Fallout of Bin Laden Raid: Aid Groups in Pakistan Are Suspect
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — In the shadows of the American operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the fate of a small-town Pakistani doctor recruited by the C.I.A. to help track the Qaeda leader still looms between the two countries, a sore spot neither can leave untouched.
Alixandra Fazzina for The New York Times
“The C.I.A. needs to answer for this,” said David Wright, the country manager for Save the Children, of the recruitment of aid workers as intelligence operatives in a sensitive country like Pakistan. “And they need to stop it.”
Picked up by Pakistani intelligence agents days after the Bin Laden raid a year ago and now in secret detention, the doctor, Shakil Afridi, has embodied the tensions between Washington and Islamabad. To some American officials he is a hero, worthy of praise and protection; Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has personally appealed for his release. But inside Pakistan’s powerful military, still smarting from the raid on its soil, he is seen as a traitor who should face treason charges that could bring his execution. “We need to make an example of him,” one senior intelligence official said.
Beyond hard feelings and talk, however, his case has had a much wider effect: It has also roiled the humanitarian community in Pakistan, giving rise to a wave of restrictions that have compromised multimillion dollar aid operations serving millions of vulnerable Pakistanis.
Hardest hit is Save the Children, the largest international aid agency in Pakistan.
Dr. Afridi has told interrogators for the top Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI, that he was introduced to the C.I.A. through Save the Children, according to Pakistani officials and Western aid workers. Save the Children vigorously denies the claim, saying it has been made a scapegoat by a desperate man who, according to senior American officials, has been tortured in Pakistani custody. Nevertheless his claims have had a stark impact on an organization that says it spent $105 million last year helping seven million Pakistanis, most of them women and children.
Senior managers have been forbidden from leaving the country, other staff members have been refused visas, and aid supplies have been blocked by customs officials, depriving an estimated 35,000 infants of medical care over a three-month period. Pakistani intelligence has monitored the phone calls and residences of Save the Children staff.
Other aid groups complain of problems, too, largely at the hands of Pakistani officials convinced that their employees could be spies. To them, the affair sheds new light on a murky practice that they say should never take place: the recruitment of aid workers as intelligence operatives in a sensitive country like Pakistan, already awash in conspiracy theories about Western meddling.
“The C.I.A. needs to answer for this,” said David Wright, the country manager for Save the Children, who has not left Pakistan since his visa expired last October. “And they need to stop it.”
In some ways, Dr. Afridi, 48, was a textbook subject for intelligence operators looking to hire a pair of eyes in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions. Described by friends as ambitious and talkative with a sharp eye for making money, he rose from humble origins to become the government’s surgeon general in Khyber Agency, a tribal area along the Afghan border. Soon, he was in charge of a house-call polio vaccination program, which necessitated travel across the district.
But Dr. Afridi had a reputation for hustling as well as healing, and he faced multiple allegations of corruption and professional malpractice, according to officials, colleagues and government papers seen by The New York Times.
At his private practice, several patients claimed he performed improper operations to make extra money, prompting a local warlord named Mangal Bagh to detain him for a week in 2008 until he paid a fine of $11,100. In June 2010, 11 months before the Bin Laden raid, a female nurse filed a sexual harassment complaint that caused him to lose his job for six months.
The C.I.A. saw Dr. Afridi differently. He was a “dedicated medical professional who had made a career of providing health care, especially vaccinations, to women and children,” said a senior American official with knowledge of his case. He was recruited “several years” ago, the official said, with instructions to collect information about Bin Laden’s network in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as his home region is officially known.