U.S. wants release of doctor who sought bin Laden DNA

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 12, 2011 

ISLAMABAD — The Obama administration is pressing Islamabad to release a doctor who was arrested for working for the CIA to help confirm that Osama bin Laden lived in Abbottabad, officials said, but the doctor's fate has become hostage to the bitter confrontation between Islamabad and Washington.

The U.S.-Pakistan clash, which followed the raid to kill bin Laden, was pushed further toward the breaking point Tuesday when Pakistan's defense minister threatened to pull the country's soldiers off the border with Afghanistan, a move that would spell likely disaster for the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. Pakistan's military felt humiliated by the secret U.S. special forces operation May 2.

Fearing for the doctor's safety, Washington is trying to convince Pakistan to let him go and allow his wife, children and him to be taken to the United States, according to Pakistani and U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The U.S. thinks that, in helping to track a global terrorist mastermind, the doctor did nothing wrong. The Pakistanis are furious that the CIA has developed an independent spy network in the country.

The doctor, Shakil Afridi, is in the custody of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate after it discovered that the CIA had recruited and paid him to try to obtain DNA samples from those living in the house in Abbottabad where U.S. intelligence suspected that bin Laden was hiding.

It's thought that Afridi, who's in his late 40s, was detained in late May. Afridi worked as the doctor in charge of Khyber, part of Pakistan's tribal area, which lies on the edge of Peshawar. The ISI snatched him on his way back home to Peshawar at the Karkhano bazaar, a market for smuggled goods between Peshawar and Khyber, according to friends of his who didn't want to be identified because they feared reprisal.

It's thought that he hasn't been formally charged, which isn't unusual for someone in ISI hands. The Pakistani authorities are holding him for working for a foreign intelligence agency, which carries harsh punishment, including the death penalty.

From a humble family, Afridi graduated in 1990 from Khyber Medical College, the top medical academy in the northwest of the country. He'd been accused of corruption in his job in the past but later was cleared of misdoings, according to one person who knows him. His wife is said to be the head of a college for girls, also in northwest Pakistan.

The CIA was never sure that bin Laden was hiding in the house in northern Pakistan, but U.S. intelligence didn't trust the Pakistani authorities. So it recruited Afridi, who secretly worked for the CIA in the weeks leading up to the raid on bin Laden's compound. During that time, Afridi set up a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad, which it was hoped would produce a DNA sample from the syringes used. A nurse who was working for the doctor managed to get in the compound, though it's thought that the right DNA wasn't obtained.

The doctor, a senior government employee, may have been transferred to custody in Islamabad. McClatchy's story Monday on the doctor was headline news Tuesday in Pakistan, but government officials offered no comment.

Adding to the U.S.-Pakistan standoff, the U.S. announced Sunday that it would punish Pakistan for its lack of cooperation in the anti-terrorism fight by cutting $800 million in military aid. In response Tuesday, Ahmad Mukhtar, Pakistan's defense minister, said the country could pull out more than 100,000 personnel posted on its side of the border with Afghanistan.

Much of the U.S. military aid would have gone toward reimbursing Pakistan for the costs of keeping more than 100,000 troops in the mountainous tribal area, guarding the porous border with Afghanistan, under a scheme known as Coalition Support Funds.

"This is money we have already spent on this war," Mukhtar said in an interview with Express 24/7, a Pakistani news channel. "The next step is that the government or armed forces will remove these soldiers from the border."

"We cannot afford to keep our soldiers out in the mountains for such a long period of time," he said.

According to figures released by the U.S. Congress, Washington has paid Pakistan $8.9 billion in Coalition Support Funds since 2001. The money is meant to pay for the costs of maintaining Pakistani troops in the tribal area.

Critics in the U.S. accuse Pakistan's armed forces of allowing militants to sneak across the border from havens in the tribal area to carry out attacks in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan says it maintains 1,100 border checkpoints and does its best to stop the flow. If those posts were removed, Taliban would be able to pour across unhindered.

Mukhtar's comments are likely to be a warning shot, as pulling out those troops from the tribal area would create a massive security threat for Pakistan, too. The tribal area is home to extremists that threaten both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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