NEW YORK - A conservative American newspaper Thursday called for the release of Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who helped CIA track down Osama bin Laden, suggesting that US-Pakistan relationship could not reach its full potential while he is in jail.

“Those who help America should have the comfort of knowing that, just as we don’t leave our soldiers on the battlefield, we also don’t leave our friends,” The Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that also indicates that Dr Afridi was in for a high US honour.

“The Administration’s relations with Pakistan have warmed recently, and a new ISI chief is taking a more constructive approach towards Washington, the newspaper noted.

“But any rapprochement can go only so far while Dr Afridi remains in prison. America brought all the SEALs who took part in the bin Laden raid safely home, and the doctor belongs to their company,” the Journal added.

The editorial said, “Perhaps somewhere at CIA headquarters at Langley is a medal of honour for Afridi, the Pakistani doctor whose bogus hepatitis vaccination scheme helped the agency locate bin Laden in Abbottabad. As things now stand, however, it may be a long while before Dr Afridi sees that medal.

“The doctor is being held in solitary confinement in Peshawar’s central jail, serving a 33-year sentence for treason handed down in May. The court sentenced Dr Afridi for membership in a jihadist group, a fig leaf to show that his imprisonment isn’t payback for his role in exposing bin Laden.

“Pakistani authorities have now blown their own cover, applying their trademark mix of incompetence and malice. A report released by the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency details the ways in which the CIA ‘ran’ Dr Afridi, noting he ‘met 25 times with foreign secret agents, received instructions and provided sensitive information to them.’ It adds he was “aware that he was working against Pakistan’.

“Perhaps the doctor did violate his obligations as a medical professional by running a fake vaccination program. He might also have been in it for the money: $61,000 for the Abbottabad program, according to media reports out of Pakistan.

“But the more interesting question is how information relating to the whereabouts of the 21st century’s most notorious terrorist could have been ‘sensitive’ to the ISI—unless the ISI or elements within it were protecting bin Laden. Equally curious is how the agency thinks that killing bin Laden is tantamount to ‘working against Pakistan’.”