ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s prime minister has extended the term of the head of the country’s main intelligence agency by a year in a move expected to preserve continuity in the fight against Islamist militancy.
Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, director general of the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, was due to retire this month but will remain in office for another year, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s office said in a statement.
“Given the domestic and regional jihadist insurgency situation, the development is obviously based on Pakistan’s need for continuity of policy,” international intelligence firm STRATFOR said.
“But it is equally important for the American strategy for Afghanistan.”
Pasha, a former head of military operations for Pakistan’s army, was appointed head of the ISI in September 2008, months after U.S. officials questioned the reliability of the spy agency in the campaign against Islamist militancy.
Such questions have largely ended under his leadership, however, after security forces mounted big offensives in the northwest over the past year.
The powerful ISI oversees efforts in combating militants, who have been attacking the agency as well as other security and government targets. It also plays a major role in foreign policy.
India and Afghanistan view the spy agency, which is often referred to as a “state within a state,” with great suspicion. Pakistan’s civilian politicians also fear it for its role in past military coups.
Backed by the United States in the 1980s, the ISI spearheaded efforts to support Islamist guerrillas battling Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
It is also believed to have been heavily involved in backing a separatist insurgency against Indian rule in the disputed Kashmir region.
The ISI and other agencies captured hundreds of al Qaeda fighters after the September 11, 2001, attacks but it has long been suspected of turning a blind eye to Afghan Taliban fighters operating out of Pakistan, seeing them as leverage against Indian influence in Afghanistan.
But the recent arrest of several Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan has led to speculation that the ISI is changing its position on the militants in anticipation of some sort of Afghan peace process and the departure of Western forces.
“The ISI is in the process of a major shift; it is transitioning from being the cultivator of jihadists to being an entity that fights them,” STRATFOR said.
As well as the arrests and offensives against Pakistani Taliban, STRATFOR cited intelligence-sharing to facilitate attacks on militants in Pakistan by U.S. drone aircraft as being among the unprecedented steps Pakistan was taking.
Pakistani officials said at least 14 militants were killed in the North Waziristan region on Wednesday in the latest in a surge of drone strikes that Pakistan publicly objects to.
“The ISI plays the single most important role in the U.S.-led international effort to bring about an end to the regional jihadist morass,” STRATFOR said.
Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is due to retire late this year. There has been speculation in the media President Asif Ali Zardari will extend his term.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haiderl editing by Robin Pomeroy