Pakistani doctor imprisoned for helping CIA find bin Laden

Pakistani authorities have sentenced a doctor for helping the CIA find Osama bin Laden to 33 years in prison on charges of treason, officials said, a move almost certain to further strain ties between Washington and Islamabad. Shakil Afridi was accused of running a fake vaccination campaign, in which he collected DNA samples, that is believed to have helped the American intelligence agency track down bin Laden in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad. The al Qaeda chieftain was killed in a unilateral U.S. special forces raid in May last year.

“Dr Shakil has been sentenced to 33 years imprisonment and a fine of 320,000 Pakistani rupees ($3,477),” said Mohammad Nasir, a government official in the northwestern city of Peshawar, where the prison term will be served. The sentence was handed down under tribal laws which, unlike the national penal code, do not carry the death penalty for treason.

Senior U.S. officials had made public appeals for Pakistan — a recipient of billions of dollars in American aid — to release Afridi, who was detained within weeks of the raid that killed bin Laden and has not been seen publicly since.

Afridi’s imprisonment complicates efforts to break a deadlock in talks over the re-opening of crucial land routes through Pakistan to supply U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. The routes are also seen as vital to the planned withdrawal of most foreign troops from Afghanistan before the end of 2014. Pakistan closed the supply routes in protest against last November’s killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a misguided NATO air attack along the Afghan border.

Bin Laden’s long presence in Pakistan — he was believed to have stayed there for years — despite the worldwide manhunt for him raised suspicions in Washington that Pakistani intelligence officials may have sheltered him. Pakistani officials deny this and say an intelligence gap enabled bin Laden to live there undetected.

No one has yet been charged for helping the al Qaeda leader take refuge in Pakistan. A government commission tasked with investigating how he managed to evade capture by Pakistani authorities for so long is widely accused of being ineffective.

The U.S. raid that killed bin Laden in the garrison town, just a few hours’ drive from the capital Islamabad, humiliated Pakistan’s powerful military, which described the move as a violation of sovereignty. Intelligence cooperation between the United States and Pakistan has subsequently been cut drastically.

Pakistan’s fury lingers over the bin Laden affair, which exposed its military to rare public criticism, both because of the presence of the al Qaeda chief in the country, and the fact that U.S. special forces just swept in and out of the country without resistance.

– edited from Reuters, May 23, 2012
PeaceMeal, May/June 2012

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United States vacates drone base in Pakistan following deadly attack on Pakistani troops

The United States has vacated a drone base in Pakistan under order of the Pakistani government following NATO airstrikes on November 26 that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. NATO helicopters and jet fighters allegedly carried out a two-hour attack on two well-known Pakistani army posts along the border with Afghanistan. Pakistan military officials said the posts were attacked without warning at 2:00 a.m, while most of the around 50 soldiers were sleeping.

Pakistan initially retaliated by shutting down vital NATO supply routes into Afghanistan that were used for nearly half of the alliance’s land shipments. The Pakistani government then demanded the United States vacate the Shamsi airbase in southwestern Baluchistan province within 15 days. Evacuation of more than 70 U.S. Marines and CIA operatives from the airbase began on Sunday, December 4. The U.S. personnel reportedly burned documents and other belongings as they prepared to leave on two U.S. aircraft. The U.S. used the base to service drones that targeted al-Qaida and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal region near the Afghan border.

This was the third time Pakistan had asked the U.S. to vacate the airbase. Similar demands were made after a CIA contractor gunned down two men in Lahore in January and after the U.S. military raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May.

An increase in U.S. drone strikes in the last few years had irritated Islamabad because more Pakistani civilians were killed in the border area than militants. The NATO attack is expected to further worsen relations between Washington and Islamabad, already at one of their lowest points in history following the bin Laden raid, which Pakistan strongly protested as a violation of its sovereignty, and U.S. accusations that Pakistan backed a brazen Taliban attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in September.

On Sunday, December 4, President Barack Obama called Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari to express his regrets for the deaths of the Pakistani troops. According to a White House statement, Obama “made clear that this regrettable incident was not a deliberate attack on Pakistan and reiterated the United States’ strong commitment to a full investigation.” Islamabad has so far refused to take part in a U.S. investigation of the airstrikes.

In the wake of the strikes, Pakistan decided not to take part in the international conference on the future of Afghanistan held in Bonn, Germany on December 5, a decision which, together with a boycott by the Taliban, cast the event’s usefulness into doubt.

The major conference drew some 1,000 delegates from 100 countries and international organizations to come up with a road map of support beyond the withdrawal of U.S. and other international forces from Afghanistan in 2014. They pledged to stand by Afghanistan in the 10 years after the withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for good governance. However, none offered any specifics. For it’s part, Afghanistan said it would require $10 billion annually over the next decade to shore up security and reconstruction.

– edited from the Daily Times (Pakistan), NBC News, The Associated Press, Agence France Presse and Voice of America News
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2011

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Pakistan’s nuclear folly

New York Times editorial, February 20, 2011

With the Middle East roiling, the alarming news about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons buildup has gotten far too little attention. The Times recently reported that American intelligence agencies believe Pakistan has between 95 and more than 110 deployed nuclear weapons, up from the mid-to-high 70s just two years ago.

Pakistan can’t feed its people, educate its children, or defeat insurgents without billions of dollars in foreign aid. Yet, with China’s help, it is now building a fourth nuclear reactor to produce more weapons fuel.

Even without that reactor, experts say, it has already manufactured enough fuel for 40 to 100 additional weapons. That means Pakistan — which claims to want a minimal credible deterrent — could soon possess the world’s fifth-largest arsenal, behind the United States, Russia, France and China but ahead of Britain and India. Washington and Moscow, with thousands of nuclear weapons each, still have the most weapons by far, but at least they are making serious reductions.

Washington could threaten to suspend billions of dollars of American aid if Islamabad does not restrain its nuclear appetites. But that would hugely complicate efforts in Afghanistan and could destabilize Pakistan.

The truth is there is no easy way to stop the buildup, or that of India and China. Slowing and reversing that arms race is essential for regional and global security. Washington must look for points of leverage and make this one of its strategic priorities.

The ultimate nightmare, of course, is that the extremists will topple Pakistan’s government and get their hands on the nuclear weapons. We also don’t rest easy contemplating the weakness of Pakistan’s civilian leadership, the power of its army and the bitterness of the country’s rivalry with nuclear-armed India.

The army claims to need more nuclear weapons to deter India’s superior conventional arsenal. It seems incapable of understanding that the real threat comes from the Taliban and other extremists.

The biggest game-changer would be for Pakistan and India to normalize diplomatic and economic relations. The two sides recently agreed to resume bilateral talks suspended after the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. There is a long way to go.

India insists that it won’t accept an outside broker. There is a lot the Obama administration can do quietly to press the countries to work to settle differences over Afghanistan and the disputed region of Kashmir. Pakistan must do a lot more to stop insurgents who target India.

Washington also needs to urge the two militaries to start talking, and urge the two governments to begin exploring ways to lessen the danger of an accidental nuclear war — with more effective hotlines and data exchanges — with a long-term goal of arms-control negotiations. Washington and its allies must also continue to look for ways to get Pakistan to stop blocking negotiations on a global ban on fissile material production.

The world, especially that part of the world, is a dangerous enough place these days. It certainly doesn’t need any more nuclear weapons.

PeaceMeal, May/June 2011

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Armed conflict in Pakistan leads to polio spike

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Tiny Shamsa is a victim of the war against Islamist militants in northwest Pakistan, but it wasn’t bullets or bombs that paralyzed her right leg. The 18-month-old contracted polio after the fighting blocked vaccination teams from reaching her village. “It is upsetting to know that our only child could not get vaccine because of the troubles,” Shamsa’s mother, Majeeda Ali, said at a hospital in Peshawar where she took her daughter for treatment.

In a country with no shortage of alarming statistics, here is another: Pakistan was the only country in 2010 to record an increase in cases of the crippling disease — 138, up from 89 in the previous year, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures. That made it the nation with the highest incidence of polio in the world.

Most cases were in the northwest close to the Afghan border, where battles between the U.S.-supported Pakistani army and Taliban fighters make many areas too dangerous to visit. The army bans travel to parts of the region, citing the security situation, and territory under militant control is highly dangerous for outsiders.

Vaccination in war zones is possible, but difficult and often politically sensitive. Last year, one Pakistan Taliban commander declared the vaccine un-Islamic, echoing a few conservative clerics in other Muslim countries. But others have not publicly stated any objections. In Afghanistan, the Taliban cooperate with health workers administering the vaccine, in part because doing so adds to the movement’s legitimacy. “All of the time, we are cooperating with the health workers,” a Taliban spokesman said. “In the past and now, there is no problem because it is useful for the Afghan children.”

Polio was eradicated generations ago from the Western world, but remains endemic in Pakistan, neighboring Afghanistan and India, as well as Nigeria. Sometimes fatal and highly contagious, it can be prevented with a few drops of bitter vaccine on a child's tongue. But eradication needs a comprehensive vaccination campaign. Missing even a single child can mean the disease reappears. A WHO-backed campaign, which began in 1988, aims to eradicate polio from Pakistan by the end of 2011.

Workers from the United Nation’s children’s agency, which is helping administer the vaccine, say they have not been able to access Shamsa’s village in the Khyber region for almost two years because Pakistani fighter jets, helicopter gunships and CIA drone-fired missiles regularly pound targets.

Haris Ahmed, an expert on public health administration, said access to the tribal belt and gaining the trust of its inhabitants would be essential to eradicating polio in 2011. “If these two areas are addressed and you see 100 percent coverage and you see the trust coming back to the people, then anything is possible,” Ahmed said.

– edited from The Associated Press, January 14, 2011
Peacemeal, May/June 2011

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Pakistan army chief condemns U.S. drone attack

Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has condemned the latest raid by U.S. unmanned drones as “intolerable and unjustified.” In a strongly worded statement, Gen. Kayani said the attack, which killed about 40 people, was “in complete violation of human rights.” He added, “It is highly regrettable that a jirga (open-air meeting) of peaceful citizens, including elders of the area, was carelessly and callously targeted with complete disregard to human life.” Most of the victims were believed to be civilians attending the tribal meeting near North Waziristan’s regional capital, Miranshah.

The Pakistani military often makes statements regretting the loss of life in such incidents, but rarely criticizes the attacks themselves. Gen Kayani, however, said such “acts of violence” make it harder to fight terrorism.

The drone attacks are a long-running source of bad feelings between the United States and Pakistan. Officials said two drones were involved in the latest strike, which was the deadliest such attack since 2006. One missile was fired at a car carrying suspected militants. Reportedly, the car was moving close to the jirga, and another three missiles fired hit the vehicle as well as the jirga.The U.S. military and the CIA do not routinely confirm that they have launched drone operations, and Gen. Kayani did not specifically name the U.S. or mention drones. But analysts say only American forces could deploy such aircraft.

The drone attacks have escalated dramatically in the region since President Barack Obama took office. More than 100 raids were reported in the area last year.

The recent acquittal of CIA contractor Raymond Davis of murder has added fuel to the fire, sparking protests across Pakistan. Davis, 36, was arrested after shooting two men dead in the eastern city of Lahore in January, following what he said was an attempted armed robbery. The acquittal came when relatives of the dead men pardoned him in court, saying they had been paid compensation known as “blood money.” Questions remain as to what exactly Davis was doing at the time.

– edited from British Broadcasting Corporation, March 17, 2011
PeaceMeal, March/April 2011

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

$1 billion for U.S. embassies in Pakistan, Afghanistan

In a worrying continuation of Bush administration empire building in the Middle East, the Obama administration is embarking on a $1-billion crash program to expand its diplomatic presence in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. The White House has asked Congress for — and seems likely to receive — $736 million to build a new U.S. embassy in Islamabad, along with permanent housing for U.S. government civilians and new office space in the Pakistani capital. Other major projects are planned for Kabul, Afghanistan; and for the Pakistani cities of Lahore and Peshawar, where the U.S. government is negotiating the purchase of a five-star hotel that would house a new U.S. consulate. Peshawar is an important station for gathering intelligence on the tribal area that surrounds the city on three sides and is a base for Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The area also will be a focus for expanded U.S. aid programs,.

The scale of the projects rivals the giant U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which was completed last year after construction delays at a cost of $740 million. Senior State Department officials said the expanded diplomatic presence is needed to replace overcrowded, dilapidated and unsafe facilities and to support a “surge” of civilian officials into Afghanistan and Pakistan ordered by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama has repeatedly stated that stabilizing Pakistan and Afghanistan, the countries from which Al Qaeda and the Taliban operate, is vital to U.S. national security.

In Pakistan, however, large parts of the population are hostile to the U.S. presence in the region — despite receiving billions of dollars in aid from Washington since 2001 — and anti-American groups and politicians are likely to seize on the expanded diplomatic presence in Islamabad as evidence of American “imperial designs.” The existing embassy in the capital’s diplomatic enclave was badly damaged in a 1979 assault by Pakistani students.

– edited from The Christian Science Monitor, May 28, 2009
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2009

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Crisis in Pakistan increases mistrust of U.S.

The United States sees Pakistan as vital in its plan to bring stability in Afghanistan by defeating al-Qaeda and militant Taliban forces. With Taliban fighters having taken control of Pakistan’s picturesque Swat Valley and moving just 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad, the Obama administration pressured Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to take action. The Pakistani military launched an offensive in early May in the Swat Valley and neighboring districts to stop the spread of the Taliban insurgency that raised fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan’s existence as a nation. But the fighting has driven some two million people from their homes and heightened Pakistani mistrust of U.S. policies.

Pakistan could face even greater turmoil in the months ahead because the U.S. is pouring thousands of troops into neighboring Afghanistan in an attempt to reverse gains there by a resurgent Taliban, particularly in the southern heartland which borders Pakistan. U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen warned May 21 that a U.S. military offensive in southern Afghanistan could push Taliban fighters into Pakistan. Violence is already rising in the tribal regions from where Taliban and al-Qaeda militants launch attacks on both sides of the border.

The United Nations has warned of a long-term humanitarian crisis in Pakistan and called for massive aid for some two million people displaced by the current offensive and earlier fighting. “The scale of this displacement is extraordinary in terms of size and speed and has caused incredible suffering,” said Martin Mogwanja, the acting U.N. humanitarian coordinator, in launching the appeal. “We require a total $543 million assistance until the end of December this year” to provide emergency shelter, food, education and health services.

About 15,000 members of the Pakistani security forces are fighting between 4,000 and 5,000 militants in Swat, the military says. The army claims to have won back swaths of territory in Swat, which was popular with tourists before the Taliban took over, enforcing a hardline brand of Islamic law and beheading opponents. It says more than 1,000 militants have been killed in the fighting and denies allegations that many civilians have died in army shelling, but there has not been any independent confirmation of those claims because reporters are unable to work in the war zone.

The government has the backing of most politicians and many members of the public for the military offensive, but that support could quickly disappear if many civilians are killed or if the displaced languish in misery. Swat’s main town of Mingora, which normally has at least 375,000 residents, was emptied of all but 10,000 to 20,000 civilians still trapped in the town. Fierce street fighting erupted in the center of Mingora on May 23. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas warned that the operation there could be “painfully slow” to avoid casualties, as Pakistani soldiers were moving from house to house to secure it.

A senior commander, Maj. Gen. Sajad Ghan, insisted there was light at the end of the tunnel: “The noose is tightening around them. Their routes of escape have been cut off,” he said. “It’s just a question of time before (Taliban leaders) are eliminated.”

No one is predicting how much time that will take. The hardliners in Pakistan’s Islamic political parties want an Islamic government more severe than Saudi Arabia’s run according to Shariah law.

There are tens of thousands of madrassas (Islamic schools) in Pakistan that indoctrinate students in this ideology. Severe corporal punishments are handed out to students in the name of Islam. An entire generation of Pakistanis is growing up in these madrassas, devoid of any critical thinking and developing severe hatred for anything Western. Some teach students to seek martyrdom by suicide attacks. Even those schools without direct links to violence provide religious justification for violent attacks.

– edited from The Associated Press, Reuters, Newsweek and PBS FRONTLINE/World
PeaceMeal, May/June 2009

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Pakistan won’t be first in nuclear strike

Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, has assured rival India he would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in any future conflict and proposed the idea of a nuclear-free South Asia. Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine, like that of the United States but unlike India’s, does not contain a clause saying the country will not be the first to use its nuclear weapons in conflict.

It was not clear if President Zardari’s comments, made Nov. 22 during a video conference question-and-answer session organized by The Hindustan Times newspaper of India, represented a formal change in policy.

Asked by a student whether Pakistan was prepared to say it would not use a nuclear weapon first, Zardari said, “Most definitely! I am against nuclear warfare altogether.” The moderator repeated the question, pointing out to Zardari that his earlier answer was a “headline.” Zardari again replied, “Definitely!”

Zardari then proposed the idea of a nuclear-free South Asia. “I am sure I can get my parliament to agree with that, straight on,” he said. “Can you say the same?” he asked those in attendance, which included Indian government and business leaders. He gave no more details on the idea, which Pakistan — one-sixth the size of India — has proposed before.

Predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan have fought three wars since they were created in the bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent at independence from Britain in 1947. The stakes got much higher after both tested nuclear weapons in 1998.

– edited from The Associated Press, Nov. 23, 2008PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2008

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)