New chief of Pakistan's spy agency seen as tough on Taliban, al-Qaida

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's army chief named a general considered a hawk in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban to head the country's powerful spy agency, asserting his control at a time of U.S. concern that rogue operatives are aiding Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shujaa Pasha oversaw military offensives against militants in the border regions with Afghanistan in his most recent job as director general of military operations.

His appointment as head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, the country's main spy agency, was part of a broader shake-up of army top brass announced late Monday by military chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

The moves were seen as a bid by the reform-minded general to revive the prestige of Pakistan's armed forces and assert control over the spy agency following the downfall of former president Gen. Pervez Musharraf in August.

A month earlier, the Pakistani government reportedly tried to bring the ISI under the control of the civilian Interior Ministry but reversed the decision after military dissent.

Pasha, who commanded U.N. troops in Sierra Leone in 2001-2002 and was appointed by the world body as an adviser on peacekeeping operations last year, replaces Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, a close aide to Musharraf.

Analysts agreed the appointment should unify Pakistan's anti-terrorism fight.

"Now you have a team in place that includes the new ISI chief ... who shares Kayani's view of how to deal with the insurgency in the tribal area and that is to adopt a tough line," said defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.

The spy agency has helped kill or capture several top al-Qaida leaders since 2001, but there are lingering doubts about its loyalty, not least because its agents helped build up the Taliban in the 1990s.

U.S. intelligence agencies suspect rogue elements may still be giving Taliban militants sensitive information to aid in their growing insurgency in Afghanistan, even though officially Pakistan is a U.S. ally in fighting terrorism.

Some analysts say elements in the spy agency may want to retain the Taliban as potential assets against longtime rival India and believe Pakistan's strategic interests are best served if Afghanistan remains a weak state.

India and Afghanistan -- and reportedly the U.S. -- suspect the ISI of involvement in the July 7 bombing outside India's Embassy in Kabul, which killed more than 60 people. Pakistan denies the allegations.

Urbane and at ease with foreign reporters, Pasha has acknowledged the price Pakistan was paying for its past sponsorship of radical Islam. "We pumped in millions of dollars for establishing it, and now we are up against it," he told a media briefing in November.

Rizvi said Pasha might be able to sway the lower echelons of the intelligence agency away from any sympathy they might feel toward the Taliban and "convince them that this war is Pakistan's war."

In August, Pasha accompanied Kayani to a meeting between top Pakistani military leaders and American commanders, including the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier.

Pasha will be pivotal in joint U.S.-Pakistani efforts to locate al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, believed to be hiding somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistan border in the lawless, tribal areas.

He said in November that it was "anybody's guess" where bin Laden was hiding. "Osama is a mystery," he said.

Pasha was also skeptical about Washington's policies in the war on terror, saying "brute use of force" killed too many civilians and stoked extremism.

Military analyst Ikram Sehgal said Pasha's experience commanding operations in the border region "will act as a force multiplier for the Pakistan military to fight the Taliban."

Asked whether he would likely follow a U.S. line, he said: "Pasha's only leaning is pro-Pakistan. He is neither pro-West, nor anti-West."

The army statement said Taj, the former intelligence chief, would take charge of an army corps in the eastern city of Gujranwala. It listed several other new postings, each of which were expected to take effect in a few weeks.

Pakistan has spent about half of its 61-year history under army rule, but Kayani has indicated he wants to keep the military out of politics and rehabilitate its image after Musharraf's nine-year rule.

Associated Press Writers Munir Ahmad, Stephen Graham, Asif Shahzad and Kathy Gannon contributed to this report.

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