Daunting agenda awaits ISI chief

Abbas Nasir

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

IN an environment where promotions, transfers and appointments to key military positions are the subject of obsessive speculation, army chief Gen Raheel Sharif has acted decisively.

His decision announced earlier this week of who’ll replace the six retiring three-star generals over the next several weeks must now spell the end of the speculation that a ‘cabal’ was manoeuvring to secure extensions through dirty politics and was responsible for the political instability in the country.

On the other hand, the appointments also demonstrated that the army chief is his own man and is consolidating his hold over vital policy areas. It’ll be interesting to see if he introduces policy changes or carries on in the old tradition.

He may have appointed freshly promoted younger lieutenant-generals in key positions such as the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence and the corps commanders at Peshawar and Karachi but all three have hands-on experience of counterterrorism, anti-militancy operations in one form or the other.

The most interesting choice and the one which will generate most speculation is that of Lt-Gen Rizwan Akhtar.

The most interesting choice and the one which will generate most speculation is that of Lt-Gen Rizwan Akhtar. The soft-spoken yet articulate officer became a familiar face during his tenure as head of Sindh Rangers as he made multiple TV appearances when his paramilitary force and the police launched the so-called operation against criminals in Karachi.

The operation, from the public perspective, didn’t deliver much improvement as street crime remained largely unaffected (though admittedly the authorities claim a reduction in targeted killings as a result). Another of his failings was not to tackle rampant murderous sectarian outfits in any meaningful manner.

But clearly the military high-ups, mainly boss the army chief, had a different view of his performance. Hence, he was not only elevated to the rank of lieutenant-general but was also given what’s seen as a ‘prized’ appointment, without argument one of the most powerful positions in the country’s security apparatus.

Gen Akhtar has to his credit an intimate knowledge of Baloch issues, politics and tribal customs and practices.

Whether he brings this knowledge to apply a healing touch to a province where many see the agency he’ll head as a villain and the transgressor of their most fundamental rights will be more a matter of policy.

If Gen Raheel Sharif thinks a different approach is required to deal with the Baloch separatist movement, there will be change. Otherwise, we’ll see more of the same. Clearly this won’t be the only major challenge before the new DG ISI.

The corps commander leading the Operation Zarb-i-Azb, who retires soon, Lt-Gen Khalid Rabbani, has talked about the need to tackle the internal security threat as a holistic challenge which will mean ‘intelligence-based’ strikes against the terrorists in south Punjab, Sindh and even Balochistan.

The general’s statement reported in the media can be interpreted in a number of ways. Of course, those who indulge in wishful thinking like I do, being an eternal optimist, will see it as a point of departure from the military policy of using some of the militant groups based in south Punjab and other parts of the country as ‘tools’ of foreign policy.

It isn’t clear what foreign policy goals may have actually been attained with the use of such tools. What is abundantly apparent is that Pakistan has been rendered a disaster zone thanks to the bigoted, murderous ideology of many such groups.

Gen Rabbani’s statement should also serve as a sobering thought for political parties and politicians who have thought nothing of seeking the help of, and patronising, such sectarian-militant outfits. Perhaps, they might see sense now that the one pointing out the perils is a man in uniform.

Frankly, even if the military and the civilian leadership get on one page the battle is going to be long drawn out and uphill. Perhaps, all elements of the power structure, the foremost among them the military, are realising that doing nothing isn’t an option anymore.

Some of these groups are deeply influencing attitudes in society already and because they are armed, dangerous and feel they can operate with impunity even those who disagree with their ideology and see it as toxic are unable or unwilling to take them on.

The state cannot shirk its responsibility anymore. The army, under Gen Sharif’s command, launched Zarb-i-Azb amid insider accounts of how his predecessor’s indecision may have cost lives and made the whole exercise more perilous as it was subjected to considerable delays.

Surely, the current chief, known as the soldier’s soldier, needs to act decisively and the government needs to place itself above all its petty alliances for local political purposes and agree to a coordinated effort to eliminate this existential threat.

The team being put in place by the army chief one earnestly hopes is capable of delivering. The man the new DG ISI chooses as his head of counterterrorism to replace the newly elevated Lt-Gen Naveed Mukhtar who’ll be taking over as corps commander in Karachi will also play a crucial role.

It’ll also be of focal importance whether the chief and his hand-picked DG ISI continue to give precedence as in the past to those running the Afghan policy at the agency or if the balance now tilts in favour of the highly regarded counterterrorism arm.

While the lead role in the security scenario will be played by the men in khaki, it is up to the government to carve a niche for itself and remain relevant by sure-footed handling of the situation. It should provide overall guidance and support and fund the effort. And make clear nobody, no ally, is above the law.



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