According to the Pakistani media, Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to help track down Osama bin Laden, has been jailed not for his role in trying to find the al Qaeda leader, but for colluding with the Lashkar-e-Islam militant group and its chief, Mangal Bagh, based in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Dawn newspaper cited court documents showing that the tribal court which sentenced him to 33 years in jail “did not entertain evidence relating to Dr Shakil Afridi’s involvement with the CIA, citing lack of jurisdiction as the main reason….” (Afridi was sentenced under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a British colonial-era law used to deal with Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)). Instead, Afridi – arrested on May 23, 2011 shortly after the May 2 raid by U.S. forces who found and killed bin Laden in the town of Abbottabad – was convicted on the basis of “his love for Mangal Bagh”. “The court held that the LI (Lashkar-e-Islam) had sought the support of foreign intelligence agencies across the border in Afghanistan to wage war against the state of Pakistan and that Mr Afridi’s association with the militant outfit proved his involvement in activities inimical to the state of Pakistan.”
Pakistan: Now or Never?
Pakistan’s relationship with the United States can’t get more transactional than the prolonged negotiations over restoration of the Pakistani supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan.
In 1997, the business-friendly Nawaz Sharif was prime minister, relations between Pakistan and India were thawing and the two countries were trying to use improved trade to put decades of animosity behind them. Or as the Indian journalist Salil Tripathi wrote at the time, “this sorry state of affairs may be about to improve – through commerce.” Then came the nuclear tests in 1998, the Kargil war and a coup in 1999, mass military mobilisation in 2001-2002, the Mumbai attacks in 2008, and now, finally, we are here again.
I am going to break a self-imposed rule and recount my latest conversation with a Pakistani taxi driver. His parents live in Lahore, so we got talking about his main worries about Pakistan. The answer – lack of clean water and dengue fever. I am somewhat parodying the tired journalistic device of “my taxi driver said” here (I promise not to do it again) – since you can quote a Pakistani taxi driver without even going to Pakistan (London minus the extra airfare) – but here’s my point. People don’t always, or even often, talk about the stuff that makes headline news – like relations with the United States, the war in Afghanistan, Islamist militancy, drones, civilian-military competition and political confrontation. Pakistan (190 million people or more) is also cultural, social, economic and historical; it is religious but not only religious, traditional and urbanising; it is the most parochial country to be obsessed with the outside world; the most feudal to be driven by a web-savvy and growing youth; its issues include music and education, the price of onions and the fear of dengue.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the debate on drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas is that it rests on a tangle of assumptions on which neither Washington nor Islamabad can agree. The result is a corrosive discussion which undermines U.S. legitimacy and gives Pakistanis a focus for anti-Americanism which drowns out all other issues, including how militancy should be tackled and the Afghan war brought to an end.