And half as honourable, as someone rather unkindly added. After all, spying for one’s country, which has not infrequently washed the sins of many from the still older profession, cannot be all bad. Just look at the stakes. If nailed in hostile territory, one faced an uncertain fate. Even your own country might disown you, as well as the fact that in most lands the act carries the death penalty. All the same, there was some solace: one did it for the motherland. No salvation, however, if one was nabbed spooking for a foreign power; even it was the friendliest of all.
Israel is not just another US-friendly country. It can influence the foreign policy of the mightiest power in history, especially in the Middle East. What it cannot do is get its agents released from American prisons. Jonathan Pollard, a US citizen imprisoned in 1987 on charges of spying for Israel, still remains in the jug. The government in Jerusalem and their powerful allies in the US have tried all tricks, including ex post facto grant of Israeli citizenship, but to no avail. Another US national, Ghulam Nabi Fai, was asked to cool his heals for failing to declare funds, allegedly received from the ISI to carry out one of the most legitimate con jobs in the US: lobbying for assorted causes. (Hope our compatriots on foreign payrolls regularly submit their returns!)
So, why so much fuss over Dr Shakil Afridi! If he was involved in clandestine work on behalf of a foreign power, there was no way he could escape prosecution. If he did it for a common cause or for common good, that might have been relevant during the trial, or may make a difference in times to come. (Yes, there is always life after a trial, unlike in cases like Osama’s, where one is executed without even a formal charge.) I do not know if Afridi should have been tried by a jirga or in a court of law, under tribal decree or under the country’s penal code, but I do know that for him, it is not yet all over.
Espionage — like prostitution and war, and unlike politics — has been long enough in business to have evolved a working code of conduct (even a code of ethics). With hundreds of thousands of secret agents snooping all around the globe, a good number of them are very likely to land themselves in trouble. They are not only of great value back home, but are also a prize catch for the hosts. No doubt they would be made to cough out important information about their mission and more, but their real worth lies in their potential for a future exchange. Lest one forgets, the other side too was not solely relying on Peace Corps volunteers. I think Dr Afridi will get another chance to administer a polio vaccine; the next time in the Promised Land.
In the meantime, those who complain that his sentence, 33 years in jail, was too harsh for the crime committed — treason — may like to think again. It is of course possible that some of them also protested when a frail Dr Afia Siddiqui was charged with attempting to disarm a platoon of crack GIs, and sentenced to 86 years behind the bars. If she did in fact commit the act, she was either out of her mind and, therefore, unfit for a court trial, or a woman of great courage. In the UK, assuming that the British still retain some of the traits that helped them create the largest empire in history, a sporting judge would have bestowed upon her a Victoria Cross.
Now that we have owned the WOT as our war, we may also start owning up our heroes and swap them with theirs. It would be nice to award a Nishan-e-Haider to someone still alive, and a female at that!
Published in The Express Tribune, May 30th, 2012.