A traitor? Is that really what Pakistan thinks Dr. Shakil Afridi is? If so, it underscores just how detached from reality that angry nation is. Whatever it thinks, though, Afridi's conviction and harsh prison sentence leave the United States with unfinished diplomatic business.
Afridi helped the CIA in its hunt for Osama bin Laden, the terrorist with the blood of thousands on his hands. Pakistanis ought to hold a parade in Afridi's honor. His actions were noble.
Instead, a Pakistani court has sentenced Afridi to 33 years in prison. The Pakistanis claim Afridi was convicted of treason over ties to a banned militant group, a ludicrous attempt to deflect U.S. outrage.
Afridi attempted to use a vaccination drive to gather DNA samples from residents of the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden was hiding. He failed to obtain the samples and apparently he did not even know the target of the program.
It remains uncertain that his efforts gained any useful information, though U.S. officials say he nonetheless contributed to the intelligence efforts that came to a head last May when Navy SEALs raided the compound and killed bin Laden.
We understand that Pakistanis are angry. The invasion of their territory by the American military on a secret mission humiliated them. It shouldn't have had to come to that, but Pakistanis showed themselves to be unreliable in the hunt for bin Laden. That is what should humiliate Pakistanis. American leaders, meanwhile, were rightly focused on seeing that bin Laden was held to account for the crimes he committed on 9/1 1.
Even then, though, the conviction and the sentence make no sense. Bin Laden was the world's most wanted criminal. That he was hiding in Pakistan — practically in the shadow of a military base — was the nation's shame.
As three U.S. senators observed in a joint bipartisan statement, Afridi's act was "courageous, heroic and patriotic." Whatever the contribution he made, he worked to bring a heinous criminal to justice and to begin the long process of wiping away Pakistan's stain. If anything, his efforts helped to save Pakistani lives. Pakistan calls that treason.
Now, U.S. officials must work to free Afridi and, if necessary, offer him asylum in this country. That would have been a sensitive negotiation under any circumstance, but with his conviction and harsh sentence, the task is expected to be even more difficult.
Nevertheless, Afridi put himself at grave risk and this country cannot allow his treatment to go unchallenged. It is not only our moral obligation to help him, but a strategic one, as well. We may not succeed, but if we don't even try, it will be vastly more difficult next time we ask a foreigner to take great risks.
Bin Laden is dead, but the reverberations of the mission that produced that worthy result continue to influence the world. Our work is not yet done.