The New Spymaster Enters in the Ring: Challenges Ahead?
Gen Akhtar, known to be a close ally of Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif, was named as director general of the ISI by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in September, more than a month in advance, in an attempt to avoid controversy over the appointment at a time when civil-military relationship was passing through a critical phase.
With Gen Akhtar assuming the office of ISI chief, all promotions of two to three star generals made by the army chief in the latest phase have taken effect. This makes the army chief more powerful than when he took over the command of the army in last December as he is now believed to have consolidated his grip over the army.
The new spy chief has assumed office at a time when the country is faced with grave external and internal challenges. The landscape of militancy in the country is changing with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan getting weaker and is forming new alliances for its survival and Middle East-based terrorist group Islamic State (Daesh) making entry into Pakistan. At the same time law and order situation in Karachi, where Gen Akhtar till recently headed Sindh Rangers, is still bad, if not getting worse and Balochistan insurgency continues to threaten the integrity of the country.
The change comes at a time when civil-military relations are being re-defined and the ISI is yet to clear itself of allegations of supporting sit-ins of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, which had brought the government to a standstill for weeks.
On the external front, tensions with India have heightened and terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan pose serious threat to the progress made by security forces in their counter-terrorism operations in tribal areas.
All these challenges aside, the job of leading the ISI, an intelligence agency which has expanded its domain much beyond the traditional role of a spy outfit to all spheres of governance, is itself a no mean task.
Many have expectations that Gen Akhtar will fundamentally transform the ISI’s working, but that will be too much to expect from him. The ISI chief may be one of the most powerful persons in the country, but still he has only an implementation role with policies decided at the General Headquarters. Therefore, the nuances can change with more focus on counter-militancy, but the basic policy framework will broadly remain unchanged.
While not much is known about Gen Akhtar’s thinking, an academic dissertation he authored in 2008 while studying at the US Army War College, is used by analysts to read his mind.
In the dissertation, Gen Akhtar had advocated “rapprochement with India”, “greater transparency in the (country’s) nuclear programme” and limiting the military’s role to national security from external threats. He had suggested that the army should be used for internal security only as a last resort.
Gen Akhtar’s parent regiment is Frontier Force. Before his Sindh Rangers assignment (2012-2014), he remained general officer commanding in South Waziristan from 2010 to 2012.
His postings in Karachi and South Waziristan provide him a good background in counter-terrorism, which is currently the focus of the ISI.
Although, Gen Sharif picked a relatively younger general to head the premier intelligence agency, he was the senior most among the batch of six two star generals promoted in September.