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Why a Pakistan that “looks both ways” on tackling terrorism is better than the alternative

2012 May 26

 “There’s a common outrage, a common response wherever you look,” said Carl Levin, chairman of the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee. Wherever you look. He clearly wasn’t looking far enough.

The good Senator was responding to the news that Pakistan has jailed the doctor who ran a fake vaccination campaign to provide information for US intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Dr Shakil Afridi had pretended he was carrying out hepatitis B prevention and took blood samples from children living in a compound in Abbottabad which, when tested by the CIA, matched the DNA of the world’s most wanted man. US special forces swooped on the hide-out and executed the al-Qa’ida leader.

Dr Afridi’s role in finding bin Laden – which his nation’s secret services had so conspicuously failed to do – constituted “treason”, the Pakistan authorities have decided. A tribal court convicted him of conspiring “to wage war against Pakistan has decided and jailed him for 33 years. Washington reacted with fury to the “Alice in Wonderland” sentence. It was “beyond ludicrous”. Pakistan was “a schizophrenic ally”. If this is co-operation, said another senior Senator, “I’d hate like hell to see opposition.” Another Senate committee slashed $33m from US aid to Pakistan–  $1m for each year of Afridi’s sentence.

But go to Pakistan and you will find outrage of a different kind. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, called Shakil Afridi a “traitor”. The president’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, opined that “it is against the law in any country to cooperate with foreign intelligence”. Some in Pakistan’s newspapers want to see Afridi hanged; others suggest hanging as too good for him.

What do we learn from these diametrically opposed views?

It is two years since David Cameron sparked a diplomatic row by truthfully, but tactlessly, accusing Pakistan of “looking both ways” on terrorism. Everyone knew he was right but Pakistan’s main funder, the United States, had deliberately refrained from such plain speaking because Pakistan’s ambivalence towards tackling terrorism was seen as preferable to outright hostility. And the reality on the ground is that Pakistan has lost more civilians than any other nation to Islamist terror attacks – some 30,000 Pakistani civilians and 3,000 soldiers have died at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban – while at the same time the country also has growing levels of support for extremists in its population, religious leaders and intelligence services, the ISI.

Understandably Washington did not take Islamabad into its confidence when the bin Laden raid was launched. But it is a false polarity to insist, as many have, that the ISI are either closet Islamists or incompetent – those being seen as the only alternatives to explain how bin Laden had hidden for five years a mere 800 yards from Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst.

The answer to the puzzle is not to be found there but much further north – in the lawless Khyber tribal region which was carved out of Afghan territory by colonial Britainas a buffer to protect the Raj. A century on, it is still a frontier belt where Pakistani and Afghan Talibans freely mingle.  It was here that Dr Afridi was found guilty under the Federally Administered Tribal Areas laws dating back to 19th century British rule. An assistant political commissioner acted as prosecutor, judge and jury. Afridi had no lawyer. He was unable to cross-examine witnesses or put his own side of the story, though he did not at least under the Frontier Crimes Regulations get the death penalty as he might have elsewhere in Pakistan.

Yet here can be found the explanation for the double game Pakistan plays on Islamic extremism. The region is the stronghold for a network of militants known as the Haqqani, a largely independent Taliban faction with bases in North Waziristan, just across the border from Afghanistan, who are one of Nato’s deadliest foes. Pakistani intelligence links to the network date back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when the Haqqani were also supported by Washington. The Pakistan army has consistently refused US requests to clean up North Waziristan, one of the key areas in which US drone target terrorist suspects, to the anger of the local population because innocent civilians are hit in the process.

The ISI see the Haqqani as a vital bulwark against Pakistan’s greatest enemy, India. They are terrified that the nation against whom Pakistanhas fought three wars since 1947 will increase its influence in Afghanistan when US troops pull out in 2014. The disputed state of Kashmiris not far away. The terrorism of the Haqqani is seen by some in the ISI as a useful way of undermining Indian interests without the need for a conventional war. They even have a jargon name for it: ‘defence in depth’. The ISI is divided as to whether Islamic extremism or US imperialism is the bigger enemy. But India is always in the back of the mind of everyone in the Pakistani secret service.

To add to that is a widespread feeling that Pakistanis routinely humiliated by the United States. The bin Laden raid is but one example. Last year a CIA operative shot dead two men in the street in Lahore and then claimed diplomatic immunity. Next Nato helicopters crossed from Afghanistan and killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at Salala and refused to apologise. Then there are the US drone attacks in North Waziristan which often kill civilians and Islamabad condemns as “illegal, counterproductive and totally unacceptable”. Drones killed another 12 people last week.

All these, Pakistanis insist, are violations of its sovereignty. In response it has closed supply routes to Afghanistan, forcing Nato to open a longer northern route which is twice as expensive. Negotiations to reopen them have foundered, causing Barack Obama to snub President Asif Ali Zardari at last week’s NATO summit in Chicago. Elections are imminent in both countries, raising the stakes on both sides.

It is in this context that the jailing of the hapless Dr Shakil Afridi must be seen. A $33m cut in aid sounds big. But it is small change in the $2bn a year America gives to the Pakistani Army and a £7bn wider civilian aid package which the US hopes will help turn this military-dominated Islamicist nuclear power into a more stable and democratic ally.

“You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” George Bush famously said after 9/11. The reality has proved a lot less simple. America and Pakistan are not so much bitter enemies as bitter allies, locked together in a danse macabre. It is individuals like Dr Shakil Afridi who pay the price. He will not be the last.

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