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The Strange Story of Pakistan's Shakil Afridi: From Surgeon to Spy to Militant Sympathizer

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Last week a Pakistani tribal court convicted Shakil Afridi of treason and sentenced the surgeon to 33 years in prison. The conviction, we were told, pertained to Afridi's work with the CIA. The government doctor carried out a fake vaccination campaign to acquire DNA samples from residents of Abbottabad, including those inhabiting the home occupied by Osama bin Laden.

And now comes a bizarre twist.

On Wednesday media outlets, after obtaining court documents, revealed that Afridi was convicted not for his collusion with the CIA but for his links to a militant group called Lashkar-e-Islam. (The group promptly denied having any ties to "such a shameless man.")

Speculation is swirling about this new development. Did someone rewrite the court verdict before it was released publicly, in order to reflect a charge deemed more acceptable to the United States? Is the ties-to-militants charge an attempt to further malign Afridi's character, coming just days after he was accused of corruption and womanizing? Finally, one of Afridi's lawyers suggests that this charge would be easier than the CIA-collusion one to fight in a new trial -- so does this mean Pakistan is prepared to see Afridi go free?

This sudden turn of events adds a new layer of complexity to a very curious case. Unfortunately, Washington and Islamabad have each staked out such narrow positions and clung to them so stubbornly that neither can regard the Afridi affair with the wider lens it requires. This tunnel vision is a constant feature of U.S.-Pakistan relations, and the strange story of Dr. Afridi is a sad commentary on the troubled bilateral relationship.

Washington views Afridi as a man "instrumental in taking down one of the world's most-wanted murderers." This narrow counter-terrorism optic ignores the non-security implications of the case -- not a surprise, given the dominance of security issues in a relationship largely driven by the war in Afghanistan

A chief non-security implication relates to development assistance. The revelations about Afridi have imperiled the work -- and lives -- of aid workers. InterAction, which represents nearly 200 U.S. NGOs, alleges that the CIA's immunization project "compromises the perception of U.S. NGOs as independent actors," and "may also jeopardize the lives" of aid workers in Pakistan.

Tellingly, last summer, just weeks after the Guardian broke the story about Afridi's collusion with the CIA, Warren Weinstein, an American aid worker with J.E. Austin Associates, was abducted in Lahore. More recently, last April, the beheaded body of a British Red Cross doctor was found in Balochistan. Khalil Rasjed Dale had been kidnapped in January.

There are also alarming ramifications for Pakistan's devastating polio epidemic. That a doctor was secretly running a bogus vaccination campaign under CIA orders lends credibility to a suspicion that many Pakistanis hold, that inoculation efforts are Western conspiracies. Several months ago, a Peshawar-based Pakistani anti-polio worker reported that tribal peoples were resisting new vaccination campaigns because they feared another CIA plot.

Refusing vaccinations means more infections. Eight years ago, northern Nigeria witnessed a rise in polio cases after local residents, spurred by rumors that getting vaccinated would lead to sterilization or the spread of HIV, refused to be inoculated. Pakistan, which, according to experts, "is the last place on Earth where wild polio still spreads in local outbreaks" and already has the world's highest prevalence rate, could suffer a similar fate.

Islamabad has taken its own narrow position on Afridi, depicting the doctor as a traitor who undermined the country's sovereingty. These perceived blows to sovereignty are a hallmark Pakistani grievance about U.S. policies, from drone strikes to aid programs. What this perspective fails to acknowledge is that Afridi helped deliver a major blow to an organization that poses a significant threat to Pakistan. Several al-Qaeda units -- including Brigade 313, led by senior militant Ilyas Kashmiri until his death last June -- have staged attacks in major Pakistani cities. These groups, whose members are recruited from anti-state extremist outfits such as the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, also target military installations. Some believe al-Qaeda "orchestrated" last May's raid on the Mehran naval airbase -- and many identify Kashmiri as the mastermind.

Thirty-three years behind bars is a lengthy sentence, whether for a man with links to militants -- something that can be said about many Pakistanis, most of whom never face legal consequences -- or (especially) for a man who helped apprehend a mass murderer. So why did Pakistan penalize Afridi so harshly?

Some suggest Islamabad wanted to send a strong message to Washington; others describe the punishment as appeasement to Pakistan's virulently anti-American public.

Another possible explanation goes to the heart of U.S.-Pakistan relations: leverage. The long prison term presents a bargaining chip for Islamabad as it attempts to hammer out a deal with Washington on reopening NATO supply routes. Pakistan could offer to reduce the sentence if the United States significantly increases the payments it makes for each convoy transiting Pakistan.

Deals like these offer Afridi his best chance for freedom. Last year, Washington negotiated the release of an American spy jailed for killing two Pakistanis in Lahore. Though Pakistan is less likely to free one of its own citizens, it regards Afridi as a traitor -- whether for working with the CIA or for siding with militants. "[His] demeanor as a Govt servant proves his disloyalty and feeling of enmity towards the State/Govt of Pakistan," states the verdict.

So rather than holding a new trial -- as proposed in the verdict, which recommends that evidence of his involvement with foreign intelligence agencies "be produced before the relevant concerned court for further proceedings under the law," Pakistani authorities may simply prefer to wash their hands of him. If the United States offers Pakistan enough inducements, a deal could be struck whereby the courts accept an appeal from Afridi. This could pave the way for Afridi's release and a one-way air ticket to America.

Such an outcome would be a logical conclusion to the latest chapter in a U.S.-Pakistan relationship that is, at the end of the day, transactional to the core.