Paul Vallely: America and Pakistan do their dance of death

The countries are not bitter enemies so much as bitter allies

Related Topics

"There's a common outrage, a common response wherever you look," said Carl Levin, chairman of the US Senate's armed services committee. He clearly wasn't looking far enough.

The good senator was responding to the news that Pakistan has jailed the doctor who ran a fake vaccination campaign to provide information for US intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Dr Shakil Afridi took blood samples from children living in a compound in Abbottabad which, when tested by the CIA, matched the DNA of the world's most wanted man. US special forces swooped on the hideout and executed the al-Qa'ida leader.

Dr Afridi's role in finding Bin Laden – which his nation's secret service had so conspicuously failed to do – constituted "treason", Pakistan has decided, and jailed him for 33 years. Washington reacted with fury. Pakistan was "a schizophrenic ally". Senators slashed $33m from US aid to Pakistan – $1m for each year of Dr Afridi's sentence. But in Pakistan you find outrage of a different kind. Government ministers call Dr Afridi a "traitor" who "co-operated with foreign intelligence". Some in Pakistan's newspapers want to see him hanged.

It is two years since David Cameron sparked a diplomatic row by tactlessly accusing Pakistan of "looking both ways" on terrorism. Everyone knew he was right, but Pakistan's main funder, the United States, had deliberately refrained from such plain speaking because Pakistan's ambivalence towards tackling terrorism was seen as preferable to outright hostility. And the reality is that Pakistan has lost more civilians than any other nation to Islamist terror attacks – some 30,000 Pakistani civilians and 3,000 soldiers have died at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban – while at the same time the country has high levels of support for extremists in its population, religious leaders and intelligence service, the ISI.

Understandably, Washington did not take Islamabad into its confidence when the Bin Laden raid was launched. But it is a false polarity to insist, as many have, that the ISI is either closet Islamist or incompetent – those being seen as the only explanations for Bin Laden's five years in hiding, 800 yards from Pakistan's equivalent of Sandhurst.

The answer to the puzzle is to be found much further north – in the lawless Khyber tribal region which was carved out of Afghan territory by colonial Britain as a buffer to protect the Raj. A century on, it is still a frontier belt where Pakistani and Afghan Taliban freely mingle. It was here that Dr Afridi was found guilty under the Federally Administered Tribal Areas laws dating back to 19th century British rule. An assistant political commissioner acted as prosecutor, judge and jury. Dr Afridi had no lawyer. He was unable to cross-examine witnesses or put his own side of the story, though he did not at least get the death penalty as he might have elsewhere in Pakistan.

Yet here can be found the explanation for the double game Pakistan plays on Islamic extremism. The region is the stronghold for a network of militants known as the Haqqani, a largely independent Taliban faction with bases in north Waziristan, just across the border from Afghanistan.

The ISI sees the Haqqani as a vital bulwark against Pakistan's greatest enemy, India. What terrifies it is that the nation against whom Pakistan has fought three wars since 1947 will increase its influence in Afghanistan when US troops pull out. The disputed state of Kashmir is not far away. The terrorism of the Haqqani, the Taliban faction that Nato most fears, is seen by some in the ISI as a useful way of undermining Indian interests without the need for a conventional war. It even has a jargon name for it: defence in depth. The ISI is divided as to whether Islamic extremism or US imperialism is the bigger enemy. But India is always in the back of its mind.

To that add a widespread feeling that Pakistan is routinely humiliated by the US. The Bin Laden raid is but one example. Last year, a CIA operative shot dead two men in the street in Lahore and claimed diplomatic immunity. Next, Nato helicopters killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at Salala and refused to apologise. Then there are the US drone attacks in north Waziristan that often kill civilians and which Islamabad condemns as "illegal, counterproductive and totally unacceptable". Drones killed another 12 people last week.

All these, Pakistanis insist, are violations of its sovereignty. In response it has closed supply routes to Afghanistan, forcing Nato to open a longer northern route which is twice as expensive. Negotiations to reopen them have foundered, causing Barack Obama to snub President Asif Ali Zardari at last week's Nato summit in Chicago.

It is in this context that the jailing of the hapless Dr Shakil Afridi must be seen. A $33m cut in aid sounds big. But it is small change in the $2bn a year America gives to the Pakistani army and a £7bn wider aid package which the US hopes will help turn this military-dominated Islamist nuclear power into a more stable and democratic ally.

"You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror," George Bush said after 9/11. The reality has proved a lot less simple. America and Pakistan are not so much bitter enemies as bitter allies, locked together in a danse macabre. It is individuals such as Dr Shakil Afridi who pay the price. He will not be the last.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

£40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

Day In a Page

Read Next

If I were Prime Minister: I'd shrink the gap between the highest and lowest paid

Marina Warner

Sorry Britain, but nobody cares about your little election – try being relevant next time

Emanuel Sidea
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power