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Pakistan appoints new spymaster

Pakistan has appointed a new head of intelligence, injecting some uncertainty in America's dealings with an agency crucial to its hopes of negotiating a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban and keeping pressure on al Qaida.

Lieutenant General Zaheerul Islam replaces Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, who had been in the post since 2008 and was due to retire on March 18.

The scion of a military family who is currently army commander in the city of Karachi, Lt Gen Islam was considered a likely man for the job.

Lt Gen Islam, who between 2008 and 2010 was the deputy head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), 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 believed to be based in Pakistan. The ISI is considered 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 Qaida, which retains a global command and training centre close to the Afghan border.

Relations between Islamabad 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 killed 24 Pakistani troops on the Afghan border. Intelligence co-operation 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 Lt Gen 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.

The current head of the army, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, is due to retire in October 2013.

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