For some reason, the imprisonment of Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to carry out a fake vaccination campaign, continues to be a symbol of Pakistan’s perfidy in sheltering Osama bin Laden and proof that we are on the ‘other’ side when it comes to the war against militancy. A purported interview of Afridi from his prison cell, presumably by telephone, by Fox News has seemingly confirmed that the ISI, and by extension, the military see the US as the biggest threat facing the country. Added to that, the proposed expulsion of foreign workers of the NGO Save the Children for introducing Afridi to the CIA has also brought his case renewed attention.
A US Congressman has gone so far as to claim that the Afridi interview proves Pakistan is in league with the terrorists. This would be akin to assuming that the Americans’ continued incarceration of Jonathan Pollard, who stole nuclear secrets from the US on behalf of Israel, is the smoking gun which shows that the US is actually on the side of Israel’s enemies.
Since so many seem to think Afridi should not be in jail, it would be useful to remember just what he did. He knowingly gave vaccinations to people that would never be completed and thus would be effectively useless and, in the process of doing so, collected their DNA. He then handed over the DNA samples to a foreign intelligence service. This, on its own, would have been enough to convict him of conspiring against his country. Added to that is the fact that it is extremely unlikely that Afridi knew exactly why he was recruited to collect DNA samples on behalf of the CIA. The hunt for Osama bin Laden was carried out in secret with only a select few in the know about exact details. Those details would never have been freely discussed with a random Pakhtun doctor. Essentially, Afridi did it for the money. For that, some punishment is in order.
Afridi’s obvious guilt should not be taken as an endorsement of the way his trial was conducted. Charging him under the Frontier Crimes Regulation, which is far less transparent than the regular justice system, was a move borne out of a desire for a quick conviction and a need to stop the US from turning his trial into a public circus. He also should have been tried for the main charge against him — that of spying for the CIA — rather than colluding with militants, much the same way Aafia Siddiqui should have been tried for her terrorist ties rather than the shooting incident in Bagram.
The case of the Save the Children workers is a bit trickier. Anyone who is familiar with the CIA’s operations since it was established after the Second World War knows that it has a history of recruiting foreign NGO workers, placing its agents in these organisations and trying to get locals to do its bidding. There is no reason for Pakistan to be an exception.
Given the paranoia about CIA agents in the country, though, accusing anyone directly of links to the agency makes everyone who works at that particular organisation a target. Although the government is not liable to provide proof before deporting these people, it should do so anyway simply to make it clear that it is not making the NGO workers scapegoats. American influence in the country is a real problem and there are many powerful people whose fortune is dependent on it. To stave off the inevitable criticism, the government needs to cover its backside.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 13th, 2012.