OVER A COFFEE: The 33 million dollar man — Dr Haider Shah
Some analysts have suggested that Afridi has become an icon of the troubled relations between the US and Pakistan and his captors will use his incarceration as a bargaining chip
Judging by frequent loss of lives from terrorist incidents, sectarian violence, target killings, family feuds and fatal accidents, one may get a feeling that in Pakistan, human life has hardly any value. But at least one Pakistani certainly has a huge price tag, reminding me of my childhood days’ popular television series, the Six Million Dollar Man. This man has caused the US to announce a cut of a whopping $ 33 million from aid to Pakistan. Yes, Shakil Afridi is our multi-million dollar man.
The handling of Mr Afridi reminds me of the famous story of Shaikh Saadi, which is about a villager who enters a town and comes across a few stray dogs that bark menacingly at him. The villager tries to pick up a stone but finds it firmly stuck in the ground. He vents his anger saying, ‘What a strange town this is. Dogs are free and stones are bound here.’ International observers see the case of Osama bin Laden and Shakil Afridi not much differently. In almost all major newspapers of the world, the story of Shakil Afridi has appeared very prominently in the last few days.
The Washington Post in an editorial calls Afridi a victim of US-Pakistan tensions and poignantly asks, “How could Pakistan sentence someone to 33 years in prison for helping track down Osama bin Laden?” It makes a reference to Sherry Rehman’s apologetic defence wherein she had equated Shakil Afridi’s case with that of Jonathan Pollard who is serving a prison term for spying for Israel. The editorial argues that Pollard had provided sensitive documents to Israel while Shakil had not done anything of a similar nature. On the contrary, he had just helped the US track down a mass murderer that Pakistan was also bound, under the UN resolutions, to do everything in its power to apprehend. The paper wonders why Afridi has not been treated as a hero who played some role in eliminating a character that had brought a bad name to Pakistan.
The Daily Mail claims that Afridi was offered passage to the US after the Osama operation but he had refused the offer. The Guardian in its report focuses upon the surprising charges of linkage with the militant Lashkar-e-Islam group. It is of the opinion that since treason charges were too weak, the colonial times Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) system was used to award a 33 year prison term on the charge of helping a militant group when Afridi was working as a doctor in the tribal region. The spokesperson of the militant group has denied any such linkage with the doctor and instead has announced it will take revenge from the imprisoned doctor.
Some analysts have suggested that Afridi has become an icon of the troubled relations between the US and Pakistan and his captors will use his incarceration as a bargaining chip. In the absence of access to what goes on behind closed doors, analysts make inferences from events as they happen. One possible explanation for keeping bin Laden in Abbottabad was that at the most suitable time, Pakistani negotiators wanted to use him as a bargaining chip to gain extraordinary favours from the US. Frustrated by loss of such an important asset, they now want to use the saboteur of those plans for the same purpose. If Raymond Davis can be handed over in a single night, we should not be surprised to see the same thing happening in the case of Afridi when the right deal is reached. Hillary Clinton has already made a strong demand for the release of Afridi and the US Senate Armed Services Committee has made aid to Pakistan conditional to the doctor’s release. Like NATO’s supply route, the Afridi case is also bound to become another thorny issue in the already troubled Pakistan-US relations.
The timing of the Political Agent’s verdict is quite awkward. On the one hand, the PPP-led coalition government has been making tall claims about modernising FATA and abolishing its wilderness reputation, but on the other hand, it used the FCR to prosecute an accused for an alleged crime that was not committed inside FATA. ‘I am Caesar, I am the law’ seems to be the course that was adopted from the stage of arresting to the point of condemning the accused without proper access to due process.
Another aspect of the bad timing of the verdict is the message that we send out to the international community. Just a week ago, NATO concluded its conference in Chicago where besides Europe, Afghanistan was the main topic of concern. All NATO members were looking towards Pakistan with suspicious eyes, demanding a clearer policy towards India and Afghanistan. Worryingly, the Afridi episode will send out a very potent message to the world that anyone who defies the ‘boss’ and tries to help the US will attract the wrath of the boss. It is like telling the world that we are not much different from Somalian pirates. We shall use humans as hostages to secure aid and other facilities from the US and her allies. Neither Somalian pirates have earned a good name for demanding ransoms, nor are we earning respect by resorting to this blackmailing-based foreign policy, time and again.
Faced with a power shortage crisis and budgetary imbalance, perhaps it is in our national interest to ease pressures on our sustainability by sending out positive messages to the international community. The multimillion-dollar doctor can prove our man of crisis, provided rational and pragmatic decision making frees us from a strategic paradigm that has outlived its utility.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org