Have Pakistani children been the unintended victims of last year’s mission by the United States to kill Osama bin Laden? It might seem a ridiculous question to pose, but it’s clear they are being made to bear the brunt of that decision by an increasingly paranoid official and clerical establishment.
The latest manifestation of this was the decision by Pakistan’s intelligence services to order all foreign staff working for Save the Children out of country. They claim to have found evidence of the charity indirectly assisting the United States in its operation to kill Osama bin Laden last year – a claim the group vehemently denies.
Save the Children is alleged to have connections with Shakeel Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA locate bin Laden’s compound in the garrison city of Abbottabad. He set up a polio vaccination scheme in the surrounding area and hoped to obtain DNA samples of those living inside the bin Laden villa. The initiative was ultimately unsuccessful, but Afridi was convicted of treason and sentenced to 33 years imprisonment.
Although Save the Children only maintains a small number of foreign staff in Pakistan, this accusation is likely to decimate their reputation in the country. After the bogus polio vaccination scheme was uncovered, the popular canard was quickly established that all such vaccinations were part of a Judaeo-Christian conspiracy to sterilise Muslim children and, thus, subjugate Pakistan.
The uptake of polio vaccines in tribal areas declined sharply. In North and South Waziristan where an estimated 278,000 children aged five or under live, the Taliban banned all such vaccination schemes. Aid workers were accused of being spies; their vaccines, poisons.
In the aftermath of the bin Laden raid Pakistan recorded the highest level of polio cases anywhere in the world with some 200 children contracting the virus. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative described the outbreak as ‘explosive’.
Save the Children helped seven million Pakistani’s in 2010 and has operated in the country for more than 30 years. It represents one of the charity’s biggest international programmes.
Only six foreign workers will be affected by today’s expulsion order, a figure that is hardly likely to cripple its abilities. Far more damaging, however, is the impact these allegations will have on Save the Children’s reputation in Pakistan. It will struggle to recover – as will those suffering from the easily preventable diseases to which it holds the antidote.