Two prominent U.S. senators on Wednesday slammed Pakistani officials for handing down a harsh sentence for a doctor who helped nab Osama bin Laden, rekindling bad blood between the reluctant partners.
A Pakistani court sentenced Shakil Afridi to 33 years in prison on a treason charge. McClatchy reported last summer that Afridi set up a fake health program in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that sent workers around to homes in an effort to obtain bin Laden's DNA. The sentence comes just days after President Obama opted against a one-on-one meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari during the three-day NATO summit in Chicago. Some Pakistani officials and experts have called the move a very public diplomatic snub.
It also threatens to undermine talks between Pentagon and Pakistani officials to hammer out an agreement to reopen ground transportation routes used by U.S. and NATO troops until last November to move equipment into and out of Afghanistan. Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told reporters Wednesday that it has cost the Pentagon twice as much to move equipment and other materiel into and out of Afghanistan using supply lines that cross its northern border.
Following the May 2011 U.S. commando raid that killed bin Laden, U.S. lawmakers lashed out at Pakistan for harboring the terrorist mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, threatening to cut off all American aid. The threats from both U.S. political parties helped drive Washington-Islamabad relations to a new low that until recently remained frosty.
In the wake of the Afridi ruling, Sens. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and John McCain, an Arizona Republican, were at it again, dubbing the sentence "shocking and outrageous" and calling his actions "courageous, heroic and patriotic."
"Afridi's actions were completely consistent with the multiple, legally-binding resolutions passed over many years by the United Nations Security Council, which required member states to assist in bringing Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network to justice," the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee said in a joint statement. "Afridi set an example that we wish others in Pakistan had followed long ago. He should be praised and rewarded for his actions, not punished and slandered."
Levin and McCain control the annual Pentagon policy bill that could be used to impose penalties on Pakistan by limiting U.S. military aid. They called on Pakistani leaders to immediately pardon and set free Afridi--or face Congress's wrath.
"At a time when the United States and Pakistan need more than ever to work constructively together, Dr. Afridi's continuing imprisonment and treatment as a criminal will only do further harm to U.S.-Pakistani relations," Levin and McCain said, "including diminishing Congress's willingness to provide financial assistance to Pakistan."
Allen said prior to a recent meeting in Islamabad, senior U.S. military and Pakistani leaders "haven't even talked for a year." Allen called it "real progress" that the two sides finally reopened talks about the Afghanistan war and efforts to target what is left of al Qaeda core leadership, now operating from Pakistani soil.
The Islamabad talks were aimed at avoiding a repeat of a late-November incident when U.S. forces mistakenly fired on a Pakistani military checkpoint, killing dozens of Pakistani forces.
Allen went out of his way to salute the Pakistani military, noting "they have taken more casualties in the FATA than we have in our 10 years of war." He was referring to the tribal region in northwest Pakistan, where Taliban and al Qaeda leaders and operatives are now based.
"I don't see that there is a decrease in the relationship," Allen said. "I think [it is] poised to improve, frankly."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.