- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
The mythology surrounding Dr. Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani physician who may have helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden, reached new heights Wednesday with a bipartisan resolution declaring Afridi an "American hero."
"All Americans owe Dr. Afridi a debt of gratitude for what he did to help us find Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), the sponsor of the resolution. "He risked his life to provide the intel our forces needed to locate and eliminate Osama bin Laden and he now languishes in a Pakistani prison."
The matter-of-fact way in which the resolution describes Afridi’s actions suggests his efforts to assist the CIA are well-known. In reality, however, the nature in which Afridi aided the United States remains shrouded in mystery.
What is known is that Afridi agreed to run a phony vaccination campaign for the CIA with the hope of confirming the location of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. The plan was to collect DNA samples of bin Laden’s family members surreptitiously, but, according to multiple reports, the plan failed. "Dr. Afridi never gained DNA samples from the compound," reported The New York Times. U.S. officials such as former CIA director Leon Panetta have since claimed Afridi assisted in other ways, but have never offered specifics. "This was an individual who in fact helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regards to this operation," Panetta told 60 Minutes last year.
When FP asked Rohrabacher if he could list specific ways Afridi helped the CIA, he leaned back on the Panetta quote. "He provided information American officials, including former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, have confirmed was very important in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice," he told FP.
This absence of details has not deterred Afridi’s advocates.
Last September, for instance, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) threatened to hold up the Senate until his colleagues froze aid to Pakistan for sentencing Afridi to 33 years in prison. The United States "should not give foreign aid to a country whose government is torturing the man who helped us kill Osama bin Laden," he said.
Two days before the 2012 presidential election, Afridi’s role in the bin Laden raid was immortalized in Harvey Weinstein’s film SEAL Team Six. But the film erroneously depicted Afridi as cognizant of his role in helping the CIA find bin Laden from beginning to end. In fact, both U.S. officials and the real-life Afridi acknowledge he was not informed that bin Laden was the target. (The CIA did not trust him with that information.)
"I stand by my characterization of Dr. Afridi as a hero who willingly worked secretly for the CIA at great risk to his life and his family’s safety," Rohrabacher insisted. "Even if he didn’t know who the target was."
But if Afridi risked and achieved so much, where is his bounty for bin Laden’s capture? In one of the most detailed reports following the May 2011 bin Laden raid, ABC News journalist Matthew Cole noted that no one would receive the government’s $25 million reward for information leading to the capture of bin Laden because it was the result of "electronic intelligence, not human informants." A U.S. official told Cole, "We do not expect a reward to be paid." White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated that point during a press briefing back in May 2011.
For a sense of how difficult it has been to pin down Afridi’s tradecraft, consider this: GQ magazine spent 6,700 words on the question last month but wound up with little more than speculation and rumor. "No one has been able to determine what exactly he accomplished," wrote Matthieu Aikins.
The article was not without intrigue, however. It turns out, Dr. Afridi may not be the type of "American hero" members of Congress think he is.
In interviews with Pakistanis who knew Afridi, Aikins describes a womanizing doctor who solicited prostitutes and carried out medical malpractice.
"He liked the ‘taxi girls,’ " said Abdul Karim Mehsud, a lawyer in Peshawar, using a local term for prostitutes. "I saw many going into his room, down the hall from mine." He smirked in recollection. "Fresh Afghan-Persian girls, from the refugee camps."
There were persistent accusations that the self-trained Afridi performed unnecessary operations in order to make money and that his patients sometimes suffered grievously as a result…. [I]n Peshawar, I spoke to Ahmed Saeed, a student living in Bara, who told me that in 2007 he took his father to see Afridi after his father complained of chest and abdominal pains. Saeed left to buy some medicine next door, and when he came back he found that his father and Afridi had disappeared. "They went to his clinic," one of the nurses told him. When Saeed finally arrived at Afridi’s private practice, he found his father unconscious. "I operated on his kidney," the doctor told him. Afridi charged them about $200. After the surgery, his father’s condition worsened, and Saeed took him to a government hospital in Peshawar. The doctors there diagnosed his problem as a heart condition and, according to Saeed, said his kidneys had been damaged in a sloppy and unnecessary operation. Less than a month after being operated on by Afridi, Saeed’s father died at home. His family blamed the doctor. "He was a cheater, and he betrayed his profession," Saeed said.
A Reuters report published last May painted a similarly negative picture of Afridi. In it, reporter Michael Georgy spoke with a man who had fired Afridi when he was working at a hospital in Pakistan’s Khyber tribal region. Here the allegations ranged from sexual harassment to theft of medical supplies.
[Tariq] Hayat said he met him twice to question him over allegations that he had sexually assaulted a nurse at his hospital and had stolen its electrocardiograph machines for his private practice.
"I made him stand … I told him you are a characterless person, you have no principles," said Hayat, adding he had Afridi fired and expelled him from Khyber. "I said ‘you are a thief, doctor’."
A senior health official who said he saw a record of the case said a nurse had complained about sexual harassment to the regional health director. That account was confirmed by a senior police official who investigated Afridi.
U.S. officials have dismissed these claims as a smear campaign by Pakistani officials. When FP asked Rohrabacher whether the doctor’s alleged personal indiscretions were befitting an "American hero," he rejected the notion that any of the allegations were true.
"The charges against his personal and professional conduct are from Pakistani officials, members of the same regime who sentenced him to 33 years in prison on trumped up charges strictly because he helped the United States." he said. "They have every reason to lie about Dr. Afridi and smear his reputation to head off pressure to have him released."
Despite the fact that Aikens’s GQ report makes no mention of undue influence by Pakistani officials, Rohrabacher held firm.
"Dr. Afridi took a risk for us and we cannot abandon him," he told FP. "If we leave him out in the cold, what message does that send to other people who are considering working with our government to help protect our homeland and American interests overseas from acts of terror?"
In that, Rohrabacher hits an important note. Clearly, Afridi was a CIA asset regardless of how helpful he was. If the United States were to abandon him, it would send a damaging message to other CIA assets around the world. The simple fact that Afridi agreed to help the CIA may be enough to compel U.S. officials to now do all they can to protect him.