The debate about the release of Dr Shakil Afridi, who helped US Special Forces hunt Osama bin Laden has been simmering for years. In 2011, the medic was accused of treason and jailed after running a fake vaccine programme which helped the CIA confirm the al Qaeda head honcho’s presence in Abbottabad. Afridi had contributed to the success of the intelligence agency’s operation, code-named Operation Neptune Spear by collecting DNA samples of bin Laden’s family which served as a means of pinpointing his location.
Since then, Afridi’s imprisonment has served as a source of agitation between Islamabad and Washington. For nearly seven years now, the Afridi saga has continued as an entangled tale of mistrust and miscommunication that has left an indelible mark on the ties between the two countries. The issue also surfaced during the 2016 US presidential election, when the then-Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, made a promise that he would facilitate the release of the CIA informant -- if elected. Since then, rumours about the controversial medic’s secret release or a release under an exchange deal have been making rounds. Pakistan, for its part, claims the Abbottabad raid – carried out without any forewarning – was a violation of sovereign territory. Interestingly, former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, has also lent credence to the possibility of Afridi’s release. Musharraf has toyed with the idea of releasing Afridi in exchange for Mullah Fazlullah, who is conveniently kept out of our sight across the border in Afghanistan. While Afridi’s release might provide Pakistan a slim chance to improve the scaled-down relationship with the United States, it comes at a price. In the grand scheme of things, an early release of Afridi under mounting US pressure will now be seen as a sign of weakness on the global stage. It may also inflate the notion that powerful adversaries can twist Islamabad’s arm to get their way or at least what they want.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th, 2018.
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