American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – Pakistan’s jailing of a doctor who helped the United States find and kill Osama bin Laden a year ago is undermining efforts by both countries to improve relations, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said in an interview that aired today.
“It is so difficult to understand and so disturbing that they would sentence this doctor to 33 years for helping in the search for the most notorious terrorist in our times,” Panetta said in a May 25 taping of ABC’s “This Week” program. “This doctor was not working against Pakistan. He was working against al-Qaeda and I hope that, ultimately, Pakistan understands that because what they have done here, I think, does not help in the effort to try to re-establish a relationship between the United States and Pakistan.”
Last week, a court in northwestern Pakistan convicted Dr. Shakil Afridi of treason and sentenced him to 33 years in prison. In January, Panetta confirmed publically that Afridi helped the U.S gain access to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by providing “very helpful” information. In the interview that aired today, he made clear the Pakistani court’s decision could undermine months of efforts to get relations back on track.
“What they did with this doctor doesn’t help in the effort to try to do that,” he said.
Several key events, including the secret U.S mission to kill bin Laden last May as well as NATO’s accidental killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan/Pakistan border in November, have severely tested U.S.-Pakistani relations. Six months after Pakistan closed overland NATO supply lines in response to the border incident, Panetta confirmed both countries are still working on terms for re-opening the ground routes. There have been multiple reports that Pakistan is demanding a steep increase in the fees it will collect from vehicles crossing the border.
“They’re negotiating what that price ought to be,” the secretary said. “We’re not about to get gouged in the price. We want a fair price.”
Panetta said the United States and Pakistan remain allies in the fight against terrorism but acknowledged the relationship has strengths and weaknesses. “This has been one of the most complicated relationships that we’ve had working with Pakistan. We have to continue to work at it. It is important. This is a country that has nuclear weapons. This is a country that still is critical in that region of the world. It’s an up and down relationship.”
Panetta’s interview with ABC came just days after nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers aimed at freezing Tehran’s uranium enrichment program ended without apparent progress. Panetta was asked whether the U.S. has a plan ready to strike Iran’s nuclear sites if diplomacy fails to curb what the West suspects is an Iranian covert nuclear weapons program.
“We are prepared for any contingency in that part of the world,” he said. “But our hope is that these matters can be resolved diplomatically.”