(Reuters) – Pakistan appointed a close ally of the army chief to head the country’s most powerful and controversial intelligence agency on Monday, cementing the military’s dominance following weeks of anti-government protests.
Rizwan Akhtar, who has extensive experience of counterinsurgency from a previous posting in the South Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan, will take over the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in October.
The head of the ISI is one of the most important posts in Pakistan, at the intersection of domestic politics, the war on militancy and Pakistan’s foreign relations.
It is also one of the most controversial, given accusations against the ISI of meddling in domestic politics and having ties to the Afghan Taliban and other insurgent groups fighting U.S.-led NATO troops in Afghanistan, charges the military denies.
Although the ISI officially reports to the prime minister, in reality it is controlled by the army chief, in this case General Raheel Sharif.
Akhtar’s previous job was head of the paramilitary Rangers in the province of Sindh in the south, where he led a comprehensive operation against Islamist groups and criminal gangs in Karachi, the country’s financial hub.
“He is a horribly straight guy, all black and white,” a serving military official said of Akhtar.
“He has served in a place like Karachi … with all its turf wars and politics while remaining neutral and apolitical and also has extensive experience of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. He was the obvious choice.”
Some believe the appointment may be an opportunity to set a new tone in the often tense relationship between Pakistan and its arch rival India. The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought three wars and Pakistan’s army uses the perceived threat from India to justify its huge budget and national importance.
In a 2008 publication while he was at the U.S. Army War College, Akhtar argued that Pakistan “must aggressively pursue rapprochement with India.” In the same paper, he criticized U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The appointment comes at a difficult time for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose position has been significantly weakened by weeks of opposition protests demanding his resignation.
Protesters led by cricketer-turned-opposition leader Imran Khan and activist cleric Tahir ul-Qadri have camped outside government offices in the capital, Islamabad, since mid-August, refusing to leave until Sharif resigns.
Some ruling party officials have accused the military and the ISI of instigating the unrest in order to weaken Sharif.
Several government ministers told Reuters this month that the current head of the ISI, General Zaheer-ul-Islam, was among those pushing for the prime minister’s ouster.
“For Nawaz Sharif, the bottom line is that he doesn’t want another Zaheer,” said a Defense Ministry official, summing up what the prime minister was looking for in his new spy chief.
“Somehow, the PM has never considered Zaheer his man. And that’s been a source of great anxiety for him. So he wanted someone who doesn’t have political leanings.”
The previous army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, won credit for reducing the military’s public role in politics although the army retains huge influence behind the scenes, especially over security and foreign policy.
But the ISI’s own reputation has suffered in recent years from a series of scandals, including the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a secret U.S. raid, in a town about a two-hour drive from the ISI’s headquarters, in May 2011.
Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan, by some accounts for up to five years, raised suspicions in Washington that the ISI had been doing business with, or sheltering, America’s number one enemy. Pakistan denied that.
“The army chief shares the PM’s concerns about the ISI meddling in politics and also wanted someone who will not politicize the agency further,” the Defense Ministry source said.
“The chief doesn’t want any more political controversy.”
Some analysts believed ISI policy would remain unchanged and would still be set by the army chief.
“The ISI does not act independent of the army and the army chief,” said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. “Policy will change only if the army chief wants it to.”