Shakil Adil, Associated Press
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan appointed a new head of intelligence on Friday, injecting some uncertainty in America's dealings with an agency crucial to its hopes of negotiating a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban and keeping pressure on al-Qaida.
Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Islam replaces Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, who had been in the post since 2008 and was due to retire on March 18. The scion of a military family who is currently army commander in the city of Karachi, Islam was considered a likely man for the job.
Islam, who between 2008 and 2010 was the deputy head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence, will be a major player in any Pakistani efforts to get the Afghan Taliban to enter peace negotiations to end the war. ISI agents helped build up the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s, and its leaders are believed to be based in Pakistan. The ISI is considered to have some influence over them.
While there remain doubts over its loyalty, the ISI also works closely with the CIA in tracking and capturing members of al-Qaida, which retains a global command and training center close to the Afghan border.
Relations between Islamabad and the United States have been strained since the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden last year and have all but collapsed since November, when American troops mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani troops on the Afghan border. Intelligence cooperation between them has continued despite the tensions, officials from both nations have said.
The ISI falls under the control of the army, which sets policy in consultation with the elected government.
As such, the appointment of Islam is not expected to immediately, or significantly, change Pakistani policy, but having a new man at the helm inevitably brings a measure of uncertainty in American dealings with the spy agency. The current head of the army, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, is due to retire in October 2013.
"There is now a variable. Except for his close relations, who knows what he believes in? When he comes under stress, how will he react?" said Moeed Pirzada, a political commentator.
A U.S. official said Islam had traveled to America during his career to attend U.S. military sponsored training programs, and was familiar with his American counterparts.
"It would not be a surprise to see a brief transition period as the new head of the ISI gets up to speed, but that shouldn't have much impact on counter terrorism cooperation," said the official, speaking anonymously to talk about intelligence matters.
Islam has also served as head of the ISI's internal security wing, which deals with militants and counterintelligence. As army chief in Karachi, he would have intimate knowledge of the militant groups in the city, which has been frequently hit by terrorist attacks since 2001.
Pasha headed the spy service during a tumultuous time, especially after the bin Laden raid in May.
Abroad, bin Laden's presence in the military town of Abbottabad only heightened suspicions that elements of the ISI may have been protecting him. At home, the military establishment was criticized for failing to track him down, as well as not preventing the unilateral American airborne raid.
Shuja Nawaz, the director of the South Asia Center at the U.S.-based Atlantic Council, said the change of ISI chief "wouldn't makes a great deal of difference" in Pakistani policy.
"Instructions will continue to come from the army chief. However, there are always the personal likes and dislikes of the individual who takes over the ISI because the army chief is not supervising every micro detail," he said, speaking before Islam's appointment was announced.
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