These days Pakistan’s relations with America are going through an interesting phase. The election season in both the countries is casting its shadows on bilateral dealings. The leadership of the two countries is playing to the public sentiment, consumed by rhetoric on non-issues. Narratives and counter-narratives are making the landscape hazy, yet discernible.
The American rage over the punishment of a Pakistani doctor, who ran a fictitious vaccination campaign at the CIA’s behest, is also motivated by the short-term advantages of playing to the gallery. The strategy is similar to the one adopted during the Raymond Davis saga. The difference that is being overlooked is that Davis was an American; whereas, Dr Shakil Afridi is a Pakistani.
The Americans - of all shades - are crying foul that a Pakistani tribal court has awarded a 33-year prison sentence to Dr Afridi, who secretly worked for the CIA to find Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil. The logic behind this is that by punishing Dr Afridi for the “crime” of helping the US find Osama, Pakistan has revealed that it sympathises with al-Qaeda and is hostile to America. Some of the headlines are, indeed, mischievous: “National Public Radio screamed: ‘33 Years In Prison For Pakistani Doctor Who Aided Hunt For Bin Laden’.” Likewise, the New York Times captioned: “Prison Term for Helping CIA Find Bin Laden.” Such narratives are inaccurate and, hence, misleading.
Dr Afridi has gone through a judicial process; he was referred for trial on charges of high treason by the Abbottabad Commission, headed by a very capable and well reputed judge of the Supreme Court. He has been sentenced by a trial court and his right of appeal and mercy petition have not even been consumed. America’s argument, if taken on face value, suggests a dangerous proposition. The US is, indeed, trying to lay its claim over the primary loyalty of Pakistani citizens. Pakistan’s point of view is that Dr Afridi was obliged to share this information with the local authorities, rather than keeping it to him and his American paymasters.
A report by The Guardian portrays how Dr Afridi betrayed the noble cause of his profession and what did the US achieve. It says: “While the vaccine doses themselves were genuine, the medical professionals involved were not following the procedures. In an area called Nawa Sher, they did not return a month after the first dose to provide the required second batch. Instead, according to local officials and residents, the team moved on.” By doing so, numerous Pakistani children, who thought they were being vaccinated against Hepatitis B, were in fact left exposed to the virus!
Pakistan’s healthcare agencies have traditionally faced an uphill task in convincing the locals of Fata and other rural areas that the vaccines they want to administer to their children are genuine, rather than “Western drives to infertile the children for reducing the number of Muslims in the world.” Such suspicions have prevented the eradication of polio and the containment of other preventable diseases in many areas of Pakistan.
Being from the tribal area, these socio-cultural inhibitions must have been well home to Dr Afridi, yet he became a tool for perpetuating such perceptions. McKenna recently commented that this fake CIA vaccination programme was “a cynical attempt to hijack the credibility that public health workers have built up over decades with local populations” and thus “endangered the status of the fraught polio-eradication campaign, which over the past decade has been challenged in Muslim- majority areas in Africa and South Asia over beliefs that polio vaccination is actually a covert campaign to harm Muslim children.”
An organisation, known as Doctors Without Borders, has also condemned the CIA and Dr Afridi for their “grave manipulation of the medical act” that will cause “vulnerable communities - anywhere - needing access to essential health services [to] understandably question the true motivation of medical workers and humanitarian aid.......The potential consequence is that even basic healthcare, including vaccination, does not reach those who need it most.”
It is unfortunate that Hillary feels the pain of Dr Afridi, but is indifferent to the fate of children who could fall victim to a US-sponsored act of chemical and biological warfare, carried out through his services. Rumour has it that the Americans have clandestinely pumped in Rs 50 crore or so in the domestic media to mould Pakistan’s public perceptions in favour of Dr Afridi. If true, it would be another act of American high-handedness towards the Pakistani people.
These days, the second hype against Pakistan is of missing persons. It was drummed up through the congressional hearing on Balochistan by the House Committee chaired by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who has also introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to confer Dr Afridi with US citizenship. In the good old days, successive Pakistani governments, both civilian and military, have been executing proxy arrests and then rendering these unfortunate Pakistanis over to America for petty gains. Now a misperception has been created among the public that a large number of innocent people are apprehended and detained by the law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan is doing a commendable job by exerting its authority to recover the missing persons. It would be worthwhile if the honourable court releases the authentic figures of the missing persons to put an end to the speculative presentation of this sensitive humanitarian issue impinging upon fundamental rights.
Yet another pressure point is about Pakistan’s alleged complicity in letting the transportation of raw materials used in the IEDs across the Pak-Afghan border without a check. However, a recent authentic study, titled IED Sufferings in AfPak, indicates that Pakistan has suffered due to the IEDs more (2,707 soldiers) than the coalition forces’ losses, combined together (1,188). The report also highlights Pakistan’s continued efforts to stem the cross-border movement of raw materials used in these devices.
In all probability, well wishers of durable and sustainable Pak-US relations will have to wait until the elections in both these countries throw up freshly mandated governments. Until then, one has to live with day-to-day fireworks, because ‘anti-America’ sells well in Pakistan; and Pakistan bashing fascinates Americans. So, expect more fiction and fewer facts!
n The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.