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. 

Mohammad Sajjad/AP
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.
Qazi Rauf/AP/File
Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi is shown in this July 2010 file photo.

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.

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.

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.

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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