Dr Afridi’s effect on polio eradication

Polio drops given to a child

With the story going through so many changes so quickly, the truth about Dr Afridi’s case is cloudier than ever. One thing is clear, though – Dr Afridi did engage in one indefensible act: Using a critical healthcare programme as cover for his activities. Unfortunately, in expressing concern about Afridi’s willingness to risk the credibility of his work, we are forgetting that even this is part of the real threat to healthcare in the country – extremism and conspiracy theories.

It is widely accepted that Dr Afridi was running a fake polio vaccination campaign. What is not clear at this time is whether the polio vaccines were fake, or just the programme he claimed to be part of. This matters quite a deal – what prevents polio is the vaccine, not the programme. If the vaccines were real, the doctor could at least be forgiven for improving prevention, even if under false circumstances.

The real threat to polio prevention programmes, though, is not that people are concerned that they are being given treatments that won’t work – it’s that they believe these treatments are part of a dangerous conspiracy against them. And they didn’t get this idea from Dr Afridi, they got it from extremists.

Underlying those factors [preventing polio eradication], however, is an intense mistrust among some Pakistanis for the vaccines and the people who supply and administer them. Radical clerics seed rumors that vaccines are un-Islamic because they are made from substances derived from pigs, or that they cause infertility. Some clerics try to convince parents that polio vaccines are made from the urine of Satan.

The reluctance by some Pakistanis to trust polio vaccination programs is also driven by a belief that the U.S. is behind the campaigns. Anti-American sentiments are more fervent than ever in the country, stoked this year by the case of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who shot to death two Pakistanis in Lahore in January, as well as by President Obama’s decision to not inform Pakistani leaders in advance about the U.S. operation against Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad in May.

Before anyone had ever heard of Dr Afridi, they were already being told not to accept polio vaccines because of crazy conspiracy theories being spread by extremist Imams. Dr Afridi’s acts will be used by extremists to play to the irrational fears they have already planted, but Dr Afridi is not the source of the mistrust of polio vaccine.

Using a critical health care programme as cover for his activities was wrong – even prominent Americans are saying it was a mistake. But whether Dr Afridi is punished or not for this mistake, Pakistan will continue to be plagued by a disease wiped out in the developed world not because of Dr Afridi – not even because of the CIA. Our children will continue to die unnecessarily until we are willing to eradicate the plague of extremism that allows polio to spread. Until then, Dr Afridi is just a distraction.

Triple Jeopardy: The many trials of Dr Shakil Afridi

Shakil AfridiWhen it was first reported that Dr Shakil Afridi had worked with the CIA to locate Osama bin Laden, it didn’t take a law degree to understand that the doctor was in for a tough future. Actually, a law degree wouldn’t have helped at all. Feisel H Naqvi, partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court explained in fine detail that the conviction was neither legal nor “sensible”. As criticism of the conviction pour in, though, the doctor’s real troubles appear to have only begun.

Despite bad feelings about the way the Abbottabad raid was carried out, people felt equally sick about the way the doctor was whisked away to FATA, given a secret trial under FCR without any lawyer, and then sentenced to 33 years in prison. Analysts from across the political spectrum began to speak out against the lack of justice, and it began to look more like a scapegoating than a legitimate trial.

Then, a new type of report began to appear in the papers. Dr Afridi was described as “a hard-drinking womaniser who had faced accusations of sexual assault, harassment and stealing”. Anonymous “current and former Pakistani officials” said “his main obsession was making easy money”. As predicted, “US officials called the accusations character assassination”.

Now we are being told that Dr Afridi wasn’t sentenced for helping the CIA – he was sentenced for helping extremist militants!

The tribal court that convicted the doctor said his “love” for Mangal Bagh “was an open secret”.

It said the accused provided two million rupees ($22,000) to Lashkar-e-Islam and helped to provide medical assistance to militant commanders in Khyber.

So now we’re to believe that Dr Shakil Afridi was a hard-drinking, womanising, rapist, thief, swindler, CIA agent, extremist militant. It seems that no matter who you are, you now have a reason to want to see Shakil Afridi punished. How bloody convenient.

It’s quite well known that you’re supposed to convict someone in the media before you drag them into court and actually sentence them to prison (or worse). By the looks of it, the way Dr Afridi was rushed through the system, someone forgot to do the dirty work first and now they’re playing catch up.

Whether the doctor did something illegal and deserves to be punished has become beside the point, as the bumbling way his case is being handled now overshadows any question of whether he helped the wrong agency track down bin Laden. We are now being told that the tribal court recommended Dr Afridi “be produced before the relevant concerned court for further proceedings under the law” – this time, possibly, for treason under Article 6.

Dr Afridi was convicted in a secret trial, we were told, for helping the CIA. When people reacted poorly to the whole secret trial bit, we were told that it’s okay because he’s a real jerk. Now we’re told that he wasn’t really convicted of working to find terrorists, but of helping them, and he could face another trial for working with the CIA. After bungling it the first time, is someone trying to get another bite at the apple?

Life After the Salala Bombings

NATO protest

The recent NATO airstrike on two Pakistani military outposts near the village of Salala have triggered yet another flash point in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Officials in Islamabad have reportedly confirmed that at least 25 Pakistani soldiers were killed by strikes that involved both NATO helicopter gunships and fighter jets.

The cross-border incident has already claimed its first victims, as the U.S. subleased Shamsi airbase—a launching pad for drones flying over the tribal areas—and the crucial supply routes through Torkham to Western forces in Afghanistan have been sacrificed at the altar. Details of the strike are still shrouded in mystery however, but both U.S. and Pakistani officials have expressed concern over the ramifications the attack will have on the future of an already tumultuous relationship.

The United States and Pakistan have coped with crisis after crisis all year, from the Raymond Davis episode to the raid that killed Usama bin Laden. However, the recent air strike has brought Pakistani anger to a new apex especially since Pakistani blood now stains the soil. Some in Pakistan insist that this is the last straw and that rhetoric should be reinforced with action, implying the immediate severing of ties. But the partnership—as frustrating as it is—is durable and will remain firm into the foreseeable future. Essentially, after the smoke clears and the public diatribes are over, the U.S. and Pakistan will undoubtedly return to business as usual.

Given the Pakistani public’s rampant anti-Americanism, it is standard procedure for Pakistani representatives—both civilian and military—to publicly berate the U.S. when relations hit a critical point in order to preserve their domestic political support bases. Behind the scenes however, the U.S. and Pakistan acknowledge that they have vital overlapping interests including the neutralization of al Qaeda from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the survivability of the CIA drone program. Indeed, these are the nuances of the relationship that nullify the prospect of a full-blown amputation of cooperation between the two.

Both Washington and Islamabad share the ambition to once and for all eliminate al Qaeda from the South Asian region. The terror network, while at first focused mainly on the disillusion of Arab autocracies had no intention of targeting the Pakistani state until former president Musharraf pledged his unflinching support for the U.S.’s War on Terror. Left with no choice but to categorize Pakistan as a kafir state, al Qaeda began engineering the ideological cultivation of Pakistan’s tribal areas after it sought refuge there following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.1

Its greatest achievement was the creation of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella term used to represent a phalanx of radical Islamist militant groups sworn to destroy the Pakistani state and replace it with a system heavily influenced by Sharia law.2 The al Qaeda affiliated TTP is responsible for notable attacks such as the Marriot Hotel bombing in Islamabad that left 54 dead, at least 266 people injured, and a gaping crater sprawled out in the street, and the siege of Mehran Naval base in Karachi earlier this year. The South Asian Terror Portal has also linked the group to a slew of suicide bombings in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).

It is hard to believe that Pakistanis would shed a tear if the al Qaeda affiliated TTP were somehow dissolved. Indeed, the CIA’s drone program—operating out of Shamsi—located near the town of Washki in southwestern Pakistan—is tasked to do just that. In a deal forged during the Bush Administration, Pakistan agreed to allow U.S. drones to operate on its soil since it would assist in the killing of mutual enemies. These included senior al Qaeda members such as Sheikh Essa and TTP leader Baitullah Meshud, who was later incinerated along with his wife in 2008 by a Hellfire strike from a Predator. The U.S. was quick to accede and Pakistan has benefited from the vanquishing of its adversaries. In short, the Pakistanis want the drone program just as much as the U.S. does as long as it does not disrupt the operations of militants on the ISI payroll like Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Nazir. In essence, the Pakistani security establishment knows that the country needs the drones for its own security.

There is also little to fear from Pakistani demands for the CIA to vacate Shamsi and the subsequent closing of the cross-border supply routes. According to Jayshree Bajoria at the Council on Foreign Relations, the squeezing of U.S. assets does little harm to U.S. operations in South Asia. It is reasonable to assume that given the nadir of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship after JSOC’s foray in Abbottabad that the CIA has prepared for a possible eviction and will wage its drone war elsewhere with Pakistani approval. Naturally, the Pakistanis have demanded the CIA leave the base, not end the drones.

Tom Gjelten at National Public Radio (NPR) also reports that the U.S. is exploring alternate supply routes to Afghanistan. The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a series of routes from Europe across Central Asia that enter Afghanistan from the north, all avoid running through Pakistan.13 The NDN if successful, would help remove a critical piece of Pakistani leverage over the U.S.

Ultimately, while the death of Pakistani soldiers is tragic, the NATO attack on Salala is but a minor hiccup, leaving the crisis-laden partnership unscathed given the need for mutual cooperation on the counterterrorism front. In the coming days, a series of diplomatic meetings will likely cool Pakistan’s temperature and restore the alliance back to what it once was. Nonetheless, the U.S. and Pakistan are destined to experience these mishaps again and again.

1 Shahzad, Syed S., Inside al Qaeda and the Taliban, London: Pluto Press (2011) p. 8
2 Abbas, Hassan. “A Profile of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.” CTC Sentinel 1, No. 2 (January 2008)

The author is a Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He is currently working on a project detailing the history of US foreign policy towards Pakistan.

Latest Abbottabad lie – How stupid do they think we are?

I have to admit that I’ve been a bit skeptical of the Abbottabad commission from the very beginning. It took the Americans a few hours to carry out the operation, and it has taken months for the commission to even get started. It was clear from the start that certain people didn’t want any inquiry at all. But after all this, now I’m supposed to believe that we won’t learn anything because of…America?!?

According to the front page of yesterday’s Express Tribune, the US is trying to put a big foreign hand over the mouth of the Abbottabad commission.

“The US was in fact strongly against the very idea of any commission to investigate the Abbottabad incident,” said a security official, who chose to stay anonymous.

Of course, the American Embassy immediately rubbished such claims and Express Tribune had to publish a statement contradicting their anonymous report. But reading the original article it becomes apparent what the real problem is.

Intelligence agencies have been collecting evidence and all the relevant details that could provide leads on how the world’s most recognised face managed to live undetected in a garrison town for so long, said another official.

“The arrest of several local people who were working for the CIA is also helpful in finding the unanswered questions,” the official revealed.

The first paragraph says that the agencies are investigation how Osama managed to live in Pakistan. The second paragraph says they are arresting local people who helped the CIA catch him. How is arresting locals who may or may not have tipped CIA in 2011 going to help us learn how Osama got here in 2005?

The real issue is not how the US found him. The real issue is how Osama bin Laden got into Pakistan in the first place, and it’s the one issue nobody wants to talk about. Shireen Mazari screeches on TV about visas, but never asks who gave Osama bin Laden’s passport stamp. Ghairat Brigadiers (R, of course) give lengthy speeches about defending the national sovereignty, but they are silent about thousands of foreign jihadis are coming to our country and carrying out attacks against our own people.

Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan confesses that TTP was behind the attack on PNS Mehran, and what do I read in the newspaper? Politicians scoring cheap political points by blaming the US.

When Abbottabad operation happened, what was the story from the anonymous “security officials” and Ghairat Brigadiers (R)? For weeks it was nothing because they were caught with their pants down. Then the usual parade of clowns began filling my inbox with confused and contradictory conspiracy theories. It was a joint operation and the Americans are refusing to give us our due! No, it was an invasion! They snuck in when our radars were having a rest! No, the radars were on but the hills got in the way! Osama was already dead! No, he wasn’t dead, but he did not do 9/11 attacks! No he was killed and he put up a brave fight against the imperialist bastards! No he was killed and he didn’t put up a fight because he was an innocent old man!

No matter what, the problem is arrogant Amreeka! As a perfect example, Gen sahib actually managed to make all of these ridiculous statements together in less than two minutes.

And now this pathetic song and dance has been followed with this latest number claiming that if we don’t learn anything from the commission, it’s not our fault, once again it’s the American’s fault!

The only question for me is…how stupid do they think we are? The answer, I’m afraid, is very.

We Don’t Need To Import Other People’s Crazies

Robert Anderson is a professor at an American Community College, and was in the US Air Force 44 years ago. He claims that, while he was in Vietnam, he was ‘loaned’ to the CIA for covert work. He also says quite explicitly that he was “was not an official of the CIA”. Nevermind that small detail, his story is presented as if he were the head of CIA himself. Also, nevermind the fact that the only proof that Mr Robert Anderson was a covert agent of CIA in Vietnam was his own word.

I learned about Mr Robert Anderson from an interview published by Dr Awab’s blog. I read the interview and found myself laughing out loud. It was so silly I could not believe my eyes. It seemed to be published with no critical thinking perhaps because Dr Awab liked what he had to say. So what if he is a liar? Can you prove that he what he is saying isn’t true? Too many people seem to be willing to set aside all of their critical thinking and accept anything anyone tells us as long as it is what we want to hear.

What is funny is that Dr Awab also presents this interview  which was conducted by the blog Talkhaaba which has accused Pakistani bloggers of being “seized by the Ahmedis/athiests” and having the goal “to throw each and every true Muslim out of this state of Pakistan”. The blog even accuses Dr Awab specificially by name! This same blog has been a promoter of anti-American conspiracy theories for years now. So what should we expect from such a source?

Actually calling this an “interview” is a stretch of the imagination. What sort of interviewer asks a question like this:

Given the capability of Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan, some defense analysts assert that terrorist attacks in Pakistan can’t be carried out by Taliban; instead these are planned and perpetrated by CIA? In the light of your experience in Laos, can you endorse and substantiate this assertion?

Of course, Mr Robert Anderson answers that “It is possible but I don’t know any details”. Nevermind that this man admits he was never a CIA official and has never stepped one foot in Pakistan and admits that he doesn’t know any details. IT’S GOOD ENOUGH! An American who was in the military and claims to have been secretly loaned to the CIA almost half a century ago says it is possible!

Mr Robert Anderson also points people to another American named John Perkins. Mr Perkins wrote a famous book with the title, ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’. A friend loaned me a battered copy several years ago and told me that if I read this book I would learn the truth. I did read it, and it had a big effect on me. How could it not? An exciting story about secret plots to create chaos, control weak government, and take over the world through economic sabotage! Exciting stuff!

But once you set aside the drama and look at what Mr Perkins actually claims, there’s not much there. And what is there doesn’t make any sense. Don’t take my word for it, either. Sebastian Mallaby who is an expert in global economics termed Mr Perkins “a frothing conspiracy theorist, a vainglorious peddler of nonsense” and thoroughly debunked his ‘confessions’ back in 2006.

Also, this isn’t the only book that John Perkins has written. He has also written a book called ‘Shape Shifting’ that examines “the actual transformation of a human being into another living creature”. That’s right, this man who was supposedly a top secret agent of the US wrote a book about humans transforming themselves into plants and animals. Really.

This is what makes me so mad that my head hurts. Dr Awab and a lot of other people who buy the non sense being peddled by these conspiracy nuts are TOO SMART FOR THIS. But time after time I see people ignoring their basic common sense and believing any lunatic who says something that they want to hear – NO PROOFS REQUIRED!

I’m not asking you to believe one way or the other about America or Raymond Davis or drones or anything else. I’m just asking you to THINK FOR YOURSELF. Just because someone is an American, it doesn’t mean they are an authority on anything. People in American build careers from cheap conspiracy theories just like people do here. For every Zaid Hamid or Ahmed Quraishi, the Americans have their own guy just like him. We have plenty of our own crazies, we don’t need to import other people’s, too.