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Pakistan jails doctor who helped find bin Laden: why the US may not intervene

The doctor who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden has been sentenced to 33 years in jail. But perhaps US-Pakistan relations have fallen so low that the US doesn't care anymore. 

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / May 23, 2012

Pakistani men walk by the Central Jail in Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday, May 23. A Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden has been sentenced to 33 years in jail.

Mohammad Sajjad/AP

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A Pakistani tribal court has found the Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA effort to locate Osama bin Laden guilty of treason, and sentenced him to 33 years in prison.

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To Pakistan, Shakil Afridi is a traitor who helped a foreign power locate and kill an enemy on its territory. To the US, Dr. Afridi is a hero who will now, apparently, spend the next 33 years of his life in prison.

The US lobbied hard with the Pakistani government to gain Afridi’s release. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, during a February 2012 visit to Islamabad, urged Pakistani authorities to release Afridi, but Pakistan declined. Given the substantial public anger in Pakistan over the bin Laden killing – more about the US’s violation of Pakistani sovereignty than for sympathy for the man – Pakistan sealed Afridi’s fate.

Now his sentencing marks another low-water mark for the US-Pakistani relationship, and highlights how little common ground the two countries share. But expectations for each side are now so low that it’s unlikely the US is going to adopt another full-court press as seen when another US spyRaymond Davis – faced detention in Pakistan.

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To be sure, Afridi’s Pakistani nationality also means the US isn’t going to view his detention in quite the same leave-no-man-behind terms. And the US does not have the same legal arguments of the Geneva Conventions as it did in the case of Mr. Davis.

But there’s also much less riding on the US-Pakistan relationship than even a year ago when the Davis affair erupted. NATO has managed to keep the Afghan war effort going, despite Pakistan cutting off supply lines through its territory. Then, too, trust has evaporated since the discovery of bin Laden in Pakistan and the unauthorized US raid to kill him.

Roller coaster ride

America has had a roller coaster relationship with Pakistan for years. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the US and Pakistan were as thick as thieves, funding, arming, and training Afghan and Pakistani fighters to take on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviets withdrew, and after Pakistan successfully tested a nuclear device, the US imposed strict military sanctions against Pakistan, and left that country with tens of thousands of former militants, thousands of politically charged Islamic seminaries, and a Pakistani economy addicted to foreign aid.

Today, the US and Pakistan have spent a decade ostensibly fighting on the same side against Islamist extremist groups – some of whom use Pakistan’s less-well-controlled corners, such as Swat and Northern Waziristan, as their bases – and yet it is not clear how much these two countries share in common anymore.

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