Taliban militants have threatened aid workers trying to administer the polio vaccine in Pakistan, putting the lives of 250,000 children in remote regions of South and North Waziristan at immediate risk. Insurgent commanders claiming that United Nations' vaccinators are finding targets for American drone strikes, and there appears to be few bargaining chips on hand for the World Health Organization, or WHO.
"We don't want benefits from well-wishers who spend billions to save children from polio, which can affect one or two out of hundreds of thousands, while, on the other hand, the same well-wisher [America] with the help of its slave [Pakistan's government] kills hundreds of innocent tribesmen, including old women and children by unleashing numerous drone attacks," Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a militant commander in North Waziristan, stated last month.
"They know we don't have any control over drone strikes," Dr. Bruce Aylward, the WHO's chief of polio eradication, told the New York Times. "And I've yet to meet a parent who prefers a paralyzed kid. The Taliban commanders face these same issues, but they have grievances that need to be addressed."
The WHO worried in March that if the polio eradication program isn't successful, the disease, which was supposed to have been wiped out worldwide by 2000, could spread to polio-free countries. According to Pakistan's Nation, a polio resurgence has already begun in China.
The Pakistani government, which has been accused of supporting the Afghan Taliban in the past, can likely do little to prevent the Taliban's blockade even though it's aware that "going to these areas for a polio campaign would be tantamount to putting the lives of our staff in jeopardy," as an anonymous health official told the AFP. The mountainous terrain of Waziristan, part of the self-administered Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, on the Afghan border, has made it a breeding group for the Pakistani Taliban, who operates there with impunity.
Since the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent exile of the Taliban, rumors about the polio vaccination have been detrimental to the program. There were whispers that it was a Western plot to sterilize Muslim girls, arguments that vaccinations violated against sharia law and even a rumor that the polio drops contained the AIDS virus, according to the Deccan Herald. At one point, WHO and Unicef teams had to carry weapons after a number of vaccinators were beaten.
Notably, it was also a vaccination program that the CIA used as a front to gain information on Osama bin Laden, then living in a compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. After the Guardian broke the story, some local residents kept their doors closed to vaccinators, fearing they were spies.
"In the garb of these vaccination campaigns, the U.S. and its allies are running their spying networks in FATA, which has brought death and destruction [upon] them in the form of drone strikes," Mullah Nazir, a militant commander in South Waziristan, said in a pamphlet that was distributed on June 25.
Cutting off humanitarian assistance is not an uncommon strategy among militants. In Somalia, Islamic rebels al Shabab, who are funded by al Qaeda, are notorious for blocking Western food and medical aid from reaching refugees of war, drought and famine.
As in Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of people were at risk in rebel land, because there were being used as "poker chips," as Time's Jeffrey Kluger puts it.
The vaccination campaign begins across Pakistan on Monday.
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