Symptom of Pak’s maladies

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The hounding of the doctor who helped the US catch Osama lays bare some harsh truths

Caught in a bind: The trust deficit between Pakistan and the US has become worse after the Abbottabad operation, Photo: AFP

IN 2002, Pakistani newspapers carried frontpage ads promising a multi-million dollar prize for anyone providing information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. In 2011, however, someone who did help in finding Osama is being put to trial for high treason. Dr Shakil Afridi, a health department official, who ran a fake vaccination campaign to confirm the al Qaeda chief’s presence in Abbottabad, may get death sentence if found guilty of what in Pakistan is seen as collaboration with a foreign power against the security and sovereignty of his own country.

A lot has indeed changed between then and now. The early intimacy and intensity of the combined Pakistani and American drive against al Qaeda in the early 2000s has been replaced by an impasse in the ties between Islamabad and Washington in which each side is accusing the other of duplicity and backstabbing. If nothing else, the tense Pakistan-US ties explain why the return for helping nab Osama has malformed from rich financial reward to a possible loss of life.

On a broader level, Dr Afridi and his circumstances symbolise the predicament that Pakistan is facing in its struggle against religious militancy on the one hand and its efforts to forge an equitable and dignified relationship with the US on the other. Most, if not all, in Pakistan agree that armed and violent religious and sectarian groups are a threat to the country’s security and stability. Though there is no consensus on how to deal with them, everyone seems to regard them as dangerous, barring a lunatic few. There is also a similar consensus that Pakistan doesn’t need to accept a conditional relationship with the US. Washington, not unlike the religion-inspired militants, is increasingly seen as a part of the problems afflicting Pakistan, rather than as a part of the solutions that it urgently requires in the fields of economy, energy, education and employment.

Perpetually threatened by violence in the name of religion and constantly squeezed under Washington’s selfish pursuit of its economic, diplomatic and strategic interests in Afghanistan in particular and South Asia in general, Pakistan is reacting in self-contradictory ways. It is in the context of such mutually conflicting expressions of public and private will that the recommendations to treat Dr Afridi without even so much as a modicum of leniency should be understood.

Political parties are even more acutely aware of remaining engaged with the West in general and the US in particular

Consider the case of soldiers and officials in the country’s military who have launched numerous violent challenges to their own institution and its leadership over the past decade or so. Air force and military officials were involved in multiple terrorist attacks on former president Pervez Musharraf, first in December 2003 and then in ’06 and ’07; a couple of mid-ranking army officers have been under detention and interrogation since 2009 for leaking sensitive information about an air force base to terrorist groups. In at least two most deadly terrorist attacks on extremely important military sites in 2009 and ’11, the attackers were getting information and help from inside the security forces.

MILITARY SPOKESMEN have confirmed that former and working soldiers and officers are being tried for the 2009 attack on the army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and a May 2011 ambush inside a naval base in Karachi. A high-ranking army officer, Maj Gen Ali Khan, is facing a court martial for his affiliation to banned religious organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir that regularly invites the military to overthrow the democratic government and establish an Islamic caliphate.

In the otherwise highly disciplined armed forces of Pakistan that have lost more soldiers and officers in the fight against religious militancy than all foreign forces put together have in neighbouring Afghanistan, such incidents are not just troubling. They are, in fact, emblems of dangerous ideological and policy faultlines within the security forces struggling with the double squeeze of mindlessly deadly religious violence and selfishly blinkered American policy towards Pakistan.

The other most visible manifestation of this double- layered straitjacket is the stance of the country’s political parties on issues such as the US drone strikes in Pakistan’s frontier regions, the ways and means to counter and curb religious militancy and Islamabad’s diplomatic and strategic relations with Washington.

Across the political spectrum, the American drone attacks are universally condemned as counterproductive and violating Pakistan’s territory and sovereignty. Only late last month, an officially convened conference of all political parties unanimously resolved to oppose and stop the drone attacks. The conference also declared that Pakistan was united behind its military against America’s real and perceived military, diplomatic and economic threats aimed at pushing Pakistan into action against certain Afghan militant groups. The participants also agreed that Pakistan needed to open dialogue with the Pakistani religious militant groups.

An almost similarly sounding joint parliamentary resolution in the wake of America’s successful operation in Abbottabad vowed to do whatever it took to stop similar breaches of the country’s security and sovereignty in the future without even so much as mentioning the man for whom the Americans had taken the risk of intruding into the Pakistani territory.

Many aspirants to political power regularly spew anti-America rhetoric to drum up electoral support — with cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan leading the pack. Rub the anti-America rhetorical flourishes of Pakistan’s politics and soon you realise that, barring a few lunatics, no one is advocating a head-on collision with Washington — not even Imran Khan. In fact, most politicians understand the need to have normal diplomatic ties with the US even when the most radical types among them suggest joining a supposed Iran-China-Russia alliance against the West. Political parties and leaders in power at the national and federal level are even more acutely aware of remaining engaged with the West in general and the US in particular.

Unsurprisingly, they praise the American drone strikes as the only effective tool against non-Pakistani militants hiding in safe havens along the AfPak border that are otherwise inaccessible and where Pakistani military is reluctant to launch a security operation.

If there is a single ideological thread running through all these self-perpetuating gaps between political rhetoric and private admission, it goes something like this: The US has always used Pakistan as a tissue paper; it has never really helped Pakistan in troubled times; and it is armtwisting Islamabad into submission to create a South Asia where India dominates everyone else and Afghanistan serves as its proxy. Such self-justifying anti-Americanism is pervasive in today’s Pakistan.

And it helps explain the curious case of Dr Afridi. By keeping the Pakistanis out of the loop on the Osama operation and then invading many hundred miles into Pakistani territory, the Americans are seen to have betrayed Pakistan’s trust and backstabbed a State that is at the forefront of the US’ war against terrorism. This is, however, not the first time that Washington is perceived as having given preference to a cold calculation of its interest over the need to keep Pakistan in good cheer.

Compare this with the time when bilateral ties were not as tense. Pakistani agencies then worked closely with their American counterparts to nab scores of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and dispatch them to Guantanamo Bay, but no one was ever criticised, let alone arrested and tried over collaboration with a foreign power. In fact, as Musharraf acknowledged in his book, In the Line of Fire, millions of dollars flowed to Pakistani individuals and institutions as a reward from Washington, no questions asked, no names mentioned.

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