Islamabad: Pakistan named a new head of intelligence on Friday, injecting some uncertainty in America`s dealings with an agency crucial to American hopes of negotiating a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban and keeping pressure on al Qaeda.
Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam replaces Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha, who had been in the post since 2008 and was due to retire on March 18th. The scion of a military family who is currently army commander in the city of Karachi, Islam was considered a likely man for the job.
As head of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Islam will be a major player in any Pakistani efforts to get the Afghan Taliban to enter peace negotiations to end the war. ISI agents helped build up the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s, and its leaders are based in Pakistan. The ISI is believed to have some influence over them.
While there remain doubts over its loyalty, the ISI also works closely with the CIA in tracking and capturing members of al Qaeda, which retains a global command and training center close to the Afghan border.
Relations between Washington and the United States have been strained since the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden last year and have all but collapsed since November, when American troops mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani troops on the Afghan border. Intelligence cooperation between them has continued despite the tensions, officials from both nations have said.
The ISI falls under the control of the army, which sets policy in consultation with the elected government.
As such, the appointment of Islam is not expected to immediately, or significantly, change Pakistani policy, but having a new man at the helm inevitably brings a measure of uncertainty in American dealings with the spy agency.
``There is now a variable. Except for his close relations, who knows what he believes in? When he comes under stress, how will he react?`` said Moeed Pirzada, a political commentator.
Islam served as deputy ISI director from 2008 to 2010, and also headed the ISI`s internal security wing.
Pasha headed the spy service during a tumultuous time, especially after the bin Laden raid in May.
Abroad, bin Laden`s presence in the military town of Abbottabad only heightened suspicions that elements of the ISI may have been protecting him. At home, the military establishment was criticized for failing to track him down, as well not preventing the unilateral American airbourne raid.
Militants attacked ISI offices several times over the last four years, and Pasha had to ramp up the agency`s fight against them. During his tenure, the CIA dramatically expanded its drone strike program against militants along the Afghan border, allegedly with the support of the ISI.
Shuja Nawaz, the director of the South Asia Center at the US-based Atlantic Council, said the change of ISI chief ``wouldn`t makes a great deal of difference`` in Pakistani policy.
``Instructions will continue to come from the army chief. However, there are always the personal likes and dislikes of the individual who takes over the ISI because the army chief is not supervising every micro detail,`` he said, speaking before Islam`s appointment was announced.