More trouble with Pakistan
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U.S. relations with Pakistan are terrible. The question is whether it is because of what we do or because of the way Pakistan is. The answer is probably a poisonous relationship between the two.
The latest ugly manifestation of the problem arrived in the form of a Pakistani court convicting Shakil Afridi of espionage for trying to help the CIA pinpoint the location of Osama bin Laden. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison. Congress responded with an equally crude gesture, cutting off $33 million in U.S. aid to Pakistan, $1 million for each year of the doctor's sentence, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior officials railed about Pakistan's iniquity in punishing someone who helped bring success to America's decade-long effort to kill or capture the leader of al-Qaida.
This incident, like so many others in the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship, was riddled with misunderstanding, principally but not exclusively on the U.S. side. The Pakistanis were cross about the matter from several points of view, two justifiable, one less so.
Dr. Afridi was trying to find DNA fingering Osama bin Laden among the children of Abbottabad by conducting a bogus vaccination program. When that came out it discredited not only vaccination programs in general, which are hard to sell anyway among suspicious populations even where they are badly needed, but also the non-governmental organizations that carry them out.
What really got under the Pakistanis' skin, however, was the fact that Dr. Afridi did not inform the Pakistani government. He was also, by the way, paid to do what he did -- in other words, he was conducting espionage for pay, not from conviction.
For Dr. Afridi to consider it acceptable not to inform his own government he would have had to accept the U.S. contention that the Pakistani government could not be trusted with the information because it was complicit in keeping Osama bin Laden out of America's hands. Even though that was almost certainly the case, for the doctor to have acted on that contention was treason against his own government, and, worse, for pay. What country's courts wouldn't have given him 33 years, if not execution or life in prison?
In the event, given Pakistan's track record -- including the lax way it handled A.Q. Khan, who developed the nation's nuclear weapons and then spearheaded its Walmart approach to selling nuclear technology -- the good doctor likely would have been allowed to serve his term at home or to wander away from whatever detention facility he was assigned to long before the 33 years was up. But now, with the Americans making such a major drama of his case, who knows? His sentence could be extended, shortened or waived.
The continuing U.S. policy that riles the Pakistanis most is our killing of people with drones and bombs in their country, including the accidental killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in November, for which we decline to apologize.
There are certainly other problems inherent to Pakistan that contribute to prickly relations. Pakistan is divided as a country into competing tribes. Its government is a shambles, divided into civilian and military factions that make it very difficult to deal with.
The only salvation possible for the relationship is for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, Pakistan's near neighbor, taking the heat off U.S.-Pakistan relations. Until then, the sparks will continue to fly in the dry tinder of that South Asian nation.
First Published May 30, 2012 12:00 am