The low-ranking health department employees were punished for helping Dr Shakil Afridi, who was assigned by the CIA to set up a fake vaccination scheme in Abbottabad, ahead of the 3 May US military operation that found and killed the al-Qaida leader there.
In July last year, the Guardian revealed that Afridi was hired by the American spy agency, which was trying to establish whether Bin Laden was living inside a compound to which it had tracked an al-Qaida “courier”.
Afridi used unwitting local health visitors to go house to house to vaccinate Abbottabad residents for hepatitis B, with the aim of getting inside the suspected Bin Laden home and extracting DNA from one of his children. The al-Qaida leader had habitually lived with many members of his large family even while on the run. The scheme, apparently unsuccessful, was run in the weeks before the 3 May raid.
The fate of Afridi, who was arrested by the Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in late May last year, and remains in their custody, has added to a break-down in relations between Washington and Islamabad. American officials are pressing Pakistan to free Afridi, to allow him to travel to the US, where he would be resettled. However, he faces possible treason charges at home for working for a foreign intelligence agency.
The sacked health workers would have known nothing of the true purpose of the vaccination programme. They include all the 15 of the women health workers employed in Nawa Sher, the district of Abbottabad where Bin Laden had lived, plus two more senior health officials in the town. Among the fired employees is a nurse known as Bakhto, whose full name is Mukhtar Bibi. She is believed to have got inside the bin Laden compound with the vaccination programme.
Afridi was a senior health official posted in a part of the tribal area, far from Abbottabad, which was way outside his jurisdiction. He travelled to Abbottabad and used the health workers there without the knowledge of the senior Abbottabad administration.
Zafeer Ahmed, in charge of health services for Abbottabad, said that the 17 were dismissed for breaking the rules.
“There was negligence as these workers did not have permission from the provincial government or the health department to work with Shakil Afridi,” said Ahmed. “I was ordered by the provincial government to take action against them.”
A provincial government inquiry into the affair is on-going and higher ranking health officials could be disciplined in future.
No Pakistani official has been held responsible for failing to detect Bin Laden’s presence in the country.
The sacked women health workers would be paid little but would probably have been dependent on government employment to make ends meet for their families.
The CIA scheme, as well as having grave consequences for Afridi, and now triggering the dismissal of health officials, has damaged vaccination programmes throughout Pakistan, including for polio, as it greatly added to wild rumours that the medicines are actually an American conspiracy to sterilise Pakistanis.
Afridi was earlier this month reportedly removed from his post, while his wife was separately dismissed from her government job, running a girls’ college in the north west.
In January this year, the former CIA chief, Leon Panetta, now the US Defence Secretary, publicly called for Afridi’s release, acknowledging his role for the first time in the hunt for Bin Laden. American officials believe that Afridi should be lauded for his services, not punished.
“I am very concerned about what the Pakistanis did with this individual [Afridi]. This was an individual who, in fact, helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regard to this operation,” Panetta had said.