ISLAMABAD, Pakistan— The war between the CIA and Pakistani militant groups threatens to produce an unlikely casualty: thousands of children who are being denied polio vaccinations in one of the few places on Earth where the disease is still a menace.
A phony inoculation program orchestrated by the CIA last year to help it track down Osama bin Laden bolstered long-standing claims by hard-line clerics that vaccination campaigns are a Western plot against Pakistanis.
The complaints turned serious this month when the Pakistani Taliban said it would not allow a planned polio vaccination campaign to proceed in the North Waziristan tribal region along the Afghan border. The Taliban said the move was in retaliation for the parade of U.S. drone attacks on militant strongholds, and because it believes such campaigns are used as a cover for Western espionage.
On Monday, a top Taliban leader in neighboring South Waziristan announced a ban on polio vaccinations there. Maulvi Nazir, the Taliban commander, also cited the drone program and the use of a vaccination program to hunt for Bin Laden as justification for barring medical teams from inoculating children.
The ban in North Waziristan has forced U.N. and Pakistani vaccination teams to halt efforts to reach about 160,000 children in that expanse of rugged badlands, which serves as sanctuary for an array of Islamic militant groups. They include Al Qaeda; factions of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban; and the Haqqani network, the Afghan militant group responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan in recent years.
The initial decree was issued by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a North Waziristan Taliban leader, after a council of militant groups was reported to have endorsed the plan.
“There will be a ban on polio vaccinations until the drone attacks are stopped,” Bahadur said in pamphlets distributed throughout North Waziristan. “Almost every person in Waziristan is becoming mentally sick because of day-and-night flights of drones. This is more dangerous than polio.”
The pamphlet also refers to Shakeel Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who led a phony vaccination campaign against hepatitis B to help pinpoint the whereabouts of Bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad, where a team of Navy SEALs killed him in May 2011. Afridi is viewed as a hero by many Americans, but in Pakistan he has been vilified as a traitor and sentenced to 33 years in prison.
“There is the chance that these anti-polio campaigns will be used by the U.S. to spy against the mujahedin fighters,” Bahadur said in the pamphlets. “One example of this is Dr. Shakeel Afridi.”
Like the Haqqani network, Bahadur’s fighters direct their attacks at U.S. and Afghan security forces on the other side of the border. Bahadur continues to abide by an accord with Pakistan that keeps his fighters from attacking Pakistani military and civilian targets, in return giving him free rein over sections of North Waziristan.
Polio cases are on the rise in hard-to-reach villages and towns in conflict zones near the border with Afghanistan. Pakistani officials say the halt to vaccinations in the Waziristan tribal regions is worrisome because people from the regions routinely travel — and may spread the disease — to other cities and towns in northwestern Pakistan, to Afghanistan and to Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi.
Polio, which is caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system, is highly communicable and can result in irreversible paralysis within hours of infection. Found more often in countries that lack proper sanitation and hygiene, it mostly affects children younger than 5. The virus typically enters the body through the mouth and then is spread through fecal contamination of food or beverages.
“It’s the first time that such a ban has been imposed on” North Waziristan, said Muhammad Sadiq, the chief doctor for the region. “It’s very serious. Such a ban puts the entire region at risk.”
Pakistan is one of just three countries where polio is deemed endemic; the other two are Afghanistan and Nigeria. As of June 23, 22 cases of polio had been recorded in Pakistan this year. Last year, the country logged 198 cases, according to the World Health Organization. Officials say the lower figure so far this year is because local authorities are doing a better job of preventing the disease in vulnerable neighborhoods.
Pakistani officials say there are nearly 320,000 children under 5 in North and South Waziristan who need regular polio vaccinations. Most of those children were vaccinated during the last visit by anti-polio teams, but children who are at risk are not considered fully immunized until they have received repeated dosages.
The U.S. has no plans to end its drone campaign, which it says has been highly effective in undermining the capabilities of Al Qaeda and its allied militant groups. Given how entrenched the Taliban is in North Warizistan, Pakistani officials see negotiations with Bahadur as their only option to get him to rescind the ban. In a letter sent to a regional governor, the federal government urged local and provincial officials to begin talks with Bahadur.
“Setbacks like this will limit our efforts to reach every child in Pakistan,” wrote Shahnaz Wazir Ali, who heads the federal government’s polio eradication efforts. “Using the polio campaign as a negotiating tactic is very unfortunate, as it is the families and the children in North Waziristan who will suffer.”
Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.