An Afghan national paints over a picture of Pakistan's now former Inter-Services Intelligence Chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed at a protest in New Delhi on September 10, 2021. The general has now been transferred. Photo: AFP / Sanjeev Rastogi / The Times of India

PESHAWAR – A routine transfer of a spymaster in Pakistan, believed to have been encouraged by China, has embroiled the powerful army and the prime minister’s office in a controversy on who appoints or transfers the head of the premier spy agency.

 Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was resisting the transfer of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed and holding on to the transfer notification, told a cabinet meeting Tuesday that he wanted him to stay on at least until the Afghanistan situation stabilizes.  

Earlier, Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and Prime Minister Khan had a lengthy meeting on Monday night to try to resolve the gridlock stemming from the transfer of Faiz Hameed. The next day Information Minister Faud Chowdhry, however, further complicated the issue. 

Addressing a post-cabinet meeting press conference, Fuad emphatically declared that the power to appoint the ISI director-general rests with the prime minister, who would follow the set procedure before issuing the notification of the transfers. 

After days of intense speculation about the change of the country’s premier intelligence chief, a military press release issued last week finally ended the rumors. 

Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum was appointed as the new chief of the ISI, replacing Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, who was posted to command the Peshawar-based Corps XI on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Imran Khan was against the transfer. Photo: AFP / Muhammad Reza / Anadolu

Was Beijing behind the move?

Some analysts claimed that at the heart of the controversy was Beijing, which may have pushed the army leadership for Hameed’s transfer for purportedly failing to hunt down the terrorists who killed Chinese personnel in different parts of the country. 

The analysts argue that an increase in terror attacks on Chinese nationals working on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and non-CPEC projects in Pakistan had panicked Chinese officials.

The mid-July killing of nine Chinese engineers in the Dasu Hydel Power Plant and attacks on Chinese nationals in Gwadar and Karachi have put a question mark on the security arrangements the Pakistan army has taken to provide safety to Chinese workers.

China has officially conveyed its concerns to Pakistani officials over the poor security arrangements and repeatedly demanded the arrest of those involved in terror activities. Some insiders claimed Beijing wanted a reshuffle in the premier security agency at the highest level to firm up the safety of its citizens and to put an end to such happenings through an efficient espionage system.

Some say that the kerfuffle over the transfer of ‘the mastermind of the Taliban project’ has brought home the scale of involvement of Pakistan’s military establishment in national and regional politics and the role it played to shape events in Afghanistan, leading to a rapid and unexpected military victory of the Taliban-led extremists.    

With a view to cashing in on the friction between the civil and military institutions, the main opposition front, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), has taken a pro-army stance, demanding snap elections to stem the growing polarization in the country.

A change in the highest position of the premier spy agency was on the cards for some time, but last week’s corps commanders’ meeting ratified the changes and after that, the announcement was made.

Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa met with Prime Minister Khan Wednesday for a consultation on the new pick after the corps commanders approved the new appointments. Khan had reportedly shown his reservations on the transfer of the ISI chief and wanted the transfer order taken back. 

Coup claim

Najam Sethi, a senior journalist and editor at Friday Time, revealed during a talk show that Prime Minister Khan had told the military chief that he was not taken on board about the change of the Director-General of the ISI. Sethi said the announcement about the new posting and transfer should have come from the Prime Minister’s house because procedurally, the prime minister appoints the Director-General of the ISI.

Days before the transfer order of then ISI chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed was released, the bête noire of the Pakistan army, Maryam Nawaz, lodged a petition in the Islamabad high court, claiming Faiz had engineered a judicial coup to get rid of Nawaz Sharif.

The daughter of deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in her application, challenged the legality of the entire legal proceedings that resulted in the conviction of Maryam Nawaz, her father and spouse.

She argued that in light of the 2018 speech of former Islamabad High Court judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, the country’s top intelligence agency was involved in manipulating judicial proceedings. “These proceedings were a classic example of outright violations of law and political engineering hitherto unheard of in the history of Pakistan,” the application reads.

In 2018, an accountability court convicted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and her husband, retired Captain Mohammad Safdar, in the Avenfield Apartment case and handed them jail terms of 10, seven and one years respectively for owning assets beyond their known sources of income.

The verdict came 19 days before the general elections.

A senior Pakistani politician who preferred not to disclose his identity told Asia Times that General Faiz Hameed massively manipulated the 2018 elections. 

“During the 2018 polls, Faiz Hameed who was then the deputy chief of the ISI, overlooking the internal security, had created a new front in South Punjab to cut into Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) votes. This group later en-mass joined Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) to ramp up its parliamentary strength in the center and Punjab.

“Moreover, he also supported the Barelvi extremist party Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) to get the vote bank of the PML-N in the Punjab province trimmed,” he claimed. He went on to add General Faiz Hameed was also accused of hacking the Results Transmission System (RTS) on polling day to pave the way for large-scale rigging in the 2018 elections.

The media report claimed Prime Minister Khan wanted Faiz Hameed at his back at least until the next elections in 2023, to help him win the electoral battle, as he had manipulated electioneering in the 2018 polls. 

On the other hand, the army reportedly had some more persuasive reasons to remove Hameed from his post. The incumbent ISI chief had played an imposing role in domestic and regional politics, which did not sit well with the highest levels of military circles.

Taliban fighters stand guard along a road in Herat on August 19, 2021. Photo: AFP / Aref Karimi

Welcomed in Kabul

His unexpected visit to Kabul days after the Taliban took over, and his snapshot in Kabul, sipping green tea with a triumphant smile, earned him the disdain of the global media. His conduct was equally embarrassing for his superiors in the armed forces, which the media says, felt a need to cut him to size to ramp up the dwindling civil-military relationship. 

Some analysts believe that the transfer of General Faiz Hameed to XI Corps was made with the understanding that the Peshawar corps has assumed added significance because of the Afghanistan situation.

Hameed’s stint in the ISI during which he developed very close contacts with the Taliban, especially the Haqqanis, was probably the reason he was picked for the Peshawar Corps. Secondly, they argue that with the spike in terror attacks, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has now become a real threat to Pakistan’s security.

Hameed and his successor in the ISI were supposed to play a pivotal role in the peace negotiations with some of the Pakistani Taliban. 

Zahid Khan, a spokesperson for the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), told Asia Times that those who ‘selected’ Khan would now regret their selection because Khan had played havoc with all the state institutions, including the army.

He said that the posting and transfers in the army were the prerogatives of the army chief and the notification under the prime minister’s signature was just a formality. Lashing out at the outgoing ISI chief, Zahid claimed that his lopsided policies had made more enemies than friends in regional diplomacy.

A good example, he maintained, was Afghanistan, where they thrust the Taliban upon Afghan people against their will. 

“General Faiz Hameed has overstepped his constitutional parameters by playing a larger than life role in the domestic politics and in the Afghan internal affairs, which put the country in international isolation. His gratuitous visit to Kabul and hobnobbing with the Haqqanis has smashed the image of the country, which is now running a risk of being sanctioned by the US Senate,” Zahid added.