​Taliban Bans Polio Vaccinations In Tribal Belt

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June 19, 2012

A Pakistani Taliban commander has banned polio vaccinations in North Waziristan, in the tribal belt, days before 161,000 children were to be inoculated. He linked the ban to American drone strikes and fears that the C.I.A. could use the polio campaign as cover for espionage, much as it did with Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who helped track Osama bin Laden.

The commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, said that the vaccinations would be banned until the Central Intelligence Agency stopped its drone campaign, which has been focused largely on North Waziristan.

Mr. Bahadur said the decision had been taken by the shura-e-mujahedeen, a council that unites the myriad jihadi factions in the area, including Taliban, Qaeda and Punjabi extremists.

CNN reports that the announcement, made over the weekend, is a blow to polio vaccination efforts in Pakistan, one of just three countries where the disease is still endemic, accounting for 198 new cases last year — the highest rate in the world, followed by Afghanistan and Nigeria.

The tribal belt, which has suffered decades of poverty and conflict, is the largest reservoir of the disease. A Unicef spokesman said health workers had hoped to reach 161,000 children younger than 5 in a vaccination drive scheduled to begin on Wednesday.

That is likely to be canceled, at a time when officials felt they were making progress. So far this year, Pakistan has recorded 22 new polio cases, compared with 52 in the same period last year.

The Taliban announcement is also likely to rekindle controversy surrounding Dr. Afridi, who was recently convicted by a tribal court and sentenced to 33 years in prison.

In March and April 2011, Dr. Afridi ran a vaccination campaign in Abbottabad that was intended to determine covertly whether Bin Laden lived in a house in the city. Dr. Afridi failed to obtain a DNA sample, a senior American official said, but did help establish that Bin Laden’s local protector, known as the “courier,” was inside the Bin Laden compound.

Dr. Afridi was arrested three weeks after an American Navy SEAL team raided the house on May 2, 2011, and killed the Qaeda leader, according to CNN.

American officials said Dr. Afridi had been working with the C.I.A. for several years, at a time when he was leading polio vaccination efforts in Khyber Agency, a corner of the tribal belt that harbors a rare strain of the disease.