While the debate over Seymour Hersh’s London Review of Books piece goes on, one detail of his reporting has been little mentioned: the scapegoating of Dr. Shakil Afridi as the man who supposedly identified Osama bin Laden to the CIA, a story put out there by the US – and subsequently exposed by Hersh as a fabrication designed to protect the person actually responsible.
Bin Laden — held as a prisoner since 2006 by the Pakistanis in a prison built and subsidized by the Saudis — was quite ill by the time of the raid. A military doctor was assigned to treat him, Major Amir Aziz, who took up residence nearby: reporters later found his name on a plate attached to a residence less than 80 yards from the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden was being held.
When the Americans discovered bin Laden’s whereabouts, and were pondering what action to take, President Obama was reluctant to act before definitively identifying the terrorist chieftain as the occupant of that compound: the only way to do so was by procuring a DNA sample. The Pakistanis agreed to facilitate this, and Dr. Aziz provided the sample. After the raid, however, things got complicated. As Hersh reports:
“In June 2011, it was reported in the New York Times, the Washington Post and all over the Pakistani press that Amir Aziz had been held for questioning in Pakistan; he was, it was said, a CIA informant who had been spying on the comings and goings at the bin Laden compound. Aziz was released, but the retired official said that US intelligence was unable to learn who leaked the highly classified information about his involvement with the mission. Officials in Washington decided they ‘could not take a chance that Aziz’s role in obtaining bin Laden’s DNA also would become known’. A sacrificial lamb was needed, and the one chosen was Shakil Afridi, a 48-year-old Pakistani doctor and sometime CIA asset, who had been arrested by the Pakistanis in late May and accused of assisting the agency. ‘We went to the Pakistanis and said go after Afridi,’ the retired official said. ‘We had to cover the whole issue of how we got the DNA.'”
Although most of the alleged informants initially accused of helping the CIA track bin Laden had been released shortly after the raid, at one point Dr. Aziz was still in custody – and the danger was that his cover would be blown and the ISI’s cooperation with the raid would be exposed. He was eventually released, however, albeit not after denying he’d ever been arrested in the first place.
But it was still necessary to explain how the Americans had positively identified bin Laden, and so a cover story was concocted – and the sacrificial lamb was offered up for slaughter to the god of deception.
As is usual with skilled liars, there was a kernel of truth to the lie the CIA and their Pakistani partners put out there. Dr. Afridi had indeed been a sometime CIA asset, charged with getting blood samples via vaccinations against hepatitis and other diseases, to be used to identify local jihadists. Afridi’s vaccination program, however, had nothing to do with the effort to identify bin Laden: he and his co-workers had never been near the Abbottabad compound. And it wasn’t a “fake” program, as has been widely reported: Afridi provided real vaccinations and his independently financed operation was quite successful in stopping the spread of easily preventable diseases.
What’s more, Afridi was and still is vehemently pro-American: in 2012, sitting in jail on trumped up charges, he told Fox News that when he was arrested “I tried to argue that America was Pakistan’s biggest supporter – billions and billions of dollars in aid, social and military assistance – but all they said was, ‘These are our worst enemies. You helped our enemies.'”
Interestingly, nowhere in that Fox News interview does Afridi claim to have actually helped identify bin Laden.
Afridi was ultimately charged, not with aiding the CIA, but with collaborating with a terrorist organization, Lashkar-e-Islam – the group that actually had once kidnapped him and held him for ransom. He was tried in secret, and not allowed to attend his own trial: he is not even allowed to communicate with his own lawyers. He was repeatedly tortured with electric shocks and burned with cigarettes. His conviction, however, was overturned by a court on the grounds that the secret tribunal that tried him had no authority to do so. However, almost immediately, another bogus charge arose: the mother of a child supposedly treated at Afridi’s clinic claimed her son had died under the doctor’s hand, and prosecutors promptly charged him with “murder.”
The Pakistanis certainly followed through on their promise to the Americans to “go after Afridi,” as Hersh’s source put it.
Afridi still languishes in prison, thrown to the wolves by the US, his family in hiding, his lawyers targeted by militants for death. His fate dramatizes, in the form of a horribly tragic story, how the US betrays its friends, ruthlessly uses and abuses its assets, and then lies about it while maintaining a stance of moral righteousness.
Incredibly, in testimony before Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry maintained to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher that the US is doing everything it can to obtain Afridi’s release – but, he averred, “it’s not that simple.” Well, yes, now we know what he meant when he said that – since we’re the ones responsible for putting the good doctor behind bars to begin with.
Both Rohrabacher and Senator Rand Paul have championed Afridi’s cause, in the mistaken belief that he was the man responsible for identifying bin Laden. Both were outraged that a man who should be considered a hero was left hanging by our State Department, and have demanded his release: Congress pulled $33 million of aid to Pakistan (a million for every year of his sentence) in order to protest Afridi’s incarceration.
In light of Hersh’s revelations about who really identified bin Laden, and the treacherous role of the Americans in scapegoating Afridi, the injustice done to Afridi is even greater. Hopefully Rohrabacher and Paul will reopen this case and continue to press for Afridi’s release – while putting the blame for his jailing and torture where it belongs, which is squarely on Washington and the President of the United States.
Shakil Afridi is the classic fall guy, the innocent victim of a foreign government that actively aided the worst terrorist in modern times – Pakistan – and our own government, which lied to us about how bin Laden died, and threw their own agent under the bus in order to 1) appease the double-dealing Pakistanis, and 2) score maximum points for an unpopular President in an election year in which Obama’s political fate was uncertain.
This last point is particularly important, because none of this would have been necessary if President Obama had gone along with the original plan, which was to wait a week or so and then claim bin Laden had been killed in a drone strike in Waziristan. There would have been no need to explain where they got the DNA sample that had identified bin Laden as the inhabitant of the Abbottabad compound, Dr. Aziz would never have been arrested, and there would have been no need to scapegoat Afridi.
Instead, however, the President’s political team decided that it was necessary to announce the raid, take credit for bin Laden’s death, and concoct an entire narrative that emphasized the competence of the intelligence community (which, in reality, had failed to find any trace of bin Laden) and of President Obama personally, who had done what his predecessor had so conspicuously failed to do.
And so, aside from underscoring the venality and opportunism of our dealings with both our friends and allies abroad, what this episode further illustrates is the veracity of what I call my theory of “libertarian realism,” which is that all “foreign policy” is really just a reflection of our domestic politics. The President and his advisors threw everyone under the bus – not only Afridi, but our own intelligence community, as well as the Pakistanis – in order to gain maximum political advantage in an election year. To hell with everyone else, they reasoned: we have an election to win!
And that about sums up the essence of American foreign policy, our “war on terrorism,” and every other policymaking decision of any consequence. Libertarians know this almost instinctively: thanks to Seymour Hersh, the rest of the world is learning it.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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