The latest in a long-string of problems in US-Pakistan relations is the sentencing of Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, to 33 years in prison for treason. And what, exactly, was the treasonous act? Afridi allegedly participated in the intelligence operation that led to the takedown of Osama bin Laden last May.
And just when you thought US-Pakistan relations couldn’t get rockier!
The relationship was already plagued by the Pakistani government’s embarrassment-- and anger--over not being advised in advance about the SEAL assault into bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad last year.
In addition, Islamabad objects to American drone strikes in its tribal areas; is sore over the Ray Davis case; and still seethes about the fire fight last November that led to the death of some 20 Pakistani soldiers along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Washington is troubled by how Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network are able to use Pakistani tribal areas for launching operations into Afghanistan, complicating the war effort for US and Coalition forces fighting there.
Many experts consider the sanctuary for insurgents and terrorists in the Pakistan’s tribal areas to be the most vexing problem facing Afghanistan today—and in the future.
Pakistan has also closed southern supply routes into Afghanistan since last November’s border incident, causing a reported six-fold increase in the cost of moving supplies to US and Coalition forces. Supplies must now be routed through Russia and Central Asia.
While negotiations to open the southern routes are ongoing, Pakistan has reportedly asked for a fee of some $5,000 for each transiting truck. The request has shifted the trucking talks from “drive” into “neutral.”
Indeed, President Obama decided to forego a formal meeting with Pakistani President Zardari over the matter earlier this week while both were at the NATO Summit in Chicago. He opted, instead, for a short meeting on the sidelines of the confab.
Of course, the doctor himself is likely a victim of these diminished ties between the two “partners.” He is being portrayed as a “traitor” for aiding a foreign intelligence service—and being made an example of by the powerful Pakistani intelligence services.
Afridi’s punishment is meant to deter others from cooperating with outside powers. His sentencing is a shot across the bow of the United States, as well—a symbol of Pakistan’s displeasure with the state of ties.
Pakistan’s pique will not go unanswered by the United States. The sentencing of Afridi has led some to call for cutting aid to Pakistan, which receives more than $2 billion a year in economic and military assistance from the United States. In fact, the Associated press reports, "a Senate panel expressed its outrage Thursday over Pakistan's conviction of a doctor who helped the United States track down Usama bin Laden, cutting aid to Islamabad by $33 million — $1 million for every year of the physician's 33-year sentence for high treason."
Washington can demand Afridi’s release on the grounds that he did both Pakistan and the United States—indeed, the world—a great service by helping to bring bin Laden to justice.
One of the world’s most terror-afflicted countries—with more than 30,000 terrorism-related deaths over the last decade—Pakistan, should be receptive to this message. Unfortunately, Islamabad will almost surely remain deaf to such calls. Pride and nationalism tend to trump reason.
That is regrettable, as both Pakistan and the United States still have significant challenges in South Asia, dealing with violent extremism and putting Afghanistan on a steady and productive path.
Fortunately, there is no reason that Islamabad can’t come to its senses on this issue, realizing—as it once did--that we’re in this long struggle against dark forces together. A good first step would be to deal productively with the Afridi case.