The capture and killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 spelled the decline, though not doom, of al-Qaida. It was a victorious moment for the United States in its war on terrorism — the result of a daring special-forces operation, and just retribution against a mastermind of mass murder and an archenemy of freedom.
The U.S. Navy Seals won deserved credit for ridding the world of bin Laden, and President Barack Obama deserved recognition for ordering a mission that, had it failed, would have cost further American casualties and been a setback for his administration.
What is not widely known is that the heroic endeavor might not have been possible without the help of Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor, who pinpointed the terrorist’s hideout through a ruse to obtain DNA samples from bin Laden’s family by means of a bogus vaccination program.
One would have assumed that Afridi would be in line for grateful recognition by his home country for risking his life to help catch bin Laden. But that is where the tale of justice served ends and a tale of injustice takes over.
Not only was Afridi not accorded the status of hero, he was treated as a suspected traitor and thrown into prison, where he has languished since 2011. To complete the bizarre inversion of reality, Afridi, who tracked the most infamous of terrorists, was himself accused of aiding and abetting terrorists in the Khyber tribal region. Even the Taliban have dismissed such charges as ludicrous.
Furthermore, he has been denied access to his lawyer since 2012; his wife and children are the only visitors allowed. For two years his file “disappeared,” delaying a court appeal. The appeal still awaits, as the courts now say a prosecutor is unavailable, his lawyer, Qamar Nadeem Afridi, told The Associated Press.
The reason for the delays appears to be that Pakistani authorities indeed do not wish to put him on trial. For that would likely expose details of the bin Laden raid, and possibly state collusion with al-Qaida and the Taliban that the Pakistanis would find embarrassing,
Pakistan would prefer that Afridi just go away; and so they have effectively “disappeared him” from the public scene and blocked him from obtaining legal redress.
Why is Pakistan behaving in a way that appears to defy all justice and logic?
While there may not be any justice, there is some logic to it. From the Pakistani point of view, the elimination of Osama bin Laden was not the shining moment that it was for the Americans. On the contrary, it has been viewed there with resentment, as a humiliating intrusion into internal Pakistani affairs, typical of arrogant Westerners trampling on the national sovereignty.
It is also symptomatic of the broader pathology of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. As Michael Kugelman, Asia program deputy director at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, put it: “The Shakil Afridi saga is the perfect metaphor for U.S-Pakistan relations” — a foreign entanglement of mistrust and miscommunication that threatens to jeopardize the struggle against terrorism. In other words, Afridi is a victim of a diplomatic dilemma that has so far defied solution.
The United States is not oblivious to the Afridi case. President Donald Trump took up Afridi’s plight during the 2016 presidential campaign when he said that he would get him out of prison in “two minutes. … Because we give a lot of aid to Pakistan.”
More recently, as president, he has acted to bring Pakistan into compliance with U.S. interests. He decided to withhold $225 million of the $33 billion the country receives in aid because, in Mr. Trump’s words, Pakistan gives only “deceit and lies” in return, while providing material support to Afghan insurgents who attack American soldiers in neighboring Afghanistan.
This may be perfectly legitimate, and makes obvious sense to Americans. But in Pakistan, the reaction has not been to pledge undying loyalty to America. On the contrary, Islamabad takes umbrage at such criticism, pointing out that, since 2001, their country has suffered more than the United States from terrorism, sustaining tens of thousands of casualties. To top it off, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif insisted that his country does not need the U.S. aid.
The United States is not giving up. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells reportedly brought Afridi’s case up in recent meetings in Pakistan. The U.S. State Department told the AP that Afridi has not been forgotten.
“We believe Dr. Afridi has been unjustly imprisoned and have clearly communicated our position to Pakistan on Dr. Afridi’s case, both in public and in private,” State said.
For the time being, Pakistan is refusing to listen. But the United States must persevere, at least until Afridi’s case is given a fair hearing. Justice demands it; humanity demands it.
Furthermore, effective conduct of foreign policy demands it. For it must be made clear to America’s friends and enemies — and those in-between, who cannot seem to decide which side they are on — that just as America pursues its enemies to the ends of the Earth, it stands by its allies until justice is done.