America has been buzzing about the dresses, the stars, the winners, and the hit films all week. But the most important part of the Oscars is a real-life drama that is still playing out.
It is not unusual for Hollywood actors to use their stardom to bring attention to human rights and humanitarian causes. But it is surprising when they do so in an effort to do right by U.S. national security.
This is what Zero Dark Thirty actors Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke did when they called for the release of Dr. Shakil Afridi, who helped the U.S. track Osama bin Laden, at Sunday’s annual Academy Awards. Zero Dark Thirty, the story of the hunt for bin Laden, was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
A full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter had urged the members of the Zero Dark Thirty cast and crew to highlight the travesty of the Afridi case. Noting that “without Dr. Afridi’s sacrifice, we may not have pinpointed the world’s most dangerous terrorist,” the ad also asked, “Who will stand up to help America if this is how we treat our friends?”
Dr. Afridi, a Pakistani citizen, was picked up by the Pakistani authorities a few weeks after the May 2, 2011, raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The doctor, at the behest of the U.S., apparently led a phony vaccination campaign in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in an attempt to secure DNA evidence from the residents living inside the bin Laden compound. Afridi was unable to obtain the samples, but U.S. officials have acknowledged he provided information that helped U.S. officials locate bin Laden.
Some media reports indicate that Dr. Afridi may have turned down an offer from the U.S. government to leave the country immediately after the bin Laden raid. While in hindsight, his decision was terribly ill-advised, Afridi says he never imagined he would be punished for helping to locate the architect of 9/11.
In May 2012, after he had been held for a year, a Pakistani tribal court sentenced Afridi to 33 years in jail on trumped-up charges that he had cooperated with militants in the tribal border areas.
The real reason the Pakistanis convicted Afridi? Wounded pride. Pakistani military officials were livid about the U.S. decision to pursue the bin Laden operation unilaterally. But making Shakil Afridi the scapegoat for their anger is not acceptable. While some Pakistanis say their country is justified in detaining Afridi because he committed “espionage,” the fact is that Dr. Afridi’s cooperation with the CIA benefited the national security of Pakistan—not to mention every other civilized nation on the planet.
And let’s not forget that the man he helped the Navy SEALs target was not a Pakistani himself, but an international outlaw, an enemy of both our nations.
The silence of the Obama Administration on the Afridi case has been disheartening. In his hearing to be confirmed as Secretary of State, John Kerry downplayed the Pakistanis’ lack of cooperation in freeing Afridi. He chose to throw his weight behind the Pakistani government instead, saying, “We need to build our relationship with the Pakistanis, not diminish it.”
In reality, it is the Pakistani government that has “diminished” ties through its handling of the Afridi case in such a petty and ham-handed fashion.
Pakistani military officials must stop viewing the bin Laden raid as a slight and instead recognize the threat terrorists pose to their own country’s future. Ongoing tensions between Pakistan and the U.S. put both countries at a disadvantage in fighting terrorists.
Pakistan’s prosecution of Dr. Afridi on trumped-up charges not only reflects poorly on Pakistan’s counterterrorism credentials, but it also makes a mockery of rule of law in the country. Pakistani leaders are reinforcing why the U.S. acted unilaterally against bin Laden in the first place and why international trust in Pakistan’s commitment to fighting the terrorist scourge remains elusive. Hollywood has taken up a worthy cause to free a man that has helped make the world safer from global terrorism. Now it’s time for the Obama Administration to show the same commitment to helping this real-life hero.
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