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VIEW: A Dodgy Doctor and some Stodgy Elders

By: Afrah Jamal

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 09, 2012

(Published with a wrong Pix..that's not me..hope it gets fixed on Daily Times site soon)

Update: (Pix on DT website Fixed. Thanks DT)
& when they revamped the site in 2014, the wrong pix was uploaded again. Ah well. i tried.

Minor aftershocks from the Abbottabad raid when they hit tend to put a damper on the Pak-US relationship. Of the two actors to receive star billing in that operation, one is dead, and the other is behind bars. The sequel featuring a dodgy doctor may not have the same raw appeal as the Osama liquidation original but it does offer up some stirring moments from the shadowy world of espionage.

Shakeel Afridi comes highly recommended by the agency (not our own) and government officials (again not our own). The revelation about the good doctor’s duplicity has unnerved many the same way the wicked terrorist’s discovery by the US SEALs team did. Notwithstanding ringing endorsements by friends, family (or handlers), the Afridi affair now poses an interesting PR challenge for an embattled Pakistan. While the United States wants to award the man who helped purge the world of Osama bin Laden with rare Congressional medals and US citizenship, Pakistan has something a little different in mind.

Morality automatically assumes a darker shade when in the shadowy realm of espionage. Peter Taylor’s excellent two part series Modern Spies delves into this world of myth and shadow, offering an unprecedented access to some real life Bournes & Bonds, and aspects of modern day spycraft. In between these fascinating encounters, some less than savoury characters ‘turned’ into assets also pop up alongside a recurring theme of how far nations are willing to go to protect their national interests.

The CIA relies on informants in its infamous drone war and maybe they struck gold with the doctor, but not every partnership ends on a high note. There are stories where local assets have allegedly sold out innocents for $ 5,000. Afridi’s role in taking out the mastermind of a terrorist organisation no doubt earned him brownie points but given that they cannot be cashed without him admitting to breaking a fundamental law of the land, makes his contribution difficult to grade. Before he turned informer, he spent a busy few years reportedly providing medical assistance and overcharging injured Taliban warriors, and being taken to task for said overcharging. Sordid details from the good doctor’s past life might be a turn off but are unlikely to affect his usefulness as an asset.

Tony Letford, a Sydney-based freelance writer makes some compelling arguments in ‘What the Afridi case says about Pakistan’ about Pakistan’s paranoia and misplaced priorities, its fondness for scapegoats and a penchant for putting its foot in all the wrong places. And the way the case has been handled so far sadly affirms these withering assessments. However, he misses the point when he opines that an informer “got 33 years in the slammer not because he committed treason but because he, unwittingly, helped to show that the Pakistani authorities were incapable of finding the most wanted terrorist in history despite that fact that he had been sitting under their noses for five years.”

Granted, finding Afridi’s name listed in the prequel to the bin Laden saga would not endear him to the local intelligence agencies; however, leaving him at the mercy of an archaic justice system would be misconstrued as vendetta. Since this is not some medieval fantasy, putting the doctor’s fate in the hand of Elders raises eyebrows at the absence of Pakistan’s state institutions from history’s most important junctures. Elders do not have the best track record, especially in honour-related cases. Then there is that confounding number — 33.

These incomprehensible aspects of the Pakistani justice system tend to flood the narrative and one can forget that Pakistan’s grievance against the doctor has a real basis. Thanks to Afridi and a mutual case of distrust, the Americans beat Pakistanis to the Osama punchline and since the complicit/incompetence debate has never been resolved satisfactorily, the doctor will remain a subject of Pakistani ire.

That said, the act of pulling that jaw-dropping number from the jirga hat could never be condoned for it infringes upon every citizen’s right — even for an informant like Shakeel Afridi. Trying to make Doc's charge sheet more interesting by hastily photo shopping a sordid back-story onto his new CIA identity does not strengthen the case against him. It merely underscores all that is wrong with the system. The criminal justice system is hardly perfect and the anti-terrorism court just made news by acquitting the four accused of aiding and abetting one Faisal Shahzad, the failed NY Times Square bomber. Sadly, in the absence of a reliable justice department, honour-obsessed jirgas flourish.

Now that Afridi is conveniently accused of courting militants in addition to moonlighting for the CIA, rolling back his conviction will take some nifty footwork. The authorities can start refilling the empty credibility coffers by ensuring Afridi’s safety for starters, since the Taliban are baying for his blood. Getting him a fair representation would also be nice. He may be a polarising figure who put vaccination drives in this region in jeopardy and broke a simple commandant: ‘Thou shall not collude with a foreign intelligence agency.’ But prosecuting one man without rooting out the local network that helped conceal the bin Laden clan would be grossly unfair.

The Abbottabad intrusion highlights the abysmal failures of the intelligence/security apparatus. If that one incident left Pakistan’s credibility in tatters, the subsequent attack on a Pakistani check post by NATO forces is responsible for the rapidly plummeting levels of goodwill; the recent conviction of Afridi has led to a sudden spike in the US’s belligerence towards its strategic ally.

There may be several arguments that can be made in the doctor’s favour. That he did not know he was on the CIA’s payroll; that he was a minor player in a major production or that he remained unaware of the identity of the actual target. As investigative reporter Umar Cheema’s report reveals, having taped Osama’s most trusted courier, “Shakeel handed over his cell phone as well as the tape to Peter (CIA contact)...But, for some reason, decided to also make a copy of the taped conversation for himself as well...that was later taken over by ISI.” Anyone wily enough to cover his back must have suspected something big was afoot even if he did not know that the head puppeteer of the al Qaeda was behind that unmarked door. His role, while small, was significant; that particular piece of evidence was the final nail in bin Laden’s coffin. The voice recording captured by our friendly neighbourhood informer was an essential piece of the puzzle painstakingly completed through the aid (unwitting or otherwise) of the local intelligence agencies. Note that foreign agencies can ‘collude’ with each other, locals cannot.

This is one case where a mere rap on the knuckles won’t do. Treason, or the scarier sounding ‘high treason’ “is an act of treachery or breach of faith against one’s own country.” The truth is that Pakistan never really recovered from the events of May 2, 2011. The spectre of the stealth raid continues to haunt the region and the toxic fallout from the Shakeel Afridi case might take a while to dissipate. Despite what his brother says, Afridi is no patriot. Despite what the world says, this is no hero. And despite what the Elders have decided, the dodgy doctor from Khyber deserves a day in those hopelessly flawed courts instead of the fatally flawed jirgas.

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