By Chris McGreal / The Guardian –
The appropriations committee unanimously approved the $33m reduction as outrage grows in Washington over the conviction of Shakil Afridi for treason. The physician ran a fake vaccination programme in an attempt to collect Bin Laden’s DNA in order to verify he was living in the Abbottabad compound where he was eventually killed a year ago.
The aid cut will not be immediately implemented as it comes out of next year’s budget, but it will increase the pressure on the Pakistan government as Washington seeks to have Afridi’s conviction quashed or his sentence substantially reduced.
The appropriations committee debate reflected the frustration at what many in Washington see as Pakistan’s duplicity that has bubbled away for many years over the links between its intelligence service and the Taliban, and was accentuated when it was revealed that Bin Laden was living untouched in a garrison town.
“We need Pakistan. Pakistan needs us,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, who helped write the legislation cutting aid. “But we don’t need a Pakistan that is just double dealing.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein voiced a repeatedly-heard sentiment on Capitol Hill since Afridi’s conviction that it was outrageous to convict him of treason when he was helping not harming Pakistan by contributing to Bin Laden’s demise.
“It was not a crime against Pakistan,” she said. “It was an effort to locate and help bring to justice the world’s No 1 terrorist.”
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher demanded stronger action from the Obama administration. “Secretary Clinton will have to do more than voice protests over the Afridi case. Both the departments of state and defence need to take punitive actions against Pakistan.
“Carrots are not enough when dealing with an adversary. Sticks are needed to prove we are serious,” he said.
Congressman Pete King, chairman of the House homeland security committee, has also blamed the Obama administration saying that it put Afridi “out there” by leaking details of his role in the raid to the media.
Administration officials say that information about the fake vaccination scheme, which was first reported in the Guardian, clearly came from the Pakistani authorities.
However, after Afridi’s role was made public, US officials openly acknowledged it including the defence secretary, Leon Panetta – who was CIA director when Bin Laden was killed– who described the doctor as having been “very helpful” in gathering intelligence on the al-Qaida leader.
The Senate appropriations committee has already slashed foreign aid to Pakistan from the $2bn proposed by Barack Obama to just $800m from October 1, in part because of across-the-board budget cuts, but also because of frustration with Pakistan. The additional $33m reduction will come from military aid. But it is likely to be restored if Afridi is released. The US has given Pakistan more than $18bn in aid since the 9/11 attacks.
Pakistan has pushed back, saying that the US should respect its courts. A foreign office spokesman, Moazzam Ahmad Khan, said that the case would be decided not by pressure from Washington but in accordance with the country’s laws. “We need to respect each other’s legal process,” he said.
There is evidence that Afridi may not have realised he was being used to hunt Bin Laden. A retired Pakistani army brigadier, Shaukat Qadir, who obtained access to intelligence reports about Afridi’s interrogation said that he may not have known he was helping track down Bin Laden.
“Shakil [Afridi] had no idea of whom or what he was looking for. He was merely paid to follow instructions,” Qadir wrote in a report. It is not clear if Afridi knew he was working for the CIA. Qadir’s report may explain why Afridi did not immediately leave Pakistan after Bin Laden was killed.
Afridi, who was convicted by a tribal court in northwest Pakistan, is being held at the Central Prison in Peshawar where he is said by Pakistani officials to be “weak and depressed”.