President Joe Biden came into office promising to unify the country. So far, unity has proved elusive. On confirmations, immigration policy, Iran, and countless other issues, the parties seem as combative and disunited as ever.
But if unity is elusive, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It’s just a matter of finding issues on which both parties can unite.
Here is one: Freeing Dr. Shakil Afridi.
His is not exactly a household name. But it should be. Millions of Americans who watched the 2012 Academy Award winning Zero Dark Thirty caught a glimpse of a Pakistani doctor who set up a polio vaccination program in an effort to secure DNA samples from the residents of the compound which the CIA suspected housed Usama Bin Laden. That character, unnamed in the movie, is based on Dr. Afridi.
For his troubles in assisting the United States to bring Bin Laden to justice (which actually involved setting up a hepatitis B vaccination program, not polio), Dr. Afridi has endured torture and isolation at the hands of the Pakistani government. This May will mark the tenth anniversary of his imprisonment. Meanwhile, during that same time period, the United States has provided Pakistan with about $10 billion in foreign aid.
A renewed and decisive push to secure the release of Dr. Afridi, and a safe exit out of Pakistan for him and family, is an issue that should unite both parties.
According to the film, Dr. Afridi’s efforts to obtain DNA samples “didn’t work out.” But there is strong evidence that they did. In a Sixty Minutes interview, Leon Panetta, Director of the CIA at the time of the raid, said that Dr. Afridi provided “very helpful” information. Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, said that “his help … was instrumental in taking down one of the world’s most notorious murderers.”
Since the Bin Laden raid caused an unwelcome rift between the United States and Pakistan, there was no reason for these two officials to exaggerate his importance, and every reason to do the opposite. The fact that both the CIA and the State Department declared him helpful or instrumental in locating Bin Laden is significant.
So is the timing of his work. According to Pakistani court documents used at his trial, Dr. Afridi delivered DNA samples to his CIA contact in Islamabad on April 27, 2011. The next day, April 28, President Obama met to discuss the mission with his advisors, without reaching a resolution. Rapid DNA testing takes one day, so the results would have reached the White House on the evening of the 28th. The decision to go ahead with the mission was made on the following morning, April 29. The timing suggests that the DNA samples procured by Dr. Afridi may have influenced the decision, perhaps decisively.
Regardless of what American officials think about Dr. Afridi’s role, Pakistan has certainly acted as if his role was significant.
He was taken into custody on May 23, 2011, twenty days after Bin Laden’s death, by the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency. He remained in custody for a year. For much of that time, according to his brother, he was electrocuted, burned, and kept blindfolded and tortured. He had his arms tied behind his back, and was forced “to eat like a dog” in that position. Not surprisingly, the ISI denies any mistreatment.
When he was finally released to the civil authorities, it was not to face trial in a regular court. Instead, he was tried in a tribal court in a semi-autonomous area along the Afghan border. Tribal courts are presided over not by judges, but by tribal elders who are not bound to follow due process. Neither Dr. Afridi nor his lawyer was allowed to attend this “trial.”
Had they been allowed, they would have been surprised to learn that Dr. Afridi faced prosecution not for helping the CIA, but for funding Lashkar-e-Islam, a banned terrorist group. In truth, Dr. Afridi’s family did give Laskkar-e-Islam money, but not to support its terrorism. The money was paid to ransom him. In 2008, Dr. Afridi had been kidnapped by the group. To secure his release, his wife sold her jewelry and borrowed money from relatives to raise the roughly $10,000 ransom. Four years later, in 2012, the tribal court treated the ransom payment as terrorist funding, and sentenced him to 33 years. On appeal, the tribal court reduced the nonsensical 33-year sentence to a lesser but still nonsensical 23-year sentence.
The semi-autonomous tribal areas have now been merged with an adjoining province, entitling Dr. Afridi to seek another appeal in a regular court. But it’s questionable whether he will ever get the chance to do so. One former lawyer was murdered by terrorists in 2015. Other lawyers have been denied access to him for years. His hearing has been postponed 16 times because the government prosecutor failed to show up. Most people do not bear up well to Middle Eastern imprisonment. It is likely that the Pakistani government is playing a waiting game, hoping that nature will take its course and Dr. Afridi will die in prison.
While Dr. Afridi has languished in Pakistan, his fate has not gone entirely ignored in the United States. The initial reaction in Washington DC was bipartisan outrage. “I don’t know which side of the war Pakistan is on,” said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairperson of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “This makes me seriously question our financial support to Pakistan.” “All of us are outraged,” said ranking Republican, the late Senator John McCain. But the White House reaction was muted. “We have raised the issue with the Pakistani government,” said Press Secretary Jay Carney. “We will continue to have conversations with them about it.”
Those conversations resulted in very little. Foreign aid to Pakistan was cut by $33 million, $1 million for each year of Dr. Afridi’s original sentence. That represented about a 4% reduction, at most a financial slap on the wrist, and a rather light slap at that.
Running in 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump vowed, if elected, to secure his release “in two minutes.” He was elected. Dr. Afridi remained in prison.
On Capitol Hill, various measures were proposed to deal with the subject, but unfortunately they took on an increasingly partisan tone. A House bill to award Dr. Afridi a Congressional Gold Medal attracted 18 Republican co-sponsors and one Democrat. A Senate bill to cut all aid to Pakistan until he is released attracted 7 Republican co-sponsors and one Democrat.
It would be foolish to treat the issue as black and white, portraying Dr. Afridi as a noble hero and the Pakistani government as a puppet of the terrorists. The situation is more complicated.
Dr. Afridi is not some of Middle Eastern Sir Galahad. According to journalist Matthieu Aikins, who traveled to Pakistan to interview family members and former co-workers and patients, Dr. Afridi, as a student, had a reputation as a drinker and womanizer, who fancied prostitutes from the nearly refugee camp. After graduating, he ran a prescription drug clearinghouse, buying up other doctors’ supplies and reselling the medicines at a profit. To supplement his meager salary as a government doctor, he reportedly performed unnecessary surgeries. His family disputes these claims, attributing them to professional jealousy.
According to prosecution records, he was paid $55,000 for his role in the fake vaccination scheme, about nine times his official annual salary. His CIA handlers were all women – possibly indicative of what the CIA knew about his character.
The deceptive vaccination program was itself morally questionable. Vaccinations were already viewed with suspicion in that part of the world before the raid, but progress was gradually being made toward public acceptance. When news of Dr. Afridi’s scheme became public, that progress collapsed. A local newspaper reported on one father, himself a victim of polio, who refused to allow his son to be vaccinated. Citing the collaboration between the CIA and Dr. Afridi, the father explained: “We thought that the polio campaign was being run by the Jews and Americans, so I wouldn’t let anyone give drops to my child.” His son subsequently contracted the disease. A government anti-polio program was suspended after five female health workers were murdered by anti-vaccination fanatics.
But beyond these disturbing factors reside certain unchallengeable truths. Usama Bin Laden was responsible for the murder of over three thousand victims on American soil. He found shelter in Pakistan, almost certainly with the acquiescence, if not approval, of a governmental network of support. To bring him to justice – or to bring justice to him – required locating him, and the local authorities were unlikely to help with that effort. In fact, there was good reason to believe that requesting their help would only lead to tipping off Bin Laden.
So the United States found help where it could. And one of those sources of help was a local doctor of questionable ethics.
There once was another source of information of questionable ethics named Jonathan Pollard. This one was an American who spied for Israel. He was also well paid for his troubles. Israeli politics are notoriously divisive, but on this one issue all Israeli parties were united: regardless of which party held power, the Israelis did all they could to urge Pollard’s release.
To secure Dr. Afridi’s release and his family’s safe departure from Pakistan, will of course require more than mere unity between Democrats and Republicans. It will require imaginative thinking. Cutting foreign aid beyond the current symbolic $33 million hold-back, is a questionable tactic. Whatever its role in sheltering Bin Laden, Pakistan remains an ally in the continuing war on terror. It has suffered far more casualties in that war than we have. We also need a stable government in Islamabad. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. We cannot afford to see the country disintegrate into another Lebanon, or, even worse, another Iran. So imposing financial pressure may be unwise. A government that succumbed to such pressure would be viewed with contempt by its citizens and might fall.
A renewed American effort to free Dr. Afridi should focus on finding a win-win solution, allowing the Pakistanis to claim credit. One such solution might be a prisoner swap. The United States holds Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a graduate of MIT and a PhD scholar in neuroscience from Brandeis University. Her story is bizarre. She disappeared from Karachi in 2003 and was found five years later in Afghanistan. She was charged with the attempted murder of American officials, brought to this country for trial, and sentenced to 86 years in prison. Among other American intelligence officials, she is known as “Lady Al-Qaeda.” In Pakistan, she is known as “Daughter of the Nation.” At her sentencing, she renounced any interest in an appeal, and declared: “I appeal to God and he hears me.” There is no evidence that Dr. Siddiqui ever actually accomplished anything for Al-Qaeda. After her conviction, she was transferred from a detention facility in Brooklyn to the Carswell Medical Center in Texas, a facility for female inmates with special mental health needs.
Trading Dr. Siddiqui for Dr. Afridi might be a face-saving way for both the American and Pakistani governments to resolve the issue, and to declare themselves winners.
If we are unwilling to trade Dr. Siddiqui, we should find someone else to trade.
Whatever strategy we use, the United States is morally obligated to get Dr. Afridi and his family out of Pakistan. It’s a tough world out there. We will need more Afridi’s in the future. If we expect to find any willing to help, we better make sure that this one does not end his days rotting away in a Pakistani prison.
Freeing Afridi is an issue around which Democrats and Republicans can and should unite.