The anticipation around the possible release of an imprisoned Pakistani doctor may coincide with a thaw in the South Asian nation’s relations with its traditional ally, the United States, and disquiet over the financial hazards of deepening ties with China.
In the corridors of power in Islamabad, there is a growing expectation that Pakistan could free Shakil Afridi – who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden – as part of a goodwill gesture towards the US. Pakistani sources said Islamabad is not averse to using Afridi as a bargaining chip to mend fences with Washington. The two sides are said to be in talks over Afridi, who has been languishing in a jail in Peshawar since 2011 due to his alleged links with militants.
Jail authorities recently shifted Afridi to an unknown location, fuelling the speculation he may be released soon. His lawyer, Qamar Nadeem, confirmed the transfer but said he was not sure where his client had been taken.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office has, however, denied knowledge of any move to free Afridi. Rumours include Washington offering to exchange Afridi for Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who has been sentenced to 86 years in prison in the United States. Russian news agency Sputnik recently ran a story quoting sources claiming the CIA had tried to stage a prison break to rescue Afridi.
Pakistan accuses Afridi of treason for running a fake vaccine campaign to obtain DNA samples that helped the Americans confirm the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad in northern Pakistan.
It caused immense embarrassment to Pakistan, which had denied knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts. His vaccine campaign paved the way for a US Navy Seal raid that killed the world’s most wanted man in May 2011.
A tribunal sentenced him to 33 years in prison for ties with terrorists. His sentence was reduced to 23 years in 2014.
Contrary to Pakistan’s claim, The Spy Chronicles , a recent book co-authored by the former spy masters of Pakistan and India, revealed the US took General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief, into confidence two days before the raid. The book also said a retired Pakistani intelligence officer may have informed the Americans about bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan in return for a possible reward of US$50 million.
The US, where Afridi is something of a hero for helping locate bin Laden, had termed his conviction “unjust and unwarranted”. Pakistan sees him as a traitor who violated the law of the land and compromised its sovereignty.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has vowed to expedite Afridi’s release. Last week, he told Congress: “I don’t see any reason whatsoever to give the government of Pakistan any money … in terms of our foreign aid until Dr Afridi, the man who helped us bring justice to Osama bin Laden, [is released].
“Please be aware that it’s at my heart and I know it’s important and we can do that. We can achieve that outcome.”
Afridi’s continued imprisonment has been a point of contention between Islamabad and Washington, which believes the indictment is proof of Pakistan’s insincerity in the fight against terror. Pakistan, on the other hand, still bears a grudge against the US for violating its sovereignty by co-opting Afridi and conducting the raid on bin Laden’s compound without informing Pakistani authorities.
Since 2011, US assistance to Pakistan has diminished. Since Donald Trump became president, the US has hardened its stance towards Pakistan, halting aid and grants to its erstwhile ally. Pakistan’s refusal to release Afridi prompted US lawmakers to suggest even tougher measures against Pakistan for working against US interests.
Since 2002, the US has provided Pakistan with nearly US$33.1 billion in foreign aid, including approximately US$3.9 billion in foreign military financing.
In his first tweet this year, Trump announced Pakistan would receive no more US assistance: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
Pakistan has since cosied up to its “all-weather friend” China, which in turn has been showering it with development aid. But last year, international lending institutions and Pakistan’s central bank warned the Pakistani government that rising Chinese imports for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of Beijing’s global trade “Belt and Road Initiative”, had deepened Pakistan’s balance of payments problems. Chinese machinery imports for power generation and transport infrastructure are expected to reach US$27.8 billion by 2021.
Islamabad announced last year that projects worth US$16 billion are expected to be implemented by 2030, which will raise the overall cost of the CPEC from US$46 billion to US$55 billion.
Pakistan would reportedly have to pay US$90 billion to China over 30 years against the loan and investment portfolio worth US$50 billion under the CPEC. In a report last year, Topline Securities estimated annual average repayments of as much as US$4 billion after 2020.
Analysts warn that would be too rich for an economy of Pakistan’s size. This has led to talks over the pitfalls of substituting the US with China and the need for Pakistan to make amends with its old ally.
“Pakistan needs to repair ties with the US, which has pumped billion of US dollars in aid over the years,” said Mustansar Abbas, an expert on security and defence.
Sohail Iqbal Bhatti, another defence and security expert, believes China will not provide a viable replacement for American aid.
“Shaking hands with the US is in the better interests of 220 million Pakistanis,” said Sohail, pointing out that Pakistan has had to pull out of a dam project because of the high funding costs.
“Pakistan’s dependence on China is bound to increase and we understand it. But Pakistani authorities must keep in mind it would be a double-edged sword and comes with its own problems.”
Pakistani experts are also urging reconciliation with the US to avoid isolation internationally, which would only make Pakistan more reliant on China.
First Trump, then China: as Pakistan loses support, it should lose the pretence on cross-border terror
“It would make it far easier for China to advance its projects on its own terms,” said Mohammad Iqbal, an assistant professor of international relations at the Punjab University.
Currently, Pakistan is seeking Chinese loans worth as much as US$2 billion to help avert a balance of payments crisis. Lending to Pakistan by China and its commercial banks is on track to hit US$5 billion in the financial year ending this month.
The new Chinese loans aim to bolster Pakistan’s rapidly depleting foreign exchange reserves, which tumbled to US$10.3 billion in May from US$16.4 billion in May 2017. In a recent editorial warning the government about Chinese loans, Pakistan’s most influential newspaper Dawn said: “Borrowing on commercial terms from state-owned Chinese banks as a way to finance the growing external sector deficit is fast becoming the new norm, a fact that has very troubling implications for the country.” ■