ISSN 2330-717X

Pakistan: Low Profile Officer To Head ISI – Analysis


Lt.Gen.Mohammed Zahir-ul-Islam, a low profile officer of the Pakistan Army, has been chosen by President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani as the new chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to succeed Lt.Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha on March 19.

His appointment, which was announced by Gilani on March 9, was made out of a short list of three Lts.Gen recommended by Gen.Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). The names were reportedly discussed by Zardari and Gilani with Kayani last week and Zahir-ul-Islam was chosen. His appointment was the outcome of a consensus between the political and military leadership and could contribute to a lowering of the present high trust deficit between the two.


Zahir-ul-Islam, who is reported to have done one training course in the US as a middle level officer, has had the least exposure to the US as a senior Army officer. At the same time, of all the senior officers, he was the least suspected of having had any role in facilitating the clandestine stay of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad from 2005 till his death at the hands of the US Special Forces on May 2,2011.During this period, he was the GOC of Murree, then Deputy Director-General in charge of Counter-Intelligence in the ISI from September 2008 to October 2010, when he was posted as the Corps Commander of Karachi, the post that he now holds.

The civilian leadership has no reason to distrust him because he was not considered a protégé of Pervez Musharraf and his name had not figured in the suspicions of the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) relating to the failure of the Musharraf regime to protect Benazir Bhutto.If at all, he is a protégé of Kayani under whom he earned his promotion as Lt.Gen.

All indications are that the civilian leadership is keen to mend fences with the US. Zahir-ul-Islam could be the right man for the job because he was never very close to the US and, at the same time, was never suspected by the US of being mixed up with the jihadi terrorists.

As the Deputy DG, Counter-Intelligence, his job in the ISI was to keep a surveillance on the activities of foreign diplomats in Pakistan — particularly Indian and US diplomats — and to prevent the infiltration of the Armed Forces by extremist organisations such as the Hizbut Tehrir. He was also handling internal security situations like those in Balochistan and Karachi. While there was considerable ham-handedness in Balochistan, he avoided strong-arm methods in Karachi as the Deputy DG of the ISI and subsequently as the Karachi Corps Commander. He was not very effective in dealing with the situations either in Balochistan or in Karachi.

At Karachi, he won high praise from the Chinese for the smooth way he assisted the medical relief team of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which was deputed to Sindh for flood relief work.

Like many senior officers of the Pakistan Army, Zahir-ul-Islam comes from a family which has contributed many officers to the Army. His father is a retired Colonel of the Army and three of his brothers had also joined the Army. His sister is married to an Army officer.

The 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai by the ISI-sponsored Lashkar-e-Toiba took place seven weeks after Pasha had taken over as the DG of the ISI and Zahir-ul-Islam as his No.2.It is generally believed by well-informed sources that the terrorist attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul and the 26/11 strikes in Mumbai had the signature of Lt.Gen.Nadeem Taj, the predecessor of Pasha as the ISI Chief. If Pasha and Zahir-ul-Islam had wanted they could have called off the terrorist strikes in Mumbai, but they didn’t.

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B. Raman

B. Raman (August 14, 1936 – June 16, 2013) was Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.

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