Pakistan government expels Save the Children staff for alleged ties to CIA

The aid group, Save the Children, is accused of being used as a cover for the CIA while it was hunting for Osama bin Laden.

Pakistani authorities gave Save the Children's six foreign staffers four weeks to leave the country after alleging that the aid agency had some connection to the Pakistani doctor recruited by the CIA to help track down Osama bin Laden.

The US credited Shakil Afridi with leading a fake vaccination campaign in Abottabad that helped the CIA confirm Mr. bin Laden's identity last March. Dr. Alfridi was subsequently sentenced to 33 years in prison by a tribal court for his role. His conviction became a point of tension between the US and Pakistan as relations between the two reached a nadir. 

Now, authorities are pointing the finger at Save the Children, citing a Pakistani intelligence report where Afridi described first meeting the CIA in 2009 at a dinner party hosted by the then country director of Save the Children, Michael McGrath. There is no clear evidence that proves Mr. McGrath knew who he was introducing Alfridi to. 

Some analysts say the eviction deflects attention from a potentially embarrassing investigation addressing the elephant in the room, namely: How could bin Laden have been living in Abottabad, the military garrison town without government or military knowledge?

“This is Pakistan, and where there is smoke the security establishment will definitely find fire. There could have been a more nuanced approach. But the security establishment tends to act quickly on smaller issues that they feel threaten their direct interests rather than big and serious ones,” says Cyril Almeida, a journalist at Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.

Save the Children, the largest international aid organization in Pakistan, has been in the country for more than 30 years providing relief to children and families affected by disasters and civil conflict. Though six foreign aid workers have been evicted, some 2,000 local staff will continue their operations in the country.

Rumors about Save the Children's alleged involvement in helping the CIA recruit Afridi have long circulated in the international and Pakistani press. The aid agency has been scrutinized since reports on Afridi's allegations were circulated in May 2011. All international aid organizations have a history of being watched with suspicion, especially by locals in tribal agencies where drone attacks take place.

Save the Children has repeatedly denied playing any role in aiding or abetting Afridi's involvement with the CIA.

The eviction comes amid a wider public dissatisfaction with what is seen as US breach of Pakistan's sovereignty, from the CIA agent Raymond Davis who killed two Pakistanis in the cultural capital of Lahore, to drone attacks in the tribal agencies, and the Navy SEAL operation that killed bin Laden and visas issued to American intelligence agents since Sept.11.

On the heels of such dissatisfaction and rising questions regarding just why bin Laden was found in Abottabad, the government set up the Abottabad Commission, tasked with investigating the circumstances surrounding bin Laden's death. The details of the report have yet to be released.

Mr. Almeida says the Abottabad Commission is “nothing but an eyewash that is friendly to the establishment” and points out that the government seems far more effective in evicting aid workers than uncovering what actually happened.

Save the Children will have to clear their own name at this point, says Ejaz Haider, a senior political analyst at the Sustainable Policy Development Institute in Islamabad. “The bottom line is that an international NGO has been implicated in a foreign intelligence sting operation,” he says.  Mr. Haider argues that Save the Children should “sue the CIA in American courts and Afridi in Pakistani courts to clear their name.”

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