Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
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.”
For the purposes of argument let’s take this account at face value - and at this point nothing about the Afridi case should be considered “true” in any meaningful sense. (Under the FCR he has had no opportunity to speak in public and give his side of the story and if he were under trial in a fair court of law, he would have to be assumed innocent until proven guilty.) If he was sentenced for links to Mangal Bagh, the question of whether he was a hero or a traitor in working with the CIA is irrelevant. So too are the ethics of running a fake vaccination scheme to try to find bin Laden – for which Afridi stands accused not as a traitor but a bad doctor.
The only factor which is directly relevant to his 33-year sentencing is his alleged links with Mangal Bagh.
To make sense of this, go back to a story published by Declan Walsh at The New York Times on May 2, 2012. “Dr. Afridi had a reputation for hustling as well as healing, and he faced multiple allegations of corruption and professional malpractice, according to officials, colleagues and government papers seen by The New York Times. At his private practice, several patients claimed he performed improper operations to make extra money, prompting a local warlord named Mangal Bagh to detain him for a week in 2008 until he paid a fine of $11,100.”
“O hunter! why did you hold the arrow in your bow? You opened your closed eye slowly. It looks like you started watching my youth. Yes, I am that deer in this forest.”
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.
Pakistan, according to leaked accounts of so-called private negotiations, is demanding $5000 as transit fee for allowing trucks to use the two most obvious routes into landlocked Afghanistan, blocked since November when two dozen Pakistani soldiers were killed in an U.S. air strike from Afghanistan. The United States which apparently paid about $250 for each vehicle carrying everything from fuel to bottled water all these years is ready to double that, but nowhere near the price Pakistan is demanding for its support of the war. It also wants an apology for the deaths of the soldiers but America has stopped short of that, offering regret instead.
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.
Trade is the new/old panacea of India-Pakistan relations, moving ahead rapidly after Islamabad said last year it was ready to match India’s offer of Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status. The Economist called it “a profound and welcome shift” that could eventually open up for India trade through Pakistan to Afghanistan and the markets of Central Asia and beyond. As trade increases, so the argument goes, India and Pakistan will build the trust needed to tackle their territorial disputes, while economic inter-dependence will reduce the risk of conflict.
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.
To capture some of that, I have decided to start, on an experimental basis, a round-up of some of the latest articles in the Pakistani blogosphere. Apologies to anyone who feels they were unfairly ignored this time around but 1) I notice more those on my Twitter timeline (@myraemacdonald), 2) I am looking at themes that would be worth exploring further 3) I have tried to exclude those about The Big Political and Geopolitical Issues and 4) This is a personal choice rather than a scorecard. I have, however, included blogs from the diaspora with some reservations - inside the space created by the internet, and particularly on Twitter, diaspora/Pakistan conversations appear seamless (especially, for reasons I have never understood, when Manchester United is playing); outside the internet, real world influences are different in ways that are not always obvious.
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.
This week the United States and Pakistan again publicly contradicted each other on the use of drones. While top White House official John Brennan described drone attacks as legal, ethical and wise, Pakistan lodged a formal protest against the latest strike on its tribal areas while its foreign ministry condemned it as a “total contravention of international law”. The hardening of Pakistan’s attitude to drones – it has shifted from tacit approval and token condemnation to more vocal opposition – overlaps with a dispute over Washington’s refusal to apologise formally for a NATO attack which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border last year. Pakistan has insisted on an apology before it reopens supply routes for troops in Afghanistan, closed since the attack.