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Pakistan Appoints New Intelligence Chief

Pakistan's newly appointed director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant General Zaheer-ul-Islam, attends a function in Karachi in December.
Pakistan's newly appointed director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant General Zaheer-ul-Islam, attends a function in Karachi in December.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has named a new head of the country's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, a branch of government crucial to fighting extremism but questioned as to where its true allegiances lie.

Lieutenant General Zaheer-ul-Islam is the man set to take over for the outgoing spy chief, Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, who was due to retire on March 18.

While analysts say the appointment of Islam will not demonstrably change the nature -- or allegedly conflicting priorities -- of the ISI, they also say a fresh face is welcome, especially by the United States.

Islam, 56, was born into a military family in Pakistan's Punjab Province. He served in the infantry in the army's provincial regiment, alongside armed forces chief General Ashfaq Kayani. The two remain closely linked, and Islam is considered loyal to the military head.

Islam reportedly received some of his training in the United States. Reuters quoted an unnamed U.S. military spokesman as saying that Islam attended the prestigious U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania from 2002 to 2003 as a brigadier.

His new assignment will not be his first in the ISI. The lieutenant general was appointed to the intelligence agency in 2008, serving as deputy director for 2 1/2 years. During his tenure, he focused on domestic intelligence-gathering and security issues. The Associated Press reports that Islam also oversaw the ISI's internal security division.

In October 2010, he was named the top military commander in the southern commercial hub of Karachi, a post reserved for the Pakistani Army's most favored. He has held the post until this latest announcement.

'Moderate' Figure

While more details are expected to emerge about Islam's past, Shaiq Hussain, an Islamabad-based special correspondent for "The Washington Post," describes the new ISI head as having "moderate views."

He says Washington will likely welcome Islam after the rocky tenure of his predecessor, Pasha, who led the organization at the time of the U.S. raid on former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's compound in the north of the country.

"[Islam] is said to be a thorough professional. You know, obviously, the American interest [in this position]. They were deeply interested. I won't say it was at their consent that he has been given this job -- you know the problems in the [bilateral] relations -- but [the Americans] will be happy, if you are interested in my thoughts, that there is someone with more broad views [and] not someone anti-American and pro-Taliban in this seat," Hussain says.

Nasim Zehra, a Pakistani columnist and current associate at Harvard University's Asia Center, says she expects Islam to work on overcoming deep-seated misgivings in Pakistan's relationship with Washington.

"I think he will continue to pursue the exercise of ironing out differences in a positive manner, which is really the approach that, I think, Pakistan is adopting at this point, and the kind of approach that in some ways I think the United States is also," Zehra says.

A major source of tension in bilateral relations stems from claims by top U.S. officials of ISI complicity with the Haqqani network, a militant group based in the country, the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda. The ISI has denied any duplicity, pointing to the successful killing of scores of Al-Qaeda fighters.

Hussain, Zehra, and most analysts say that while every fresh face brings a degree of change, the ISI's power structure and policies will not be significantly affected under Islam.

"It won't be much different in the future," Hussain says. "If there is any change in the situation as far as the relationship with America, it will be a collective decision of the army. That is for sure. And General Kayani seems to have total control of the affairs of the army."

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