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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. 

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That the US military ended up recruiting Afridi, a Pakistani doctor, to masquerade as a Save the Children doctor on a child-immunization campaign to help locate bin Laden, rather than trust the intelligence it was receiving from Pakistan’s own Inter Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) speaks volumes about how far the US-Pakistani relationship had fallen.

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Pakistan consistently insisted that it had no idea where bin Laden was. US intelligence agents, cell phone intercepts, and Afridi succeeded where the ISI failed, all contributed to finding bin Laden in a large home just half a mile away from a major Pakistani military academy in the town of Abbottabad.  

Far from feeling apologetic, Pakistan’s military establishment cried foul, and accused the US’s acknowledged agent of treason.

Eye to eye

There is no surprise, though, that these two nations don’t see eye to eye.

America has a much broader strategic partner in South Asia in India, with whom it shares a number of parallel goals of keeping the growing economic and political power of China somewhat contained, of promoting the expansion of democracy and free markets, and of fighting against militant extremist groups. The fact that Pakistan continues to see India as its chief existential threat, with whom it continues to spar over disputed territories in Kashmir, adds to Pakistan’s sense of betrayal by the US.

But Pakistan also feels anger that the US fails to look at matters from its perspective.

The US once understood Pakistan’s challenge of holding an unwieldy collection of language groups and religious groups together as a nation, Pakistani academics say. The US once understood Islamabad’s difficulty of maintaining even the most basic sort of control over the semi-autonomous regions along the Afghan border called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. But after 9/11, the US has insisted that Pakistan launch military incursions into those FATA areas in pursuit of well-armed militant groups, and in recent years, has launched numerous drone attacks against these groups, without prior notification to Pakistan.

These drone attacks have created a tremendous blowback effect, even among liberal Pakistanis who once supported the war against radical Islamist militant groups. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, liberal and moderate Pakistanis welcomed efforts to contain terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Sipah-e-Sahaba. But after the US invaded Iraq, that support waned, and many Pakistanis adopted a Michael Moore view of the US as a superpower bent on crushing weaker Muslim states.

Today, it's hard to see how the relationship can be repaired. In the end, the US can console itself that if Afridi had been tried under Pakistani national law – not a tribal court – he could have faced the death penalty.

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