ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service has taken a quiet but momentous step that may help dramatically improve strained relations with the United States.
By appointing Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar as the 21st Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) on Tuesday, the country sent a signal about its spy agency, which has historically been seen as willing to double-cross Washington.
Akhtar, who belongs to an elite batch of soldiers sent to study at American institutions, authored an important pro-democracy paper that discussed ways to solve the “U.S.-Pakistan Trust Deficit” while at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
“Will he succeed in controlling this institution where his predecessors have failed?”
The tech-savvy insomniac who drives himself and prefers to take notes through multi-colored pens, hinted at his new approach to U.S.-Pakistan relations when he spoke to NBC News within days of his appointment.
"All bilateral relationships have to be based on a decent level of mutual respect, or mutually complementing respect," Akhtar said. "One cannot achieve anything by disrespecting a nation. This is my baseline for Pakistan and the U.S."
As a career infantryman who has served in the terror-riddled region of North and South Waziristan as well as Karachi, Pakistan’s dangerous megacity, he is used to taking on tough tasks.
"Rizwan is a [counter terrorism] specialist who has excellent field exposure,” said Maj. General Asim S. Bajwa, the chief military spokesperson.
Lt. Gen. Akhtar's experience, which includes a stint commanding a peacekeeping force in Somalia, shows that he’s got a record of tackling militancy — desperately necessary in a country that has lost over 5,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians since 2001, according to the military spokesperson’s office.
Akhtar, also a graduate of the International Institute of Humanitarian Law in Italy, is known to have diplomatically tackled both internal corruption and politicians in Karachi, where he led a sophisticated multi-force operation last year.
But questions linger about whether he will be good enough to fully control the influential spy agency that is often dubbed a “state within the state,” and has been accused of supporting the Taliban and other extremists in neighboring Afghanistan while turning a blind eye when some militants set up bases within Pakistan's borders.
“Of course, there is a residual effect of old intel policies that he will have to deal with,” said Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, referring to ISI’s history of interfering in politics.
None of this will be easy, largely because the ISI is such a sprawling organization. According to the finance ministry, the service’s budget is more than that of the Pakistan Navy’s, and its manpower, estimated by military insiders to be between 80,000 to 100,000, makes it larger than Pakistan’s Air Force and Navy combined.
Akhtar’s new task isn’t just about juggling numbers.
His organization has long been blamed for maintaining an unofficial soft corner for militancy, while also being officially tasked to support U.S.-led military operations in the region and fight multiple insurgencies at home.
“Its good news that a professional soldier and not someone from the intel branch has been brought to the ISI,” said Shuja Nawaz of the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
“However, the ISI’s size is so large — larger than any other military command at his rank — that it cannot be controlled down to the lowest levels.”
While the military's rank-and-file incur heavy losses in the militant-prone border areas, there have been instances of soldiers turning on their own. Assassination attempts in 2004 on a former president, retired Gen. Pervez Musharraf, involved military personnel, for example.
And earlier this month, a failed mutiny by navy personnel inspired by militant Islam almost led to a naval frigate being hijacked.
So Akhtar’s got a big job ahead of him, according to Nawaz.
“That’s going to his biggest operational challenge: Will he succeed in controlling this institution where his predecessors have failed?”