No matter how attractive or sought after a job can be, it is never easy taking on a role that immediately requires damage control on multiple fronts. By becoming the new Director General of Pakistan's notorious intelligence agency, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), Zaheerul Islam takes control of the military outfit that has become much maligned in not just the international community, but widely across Pakistan as well. Even for a man who has steadily progressed through the military ranks, most recently serving as the military's top official in the troubled and violent city of Karachi, Islam will have a significant workload to look forward to, with a substantial effort devoted to restoring any trust that the agency ever occupied from its citizens and global allies.
For the past year, the ISI has been embroiled in a Supreme Court investigation into missing individuals in Pakistan, who have allegedly been detained by the ISI without due process of law. Compounding matters both domestically and internationally, the intelligence agency has also been linked with the abduction and murder of prominent journalists such as Saleem Shahzad, who was found dead after his investigative work into the ISI's workings. The ISI, not surprisingly, denies any involvement with Shahzad's murder. Furthermore, recent investigation by the Supreme Court into the ISI's involvement in influencing the 1990 national elections have also drawn increased negative scrutiny to the organization -- all of this after the agency was widely condemned at home for not being able to stop the US raid into Pakistan to capture Bin Laden.
Things are not much rosier on the international front either. Having amassed a reputation for being disingenuous and untrustworthy, with the most notable accusations coming from Admiral Mike Mullen, who accused the agency of knowing of Bin Laden's whereabouts in the Abbottabad, Pakistan, the ISI is seen as an unreliable partner in the war in Afghanistan. More so, it is widely believed that the ISI has been working with the Haqqani network -- an anti-American insurgent group in Afghanistan.
Considerable damage has been done to the reputation of the ISI under outgoing chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha, and Pakistan's civilian leadership will be hopeful that Islam can rectify at least some of the agency's tarnished reputation, changing the reputation of Pakistani institutions with it.
But perhaps the most significant change that can be brought about with a change in leadership is a change in culture. The ISI and the military have always operated under the auspices of being guardians of the country, under the mantra of doing whatever it takes to protect the country from its enemies. The intelligence agency takes the liberty of defining whom exactly that enemy is, allowing for a wide scope of action. Such a demeanor has pushed the agency to act outside of its limits, as exemplified by its tampering in the 1990 elections, as well as its capture and murder of dozens of outspoken citizens. Understanding that it is an intelligence agency, and that many of its operations must be clandestine by design, the ISI needs to become more transparent in how it operates under the laws of Pakistan. It needs to provide more regular updates and reports to the civilian government, which often seems clueless to the agency's works. Pakistan's reputation has been critically damaged within the international community because of promises that are made by the civilian government and then broken by the military and ISI, with the ISI's dubious role in Afghanistan a case in point.
If the ISI is able to function as a part of a democratic government, rather than the totalitarian authority it has been in the past, this will not only bode well for US- Pakistani relations, but also for South Asian regional relations across the board. The world's trust deficit with Pakistan is partially due to the unchecked operations of the ISI and military -- these organizations effectively dictate foreign policy in the country, not the civilian government. In trying to protect Pakistan, the agency has done the country much more damage through its crooked dealings. The hope will be that Zaheerul Islam can combat that and change the culture of an out of touch organization. Pakistan needs that just as much as the rest of the world does.