Pakistan and Afghanistan are the last two countries where polio still is common. Campaigns against the polio virus have been hit by propaganda and conflict, and several children still are vulnerable to the dreadful disease. Militants attacking the campaign accuse health workers of being Western spies, especially from the American CIA.
In two separate attacks near Karachi, seven policemen guarding polio camp officials were killed on Wednesday. In January, 15 people were killed after a suicide bomber detonated explosives outside a polio eradication centre in Quetta.
The conflict between militants and the health campaign arose, after America killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan’s Abbottabad city on 2 May 2011. At the behest of CIA, a middle-aged doctor named Shakil Afridi ran a fake vaccination programme in the town Osama was hiding.
Around 2010-11, Dr Afridi, a top medic in the Khyber area, set up a fake Hepatitis B vaccination programme in the region, including Abbottabad. Afridi’s health officials visited Osama’s complex and collected blood sample from one of the children. The doctor handed over the sample to CIA, and after they found a DNA match, America planned to raid the house of the world’s deadliest terrorist.
Since the doctor’s scandalous role in Osama’s death was exposed, Osama-supporting militants have eyed the polio eradication programme with mistrust. They claim the polio-vaccination drive is either a facade for spying or a conspiracy to sterilise Muslims.
During the drive, the doctor had at least two female paramedical staff; one of them visited the Osama compound to collect the blood samples. This is one reason why militants now constantly target polio workers in the area.
One important question arises here. Did Afridi know that he was helping CIA in smelling out Laden? He was arrested at the Torkham border crossing, while trying to flee the country days after the raid. Pakistani Brig Shaukat Qadir, who investigated the case, says the medic had no knowledge what the project was all about, although he started doubting that the US was after some big fish towards the end of his espionage.
Afridi probably was a naive mole, who was played at by the CIA for some thousands of dollars. The doctor carried out orders dictated by a CIA operative known to him simply as Peter.
After Osama was caught and killed, in January 2012, the US publicly admitted that Afridi had worked for CIA, putting their Pakistani asset’s life in danger. Their purpose was served, and US cared little for a man who brought them confirmed news of the presence of their most wanted man.
Shortly after, Pakistan sentenced the now defunct spy to 33 years imprisonment for treason. When the US shed some crocodile tears, and raised a stink about the issue, saying it would cut the funds, Pakistan conveniently changed the charges to Afridi being connected with a local Islamist warlord, Mangal Bagh.
In the greatest farce, Afridi was finally charged, not with treason for 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.
Afridi is the classic story of a spy, who pays the price for working with a agency that prefers mowing down nations with the pretension of being in high moral grounds.