is an honorable, yet unappreciated ally in the war on terror. He complains of too-aggressive action by the U.S. against the Taliban and makes no mention of Pakistan’s role in birthing the group in the 1990s. He complains of poor news reporting that paints Pakistan in a bad light, but ignores the ISI’s role in seeding Pakistani media with some of the most virulent anti-American sentiment around.
“Anti-Americanism with Pakistan has always been a complex dynamic and is profoundly influenced by the brief history of US-Pakistan oscillating relations and the perception of the treatment of Muslims and Islam by the West,” he wrote.
In fact, anti-Americanism is often dialed up or down in the raucous Pakistan media as the ISI needs, depending on how much pressure it wants to put on the civilian government or on the United States. This is accomplished by open payments to journalists and TV hosts who often compete in sensationalism and lurid displays of nationalism and religiosity.
The ISI’s media division, which I interacted with regularly when I was based in Pakistan in 2009-2012 with Reuters, was one of the most disciplined and effective propaganda outfits in the region. This is the agency Akhtar will now run.
The military and its ISI have always had outsized roles in Pakistan, having directly ruled it for almost half of its 67-year history and maintaining tight control of national security and foreign policy for the rest of the time. As the intelligence branch of the military, the ISI has often meddled in politics, playing kingmaker, deposing prime ministers and stirring up trouble.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (no relation to the army chief) isn’t known to have a good relationship with the generals, having been twice deposed in the 1990s when he previously served as prime minister. His government has been aggressively prosecuting former army chief Pervez Musharraf for treason for the general’s role in a 1999 coup that sent Sharif fleeing into exile and ushered in almost a decade of military rule. He has also irked the military by promoting peace with India, the Pakistani military’s traditional rival in the region.
So Akhtar takes over an agency that is a source of fear in Pakistan and the region. More adept at thuggery against its own population than actual spy craft, the ISI is also Pakistan’s agency for dealing with militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and even, perhaps, al Qaeda.
The spy agency has traditionally been in charge of handling the Afghan Taliban, which was nurtured in the 1990s until the 9/11 attacks in 2001 forced Pakistan to temporarily yank support for its proxies ruling in Kabul. In the mid-2000s, however, it used retired generals to reestablish contact with the Taliban and—depending on who you believe—either tolerated or actively supported the presence of Taliban leader Mullah Omar in Quetta where he directed the fight against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Militants allied or even directed by the ISI have been blamed for numerous attacks on U.S. and Indian targets in Afghanistan, including attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008 that killed 58 people. The U.S. says it has evidence of Pakistani ISI agents communicating in real time with the attackers, a charge Pakistan denied.
In 2011, the U.S. outright accused the ISI of supporting the Haqqani Network, a powerful Taliban aligned group responsible for deadly attacks on U.S. and Afghan military forces. Then-chairman of the joint chiefs, Adm Mike Mullen, told Congress that the Haqqani Network “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.” Next to the Taliban, the Haqqani Network—based in the tribal areas of Pakistan—is the deadliest foe of the international forces in Afghanistan.
When the U.S. and its allies begin drawing down in Afghanistan at the end of this year, it’s highly likely that Pakistani will start pushing its Taliban allies to reconquer Afghanistan, using the same playbook it used in the 1990s. It’s no secret that Pakistan wants a friendly, pliant government in Kabul, preferably one dominated by Pashtuns, the mountain-dwelling ethnic and tribal group that sprawls across the border of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. By ensuring Pashtun dominance in Afghanistan, Pakistan believes it can quell calls for an independent Pashtunistan that threaten the country with a breakaway region.
“It definitely wants a government which is mindful of Pakistan’s interests and does not encourage India interfering in Pakistan,” independent security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa told the Daily Beast. “One that doesn’t allow New Delhi to use Kabul as a hub of anti-Pakistan activities.”
The ISI also has close ties with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the most feared and effective terrorist groups in the world and responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, which killed 164 people. Indian and U.S. investigators said members of the ISI helped train the attackers, a charge Pakistan initially denied before admitting that, maybe, some rogue or retired ISI agents had helped plan the attacks.
And let’s not forget that the ISI was likely involved, somehow, in Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan. While it’s never been conclusively proven bin Laden was under official ISI control, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall, in her book “The Wrong Enemy,” said that despite the ISI vehemently denying it had any knowledge of bin Laden in Abbottabadt, a special “bin Laden desk” existed inside the agency.
“According to one inside source, the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle the al Qaeda leader,” she wrote. “It was operated independently, headed by an officer who made his own decisions. He did not have to pass things by a superior. He handled only one person: bin Laden. What he did was of course wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the ISI. Such is how super-secret intelligence units operate. But the top bosses knew about the desk, I was told.”
The ISI angrily denied this, of course, calling the report false and malicious. But I was in Pakistan in 2011 and almost every reporter in Islamabad I knew suspected that yeah, the ISI probably knew about bin Laden. As far as I know, however, only Gall managed to find a source to verify this.
It’s an explosive accusation, perhaps more damaging to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship than the presence of bin Laden himself. And although three years have passed since Seal Team Six raided that house in Abbottabad, the relationship is still marked by suspicion. And while Akhtar won’t be calling all the shots, he will have a voice in the conversation. And that’s important, because despite his litany of the usual complaints against the U.S. in his research project, he also called for “bridging the trust gap.”
To do that, Pakistan “must reform its governance, improve the economy, confront and eliminate Islamic extremism, and create a more tolerant society,” he wrote. “Most important, it must aggressively pursue rapprochement with India.”
A welcome change to the ISI’s usual modus operandi if he follows through.
I have the PDF and we can post and link to it.