Leon Panetta, Dr Afridi, and Why US-Pakistan Relations are at a Nadir

February 2, 2012 | By Isaac Kfir

On January 29, in an interview on CBS,[1] U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta raised the case of Dr Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who through a CIA-run vaccination campaign was instrumental in providing DNA evidence that Osama bin Laden was living in a secure compound in the military city of Abbottabad.  Soon after the bin Laden operation, the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI) arrested Dr Afridi.


Secretary Panetta’s decision to raise the matter on U.S. national television may appear on the surface as somewhat surprising especially as U.S.-Pakistan relations are at a nadir – a product of the OBL operation – though in all probability before raising the matter the issue was discussed with CIA Director David Patreaus, Secretary of State Clinton and other high-level officials in the Administration.

Undoubtedly, what motivated Secretary Panetta, who was director of the CIA at the time of the OBL operation, is concern over the health and safety of Dr Afridi, as reports indicate that he has been subjected to torture and is facing the possibility of being tried for treason.[2] By raising the matter in such a public forum Secretary Panetta could be indicating to Pakistan that it wants an end to Dr Afridi’s detention.


As commendable as Secretary Panetta’s concerns are for Dr Afridi, this latest chastisement by a senior American official of Pakistan is unlikely to help smooth relations between these two countries. Pakistan, which is in the midst of a major scandal (memogate) is likely to view Secretary Panetta’s comments as typifying American hubris and disconcertedness in respect to what is currently taking place in Pakistan. By rejecting claims that Dr Afridi possibly committed treason, the U.S. fails to accept that at the end of the day, the operation called for U.S. military forces to unilaterally enter Pakistan and conduct a military operation in a city located 30 miles from the capital. One cannot help but wonder how Washington would react if President Caldron was to send Mexican Special Forces to hunt down drug barons operating in Arizona or New Mexico or how Washington would react to U.S. nationals working surreptitiously with Mexican authorities to bring down drug barons located in the United States? The remarks also indicate a level of American lack of care that Pakistan is still grappling not only with the OBL operation but the December 2011 incident in which 24 Pakistani soldiers died, for which President Obama has issued no apology (the apology came from other government officials). There is an increasing sense that the U.S. feels that it can violate Pakistani sovereignty to achieve its own national security goals – defeating Al Qaeda – which to Pakistanis often comes at their expense.[3]


Putting aside rising anti-Americanism on the Pakistani street, what Washington ignores is that the OBL strike severely embarrassed the military and the ISI and even though there is no evidence of these entities colluding in OBL’s presence in Abbottabad, U.S. policymakers keep making such allegations.[4] By raising Dr Afridi’s case in public, Secretary Panetta has helped to reassert the ISI and military’s embarrassment resulting from the May operation. It will also probably encourage the ISI and the military to act harshly against Dr Afridi, using him as an example to anyone that may wish to assist the U.S. in locating Al Qaeda operatives without Pakistan’s knowledge.[5] A more effective way to secure Dr Afridi’s release would have been through quite diplomacy, something that U.S. policymakers seem unable to do when they deal with Pakistan.[6]


Trying to understand U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Pakistan is becoming increasingly difficult, as it flies in the face of logic and appears designed to exacerbate tensions through accusations and recriminations that often lack substance or evidence. At a time when Pakistan is in the midst of a power struggle between the military and the civilian government and there is growing anti-Americanism on the Pakistani street caused by repeated U.S. violations of Pakistani sovereignty, one must wonder why the Administration would add more tinder to the fire.


[1] “The Defense Secretary: An Interview with Leon Panetta,” CBS News, January 29, 2012. <http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-57367997/the-defense-secretary-an-interview-with-leon-panetta/>

[2] Declan Walsh, “Pakistan ‘Vaccination’ Doctor Accused of Treason,” The Guardian, October 6, 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/06/pakistan-vaccination-doctor-accused-treason?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487>

[3] This is the view promoted by Imran Khan and which has won him and Tehreek-e-Insaafincreasing support.

[4] A leaked US secret military report based on 27,000 interrogations with more than 4,000 captured Taliban, al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters and civilians claims that not only do Afghans are preparing themselves for a Taliban takeover once ISAF leaves, but that Taliban operations are directly managed by the Pakistani ISI. “Pakistan Dismisses Nato Report on Afghan Taliban Links,”BBC News, February 1, 2012. < http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16832359>

[5] Former Directors of the CIA, General Hayden writing on ISI Director-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha in TIME MAGAZINE 100 most influential people noted that since the Raymond David case, (this was before the OBL operation) General Pasha “…has grown progressively more suspicious of U.S. motives and staying power.”  Michael Hayden “Ahmed Shuja Pasha,” TIME MAGAZINE, April 21, 2011. <http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2066367_2066369_2066316,00.html?

[6] One need only compare the case of Dr Afridi with that of Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani Ambassador to the US, who played a central role in memogate. Haqqani’s travel ban was recently lifted after a Prime Minister Gilani and General Kiyani met on January 11 for a private confusion to diffuse the rising tension that Mansoor Ijaq’s memo had caused.

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