There were strong rumours sweeping across Pakistan recently that Dr Aafia Siddiqui, a cause célèbre across the Muslim world, had died in the Texas jail where she is serving an 86-year prison sentence having been convicted in a US court of seven counts of the attempted murder of US soldiers. Before tens of thousands of Pakistanis had a chance to rally on the streets in protest, a consular official was quickly despatched to the jail and, after a two hour meeting with Dr Siddiqui, was able to confirm that the rumours weren’t true.
Having investigated the case around Dr Siddiqui for 15 years now, I feel deeply uncomfortable about the ongoing charades that continue to be played around her. I still believe that she is the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice; a pawn in a rotten game between certain sections of US intelligence and Pakistan’s own spy agency, the ISI.
The time has now come to end my silence over this affair. I can reveal that I was literally days away from getting Dr Siddiqui released from Carswell Prison in Fort Worth with a full US Presidential pardon. She was to be exchanged for Robert “Bowe” Bergdahl, an American soldier who was held captive from June 2009 to May 2014 by the Taliban.
After being approached by senior members of the Taliban Shura (consultative council) while I was visiting the region in 2013, I was told that it might be possible to exchange Bergdahl for the Pakistan-born doctor and mother-of-three. I immediately made contact with US military intelligence, because I knew that if anyone was going to take me seriously it would be the US Army, which has a proud boast of “never leaving any soldier behind”. My instincts served me well, and I was soon put in contact with a senior military officer well versed in hostage negotiations.
Over a period of months and subsequent visits to the men who once held me captive, a deal was formulated. It involved no money, just a straightforward swap; Siddiqui for Bergdahl.
I had not informed anyone in Pakistan of what I was attempting because, quite frankly, many of the politicians I’ve encountered there are untrustworthy and I knew that there would be elements within the country’s intelligence network that would resist such a move. As such, I began making plans to bring Dr Aafia from a drop point in Afghanistan and over the border through the Khyber Pass, where we could then hold a press conference and make the announcement of her freedom.
The exchange with Bergdahl was to have been be done simultaneously. The final request made to me was a “proof of life” video showing the Americans that the soldier was still alive, and this was agreed by his captors.
When I returned for yet another clandestine meeting with the Taliban officials, though, they looked downcast and nervous. Through a translator I was told: “Dr Aafia is off the table. Maybe there’s someone else we can trade?” I was shocked and asked why, but very little information was given, which then prompted me to throw several insults questioning their honour and Islamic duty to try to free prisoners.
This was a risky thing to do because no one from my family, friends or colleagues knew where I was or who I was talking to; or, indeed, any of the details of my many trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, as you can imagine, having spent so much time and getting so far in negotiations I was frustrated, even though I tried to keep a lid on the rage burning inside me.
Finally, out of the silence came the Taliban’s answer; it still shocks me today. The ISI had stumbled across our plans during one of their regular meetings with the Afghan Taliban, who were informed in no uncertain terms that Aafia Siddiqui must not be released; if she was returned to Pakistan, stressed the ISI officers, she’d most likely be dead within two days. I asked why, as Afghans, they were taking any notice of a Pakistani spy agency and questioned why Mullah Omar would have entered into such a dishonourable deal. Little did I know that the Taliban’s spiritual leader had, in fact, died some months earlier and his death would not be announced in public for another year.
After some discussion amongst themselves, the translator responded: “Hundreds of our soldiers have been injured in battles and the ISI has made arrangements to take care of them in Pakistan. Without their help and support we would be really struggling. We need them. When we stood up to America and refused to hand over Osama [Bin Laden] we had a country. We never wanted a war with the Americans, they brought the war to us. Until we regain our country we are not in the same position of strength as we were in 2001. Surely you must understand that?”
I got up and left with my guide, and have not met with the Taliban since.
As soon as I was able to, I informed my US contact that the deal was off. Naturally there was huge disappointment and then surprise when I explained why. That disappointment turned to anger when it transpired that the US State Department had jumped in and offered five senior Taliban commanders in exchange for the American soldier.
Those key members of the Taliban are now living in Qatar. I have been reliably informed that they would have refused to leave Guantanamo Bay, where they were being held, had they thought that Dr Siddiqui could be released instead of them.
I can tell you that while there was much joy to have Bergdahl back on home ground, there was also anger in the Pentagon that it had cost the US so dearly when a prisoner swap with Dr Siddiqui could have gone ahead.
What I have learned from all of this is that Dr Aafia Siddiqui would be free now if she was not a Pakistani citizen. Despite all the demonstrations and protests in Pakistan — and tears shed for the so-called “Daughter of the Nation” — she is not going home. Astonishingly, not one single official request has ever been made to the US authorities by the government in Islamabad to have her released.
Aafia will thus continue to be a symbol of everything that is wrong with George W Bush’s never-ending War on Terror; a pawn in a vile game being played out by Pakistan’s ISI and others. She will also be a rallying point for every would-be jihadi group from East to West as long as she is being held in that prison in Texas.
I’ve spoken to several Pakistani diplomats in recent years about Dr Siddiqui, telling them that if their Prime Ministers and Presidents are really sincere about wanting to bring her home then all they have to do is pick up the phone to Washington and organise a swap with Dr Shakil Afridi. He is the man, you may recall, who was jailed in Pakistan for his part in helping US forces hunt down and kill Osama Bin Laden.
Afridi was accused of treason and jailed after running a fake vaccine programme which helped the CIA to confirm that the Al-Qaida leader was indeed hiding with his family in the city of Abbottabad. Samples taken are said to have paved the way for the helicopter-led US Navy Seal raid on the compound where he lived.
Dr Afridi has recently been transferred to Adiala Prison near Islamabad, and there are more rumours in circulation that a deal has been reached with the US and he will soon be released. Sadly there will be no exchange with Dr Aafia Siddiqui, a woman who, in my view, continues to be denied justice thanks in large part to Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency. It is hard to find the words to express how shameful this state of affairs really is.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.