Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s latest remarks about the raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden aren’t helping to improve relations with the important Asian nation.
In a CBS “60 Minutes” interview aired on Sunday, Panetta reiterated that someone in the Pakistani government must have known where bin Laden was hiding. The Pentagon chief also admitted for the first time that a Pakistani doctor helped the CIA last year at bin Laden’s compound.
Panetta, who was in charge of the CIA when Navy SEALs conducted the raid, expressed concern for the doctor, who’s been arrested by Pakistani officials and charged with treason, wondering why the Pakistani government would prosecute someone, Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi, who helped kill a wanted fugitive.
Afridi faces treason charges for running a fake vaccination program as a way to gain access to bin Laden’s compound for the CIA — and procure DNA that could be used to verify bin Laden's presence. Panetta told “60 Minutes” he worried about how Afridi is being treated.
“This was an individual who in fact helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regards to this operation,” Panetta said. “He was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan, he was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan. As a matter of fact, Pakistan and the United States have a common cause here against terrorism. And for them to take this kind of action against someone who was helping to go after terrorism, I just think, it was a real mistake on their part.”
Pakistan was embarrassed by the raid and accused the US of violating its sovereignty.
Anti-American sentiment already was running high — a Gallup poll suggested 85 percent of Pakistanis disapproved of U.S. leadership. It wasn’t always like that.
“I have been to America when I was a young officer. I did one of the training courses there and that was the F-16. I have some very fond memories of the people I interacted with,” said Retired Pakistani Air Force Marshall Shahad Latif.
Latif remembered working side-by-side with American pilots, learning to fly U.S.-made warplanes. But Latif said those years of teamwork don't give Panetta the right to criticize Pakistan for its treatment of Afridi — someone who Latif thinks must face consequences for working for the CIA.
But why would anyone be angry with a man who apparently helped the world get rid of Osama bin Laden?
“This is a difficult proposition. But apparently the fact he passed information, I think he does come in the bracket of a traitor,” Latif said.
Political analyst Imitaz Gul took a similarly hard line. It doesn’t matter to Gul that Afridi’s apparent target was bin Laden — it matters that he was passing secrets to the U.S. and withholding them from Pakistani authorities.
“You know, it’s really easy to argue against it or argue for it. But it depends who is arguing it. The Americans probably think they can probably get away with everything,” Gul said.
Gul knows American officials have lost faith in Pakistani intelligence — believing they actively cooperate with sections of the Taliban in Afghanistan. And in the “60 Minutes” interview, Panetta said while he had no evidence, he believed someone in the Pakistani government knew bin Laden was hiding in their country.
There are plenty of bad feelings on both sides, said Gul — not made any better by a November cross border clash with U.S. troops that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.
“These relations continue to suffer from mistrust. So as long as this perception stays, I think there will be enough reason for the Americans to be wary or suspicious of the Pakistani establishment and the Pakistani establishment on its part is suspicious of the American long-term planning,” Gul said.
There have been some attempts to repair relations. U.S. drones are reportedly flying over northern Pakistan again. And the parliament in Islamabad seems poised to reopen the border crossings for NATO supplies that were closed by Pakistan in an act of retaliation.
Still, the resentment toward America doesn’t appear to be dissipating. And that probably means the Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA bag bin Laden shouldn’t expect to get off lightly in his own country.