Change in the ISI, in perspective: Implications for Imran Khan and Pakistan

By making Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum the country's top spymaster, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa has reasserted his and the Pakistan Army's institutional control over the ISI.

It took nearly a month for Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to sign the notification confirming the nomination of Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum of the Pakistan Army as the next Director-General of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Gen Nadeem will take charge of the organisation in the third week of November, replacing the controversial Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who will move on to his new posting as the commander of the XI Corps in Peshawar.

Off-key note in civil-military symphony

In the suspenseful three weeks during which Imran faced off against Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa on the latter’s decision to move out Hameed to a corps, the civil-military needle has lurched once again in Pakistan, towards the military.

It used to be Imran Khan’s frequent claim that he and the Pakistan Army were on the same page, and indeed they were — from the PTI’s election in 2018 to the handling of the Covid-19 crisis and the US-Taliban talks, the Prime Minister appeared comfortably ensconced by the Army.

After the hiccup over Gen Bajwa’s extension at the end of 2019-20, and the petering out of the joint opposition rallies earlier this year, Imran seemed set to complete his term.

But there is a question mark on that now, as tensions over the ISI posting have torn up the “same page”. For reasons that are also a subject of intense speculation, Imran Khan was loathe to let go of Lt Gen Faiz who had helped set up the 2018 election for the PTI.

Faiz Hameed, Imran, and Gen Bajwa

But Faiz had become an institutional liability for the Army. Although he was Gen Bajwa’s blue-eyed boy only months ago, it seems that Faiz’s exposure to several controversies, including his triumphant public appearance in Kabul after the Taliban takeover, went against him.

At one time Faiz was tipped to be the next Army chief, and a corps command post, a year ahead of Gen Bajwa’s retirement in 2022, would have been seen as the fulfilling of an eligibility requirement for the top job. But there is little chance now that he will succeed Bajwa.

The Army is suspicious of generals who build individual relations with politicians. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s proximity with the ISI chief during his 1997-99 tenure set in motion a chain of events that ended in Gen Pervez Musharraf’s coup.

Imran Khan’s three-week-long refusal to sign off on the appointment of Lt Gen Nadeem as ISI chief raised apprehension in the Army that the Prime Minister and Faiz were likely viewing each other as guarantors of their respective ambitions — Faiz to become chief with the Prime Minister’s help, and Imran to win another term in 2023 with Faiz’s help.

Imran finally blinked, but his relations with the Army are now seen as beyond repair. But unlike his predecessor Nawaz Sharif, Imran is hardly seen as a democratic torchbearer in the constant civilian-military struggle.

Open season for speculation

Pakistani media are now openly speculating and building scenarios: how long will the Imran Khan government last? Will it be an ouster a la Nawaz Sharif in 2018, and a new PM from within the PTI? Or will there be a collapse of his government as the horses corralled to his side from other parties bolt back to their parent parties? With the Army no longer by Imran’s side, the PTI stands little chance in an election. If push comes to shove, will Gen Bajwa do the unthinkable?

Amid these imponderables, the opposition parties are waiting in the wings for the moment when the Army officially withdraws its protective umbrella from Imran.

The PML(N)’s popularity in Punjab was evident during the massive rallies led by Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz in the absence of her father, self-exiled in London. Will the party accept the rules of a hybrid civilian-military regime that has been put in place over the last three years?

Or will it sense an opportunity and push for a new script? Or will the Army find another civilian more willing to play by its game and rules, perhaps from within the PML(N)?

The new chief spy in Pakistan

Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum is not known to have served in the ISI before this appointment.

According to Dawn newspaper, he was commissioned in service in September 1988. He led the Frontier Corps in Balochistan and was commandant of the Command and Staff College in Quetta before being appointed corps commander Karachi in December 2020.

By making him the country’s top spymaster, Bajwa has reasserted his and the Army’s institutional control over the ISI.

ISI: technically under PM, run by Army

Leadership transitions in the ISI have never been this controversial, even though the procedure for selecting the chief is not laid down in the government’s rules of business.

The ISI was created as an external intelligence agency by an executive order; therefore, it was supposed to be answerable to the Prime Minister. But with most of its officials drawn from the tri-services, especially the Army, it functions as an extension of the military establishment, and sees itself as de facto accountable to the Army chief.

Over the years, the ISI has been used by the military to serve its political ends. The ISI chief is a three star general. There is no set procedure for his appointment — but by convention, the Army chief makes the selection, and the Prime Minister signs off on it.

Civilian Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who tried to take control of the ISI through their own handpicked chiefs, learnt the hard way that the system always wins.

Benazir appointed a civilian — he was a retired general — who found himself completely sidelined by the military-dominated agency. In 2008, the PPP government under President Asif Ali Zardari tried to bring the ISI under the Interior Ministry, but a furious reaction from the Army forced the withdrawal of the notification within hours, with the government declaring its intentions had been misunderstood.

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Implications of the change for India

Just as the change in the leadership of R&AW does not change the way India views Pakistan, a change at the top in the ISI does not change anything about India-Pakistan relations, which are cast in wider mould of hostility.

“The change in ISI will impact mainly the domestic political fortunes of Imran and the Pakistan Tehreek-I-Insaf, and not the India policy, which will remain the Pakistan Army’s preserve. The military establishment in Pakistan will not let go of the asymmetrical option of non-state actors in Kashmir anytime soon,” said a former Indian security official.

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