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Bin Laden Raid Led to ‘Chilling Effect’ on Aid Groups in Pakistan

May 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
New tension has emerged in the already troubled U.S.-Pakistani relationship after an Islamabad court sentenced Dr. Shakil Afridi to 33 years for helping the CIA find Osama bin Laden last year. Margaret Warner and The Washington Post's Pamela Constable discuss the new fallout for diplomatic ties and humanitarian groups.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on all of this, we turn to Pamela Constable, a longtime reporter on Pakistan for The Washington Post. Her latest book is “Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War With Itself.”

And, welcome back, Pam.

PAMELA CONSTABLE, The Washington Post: Delighted to be back.

MARGARET WARNER: Flesh out for us a little more what it is that Dr. Afridi did on behalf of the CIA.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, it’s clear what he did was set up a vaccination campaign.

He hired local nurses, he hired local health aids, at their behest, and went out and apparently borrowed some cases for vaccine holders from the World Health Organization, and went out in the area of Abbottabad, the city, to vaccinate people against hepatitis B.

Now, what’s not clear is whether the entire campaign was fake or whether part of it was real. Apparently, some people are saying that actually they did vaccinate a number of people, but then never came back for the second round.

MARGARET WARNER: But what he was trying to get was DNA samples from the compound.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: That’s correct.

And we don’t really know — it seems like he didn’t. So that leaves open the question, what did he actually do for this operation?

MARGARET WARNER: Right, because we have Hillary Clinton and Secretary Panetta both saying he helped.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: How did his name and this whole scenario leak out?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, I don’t believe how it leaked out. But he was picked up very soon after the raid. Within two weeks of the raid, he was picked up by the intelligence agencies.

And they have many, many, what I should say, good contacts with the Pakistani nationalist press. And I’m sure that’s how it got out.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, in terms of how Pakistanis even knew to pick him up?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Oh, well, I don’t know the answer to that, but, again, we’re talking about an area that’s — everybody knows each other.

It’s a tribal region of the country. And he was probably one of the most prominent people there. He was, after all, a surgeon from a tribal area, which means he was a very unusual man to begin with.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what do the Pakistanis say, and essentially reply to Secretary Clinton’s point, which is, why would he be tried and sentenced? He helped find a terrorist or locate a terrorist whom Pakistan says they wish had been apprehended.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, I think the answer to that question, you have to look at the raid itself that killed bin Laden. And the difference between the reaction here in the West and the reaction in Pakistan was like night and day.

Of course, the West was cheering and the White House was cheering. Pakistanis were not cheering at all. They considered it a great affront to their national sovereignty. And they were very embarrassed that they hadn’t known.

So what happened today, the fact that the sentencing, the whole notion that he was a traitor, even while we might consider him having done a patriotic act, is more of the same. It’s more of the same embarrassment, the same feeling of being affronted, of being part of and working for a foreign state, even if that foreign state was a partner in the war on terror, an ally and a great donor of Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what role , if any, did Save the Children, the NGO, humanitarian group, I think the largest in Pakistan, play? We know — and I reported in that piece — that he told the Pakistan intelligence service that somehow he’d been introduced to the CIA by Save the Children.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Save the Children officials deny they had anything to do with sort of him in this context of this raid.

They do know him or they sort of did know him. He had attended some of their courses in Pakistan. They have got more than 2,000 people working there. They’re everywhere. They’re all over the country, as you say, very well known, and provided all sorts of training program for people like him. So he was definitely familiar with and had been invited to participate, but everyone at the organization certainly is saying that they had nothing to do what he — with the actions he took.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what’s been the blowback on Save the Children and other humanitarian groups?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: It’s been a very big chilling effect.

I mean, Save the Children in particular had felt they had to get a number of people out of the country. I believe they sent eight people out of the country and put some others in hotels who had been working in that area. But they still have many, many hundreds of people in other parts of the country.

But, more broadly, you had Medecins Sans Frontieres, you had a coalition of international nonprofits saying this is terrible for us. We already have a lot of people suspicious of us. The Islamist groups put out propaganda that, if you get a polio, a vaccine, it is going to make you sterile. This will certainly make that worse.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, the Pakistan government has taken retaliation on these NGOs, making it hard for them to operate?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Not necessarily the Pakistan government.

I think probably there’s been pressure from the intelligence services. There’s clearly been pressure from the religious groups. There have been threats from the religious groups. I think the government has been more sort of responding to that.

MARGARET WARNER: And has the CIA said anything about whether — well, I suppose they wouldn’t — whether they do work through NGOs?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: I don’t know what they have said specifically. I’m sure they would categorically say that they don’t.

There have been a number of other incidents up there in the past couple of years, right in that — in that little tribal area and in Peshawar of people who were supposedly working for NGOs, and either got killed or arrested or something happened to them. So there is some little murky room there.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Pam Constable, thank you so much.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Happy to be here.