HOW much is Afridi worth? A million dollars? Ten million? The right answer is 430 million.
No, I’m not talking about Shahid Afridi, the fading cricketing star, but about Shakil Afridi, the doctor currently serving a 23-year sentence. His crime, of course, was to have helped the Americans track down Osama bin Laden to his Abbottabad lair where he was gunned down by an American SEALs team five years ago.
Shakil Afridi’s name resurfaced in the media after a long hiatus due to the endangered F-16 deal: American subsidy has been linked, among other things, to the doctor’s release. In the original agreement, the US was going to pay $430m out of the total $700m price tag for eight F-16s, with Pakistan stumping up the balance $270m.
But due to objections from some members of Congress, the US government has been constrained from paying a penny: if Pakistan wants these jet fighters, it will have to cough up the entire amount. So keeping Dr Afridi in jail will cost us $430m if we want the F-16s. Take it or leave it is the message from Washington.
Donald Trump, in his usual diplomatic manner, announced in a TV interview that he would get Dr Afridi released “in two minutes”. Taking issue with the Republican nominee in the US presidential race, our interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, said: “The future of Shakil Afridi will only be decided by Pakistani courts.” And as for Donald Trump, he had this piece of advice: “He should learn to treat sovereign countries with respect.”
Shakil Afridi is a hero to many Americans.
Does any of this sound familiar? Let me remind you: in January 2011, Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor shot and killed two motorcyclists in Lahore. He was arrested and jailed pending a trial despite the American claim that he enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Hysterical outrage was the order of the day in TV chat shows, editorials and the streets.
But lo and behold, very soon blood money of $2.3m was paid to the families of the two dead Pakistanis, and the judge trying the case dropped all charges against Davis; on his release, he flew straight back to America. So much for national sovereignty.
So if Davis was released for a mere $2.3m five years ago, is keeping Afridi in jail worth $430m now? The difference, of course, lies in the fact that the establishment did not want the Davis case to impede the flow of American military assistance. But Afridi is a reminder of our security establishment’s humiliation caused by the SEALs raid.
We all remember the fury that swept Pakistan when we awoke to the news that an American commando team had penetrated deep into our territory, killed Bin Laden, and carried his body back to their base in Afghanistan. Apparently all this took place without our armed forces or our intelligence agencies having a clue. And to rub it in, the Americans were within a stone’s throw of major army installations.
Whether our military was merely incompetent or complicit in Bin Laden’s presence, the fact is that seldom has our security establishment been as publicly humiliated. So while they were unable to retaliate against the Americans, they demolished Bin Laden’s house. And when it emerged that Afridi was helping the Americans confirm that the “tall, mysterious stranger” in the house was indeed the Al Qaeda chief, the doctor was bound to pay for the debacle, even though his role had been minor.
Although some Pakistanis see him as a traitor, he is a hero to many Americans. For them, the fact that their ally is punishing Afridi for services that should have earned him a medal is yet another reminder that they are being taken for a ride by Pakistan. To press this point, the US government deducted $33m from its assistance to Pakistan in January 2014, making it clear that the amount would be released when Afridi was freed.
And this is not the only irritant in Pak-US ties. American lawmakers have repeatedly raised the issue of the Haqqani network’s freedom to operate from Pakistani soil against targets in Afghanistan. Our nuclear programme is another major aggravation.
Of course, we can tell the Americans to keep their money, and as Sartaj Aziz has said, we’ll look elsewhere for jet fighters. But there’s a problem here: for decades, we have sought to keep a technological edge to offset the numerical advantage India has over us in conventional weapons, and the reality is that only subsidised American arms provide us with this critical element.
Despite our troubled relationship with America, we have nevertheless relied on it for economic assistance as well as modern weapons systems. Since 9/11, we have received some $33 billion in aid. Given our weak economy, we can’t buy new toys for the boys off the shelf.
Those who go around with a begging bowl can’t really afford the luxury of false pride.
Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2016