The government of Pakistan is currently holding in custody Dr. Shakeel Afridi, a physician accused of treason, and is threatening to try and execute him. The action for which the treason is alleged is the assistance that Dr. Afridi provided to the CIA in its successful efforts to locate, target, and assassinate Usama bin Laden, who was hiding, more or less openly, in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.
The pretext on which Dr. Afridi was operating was what the Los Angeles Times, among other sources, labeled a “phony vaccination campaign” that had the apparent purpose of innoculating Pakistanis against various diseases but which was more focused on obtaining a DNA sample of bin Laden to confirm his identity. Dr. Afridi was the physician who was conducting these vaccinations as a ruse and was instrumental in pinpointing the location of bin Laden. As such, he was clearly acting as the agent of a foreign intelligence agency (the CIA), which constitutes espionage but not necessarily treason, particularly as alleged by the government of Pakistan. Definitions of treason–and more specifically high treason–which the Pakistani government specifies against Dr. Afridi, normally includes “betrayal” of one’s own country and consciously working with the government’s enemies to harm or overthrow the government. Working for the CIA could be considered betrayal of the country if one assumes that the United States is the enemy of Pakistan; it is hard to understand how this allegation can be leveled against someone working for an ally of Pakistan, which the United States presumably is supposed to be. Moreover, it is hard to make the intellectual leap to this collusion and some action intended to harm or overthrow the government of Pakistan, unless bin Laden is somehow an important part of that government, which he was not. Something, as the old saying goes, is rotten in Denmark.
The case of the vaccimation doctor is, in fact, a parable, and yes, a strange one, of U.S.-Pakistani relations generally. The United States and Pakistan are allegedly partners, have even been formal allies, and are supposedly united in the common quest to act in unison against terrorists and those who would destabilize and overthrow Afghanisan’s regime. Yet the Pakistani government treats the United States virtually as an enemy when it comes to the execution of actions designed to carry out their joint mission, such as assassinating bin Laden.
There are, of course, good reasons for the apparent anomaly represented by this situation that act as a parable for the future of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. One can accept the idea that Dr. Afridi did in fact violate Pakistani laws in working for the CIA and that Pakistan has a right to try and punish transgressors. It is also true that the harshness of the charges and possible consequences of a trial for treason are harsh, arguably excessive, and that they will further alienate a U.S. government that has been less than delighted with Pakistani attitudes about the bin Laden operation all along. Try to find someone in the U.S. government, for instance, who believes nobody in the Pak government knew absolutely anything about where bin Laden was hiding “in plain sight” in the home of Pakistan’s military service academy. You won’t find many takers.
Presumably, Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Servcie Intelligence (ISI) is up to its neck in all this. ISI acts as a lone ranger in carrying out what it believes to be Pakistan’s best interests, and these often conflict with those of the United States. ISI created the Taliban, after all, and is not going to abandon them, since it believes they are a counterweight to Indian influence in Afghanistan. ISI is also up to its ears in terrorism, including the training and dispatch of Kashmiri “freedome fighters” and others in the badlands provinces of Pakistan (NW Province, FATA, etc.) along the Afghan border. Their self-perceived interests and hose of the United States could scarcely be farther apart, and that is not a condition likely to change anytime soon.
The upshot is that the United States and Pakistan are at effective odds on a range of mutual interests that their papered over comity cannot hide. Pakistanis complain consistently about US intrusion in their country through missions against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by American drones and the like. The Pakistanis complain these are violations of Pakistani sovereignty, which they are, but mostly it is posturing for the purpose of impressing anti-American sentiment against Americans. Americans, for their part, wonder why the United States continues to funnel assistance to a regime and people who not only do not like us much, but who also oppose our objectives in the region. There are no simple and compelling answers to that dilemma.
The parable becomes more and more relevant as the United States moves inexorably toward disengagement in Afghanistan. What the United States and Pakistan see as the future of a post-American Afghanistan are not, to put it mildly, identical. Pakistan wants a weak, pro-Pakistani government in Kabul, one that will pose no threat to Islamabad, and this means a government that is also anti-Indian. The Indians, unsurprisingly, want and are working toward the opposite outcome: a pro-Indian, anti-Pakistani Afghanistan that will help in the encirclement of Pakistan. The Paks thus want a postwar Afghanistan where the Pashtuns–and especially those with some affiliation with the Taliban–are well placed, whereas the Indians prefer that power effectively reside with non-Pashtuns. The United States wants a stable postwar Afghanistan that is resistant to terrorist reimposition, thereby reinforcing the notion the U.S. has actually accomplished something positive in the country. What the Afghans want is largely beside the point.
As the American involvement starts to wind down in Afghanistan and the players begin to jostle for position, the contradictions in what the outsiders want in Afghanistan will become more apparent, and one prominent aspect of that posturing that will be a victim is the fiction that the United States and Pakistan see eye-to-eye on these matters. Just ask Dr. Afridi, if you can find the prison cell in which he is apparently being held largely incognito by our allies.