Pakistan Spy Chief’s Term Set to Expire Amidst Shaky Relations with U.S.

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There’s no shortage of thorny issues currently facing Pakistan’s intelligence chief — and Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha’s term as director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is set to expire on March 18.

If Pasha does not receive an unprecedented third year-long extension, the position, as journalist Wajahat Khan explains in The Friday Times, will be filled “by a man who will have to be battle-ready without the luxury of any ‘settling in’ period.”

Among the issues facing the next intelligence chief are peace talks with the Taliban, improving relations with India, internal inquiries into the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, unexpected challenges from Pakistan’s Supreme Court on political disappearances and a vote-rigging scandal, and unrest in the southwestern province of Balochistan.

The end of Pasha’s term also comes during a particularly low point in U.S.-Pakistan relations and just as Pakistan is expected to undertake a strategic review of the relationship next month.

The selection of an ISI chief should follow a predetermined process: The defense secretary, after consulting with the president, presents a list of names for the prime minister to choose from.

But analysts say the choice will likely be made by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

Experts interviewed by FRONTLINE disagree as to the likelihood of Pasha’s term being extended.  Shuja Nawaz, the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council and an expert on the Pakistani security establishment, believes that it’s unlikely because Kayani’s term is also set to expire in one year, which would leave two senior positions open. Nawaz adds that Pasha has been a fairly reluctant recipient of extensions in the past.

C. Christine Fair, a professor of South Asia at Georgetown University, is less certain. “I won’t believe Pasha is retiring until he’s retired,” she says, “because he’s a good card to play.” Because Americans “can’t stand him” and would be “psyched to see him go,” Fair believes it’s possible the Pakistanis would extend his term just to spite the U.S. “Whether Pasha in fact retires and or whether or not they pick an ISI chief with furnished anti-American credentials,” she adds, “is going to be a signal in terms of the kind of relationship that the Pakistani establishment wants to assert with the United States.”

But Nawaz says that the U.S. relationship is not a determining factor in selecting a new ISI chief. “Most of the key factors are domestic or regional for Pakistan,” he says.

Loyalty to the Army chief may be the most significant qualification, Nawaz says, given the recent tensions between the military and Pakistan’s civilian government.  Kayani, he believes, will most likely choose a trusted, seasoned, three-star general.

The two names most often brought up in Pakistani political circles are Lt. Gen. Rashad Mahmood, the Corps Commander in Lahore, and Lt. Gen. Mohammad Zaheerul Islam, the Corps Commander in Karachi. Both of them, Nawaz says, have had previous postings within the ISI, are highly regarded professional soldiers and are close to Kayani.

A third name that has been circling in parlor-room discussions — particularly outside of Pakistan — is Lt. Gen. Khalid Rabbani, the recently appointed Corps Commander in Peshawar. Though Rabbani is highly regarded by the military, Nawaz doubts he will be chosen because it would be disruptive for him to leave his position in Pakistan’s tumultuous northern areas.

Other names include Lt. Gen. Javed Iqbal, the former director-general of military operations, and Lt. Gen. Muhammad Asif, the former director-general of military intelligence.  A wild card, Nawaz says, is Maj. Gen. Naushad Ahmed Kayani, the current director-general of military intelligence at Army headquarters, who is not yet ready for promotion to a three-star general, but is highly regarded by Kayani.

Regardless of who is chosen, Pakistan’s new spy chief will play a critical role in Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S. “The stakes are high,” explains Fair. “The ISI is involved with the Taliban, the U.S. is trying to get out of Afghanistan, and the U.S. wants to find some sustainable way forward with the drones.”

Bonus: Aabpara Auditions

Learn more about some of the likely candidates for ISI chief in this profile by Wajahat Khan in Pakistan’s Friday Times.

Pakistan's army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, right, and Pakistan's intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha in Islamabad, Pakistan on June 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
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