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Anatomy of Floods: Problems Ahead in Pakistan

Brig (Retd) Rumel Dahiya was Deputy Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 12, 2010

    The recent floods in Pakistan are estimated to have affected between 14 and 16 million people and rendered up to two million homeless. The people deserve sympathy and support of all right thinking people. The floods pose serious challenges to Pakistan’s economy, social harmony, political stability and long term future. Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa (KP) and Punjab are the worst affected. Baluchistan has been the least affected so far and Sindh is only now being threatened by floods.

    The floods have exposed yet again, if confirmation was required, the incapacity and ineptitude of the Pakistani political leadership and administration. The scale and intensity of the floods was so enormous, it would have been challenging to deal with even for the most well prepared government. For the Pakistani government it was simply way too much. The ill timed visit of Zardari to Europe was a PR self goal for the government. Democracy as such faces a big crisis in Pakistan today with no political party being seen in good light by the people. The longer-term effect of the floods could see a further weakening of the Pakistani government's credibility.

    Unlike in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in POK in 2005, the Pakistani Army has moved in quickly to provide relief to the affected people. Their endeavour was inadequate, yet the Army is still being seen to be doing something in no small measure due to their friends in the media. Reportedly around 30,000 soldiers are involved in the relief effort, with Gen. Kayani himself visiting some of the flood affected areas. The comparatively better show being put up by Army will give them even larger political space and credibility.

    The jihadis on the other hand have moved in force to set up relief camps and are providing free ‘langars’ and medical aid. Even in 2005 the best equipped and most functional camps were run by Jamat ul Dawa (JuD). This time around it is again Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation; the so called charity arm of Laskar-e-Toiba is in the forefront of the relief effort. Charities associated with Islamist parties like Jamaat e Islami have also pitched in with relief efforts to regain political space and public acceptance. The implications are grave for Pakistan as well as its neighbours. The government in Pakistan is hardly functional. Even the opposition ruled Punjab is being governed poorly. Under the present circumstances democracy is hardly an ideal that people would be seeking. In fact, as a matter of habit, calls for the Army to help is a default reaction for the people. But since Army itself lacks the capacity to provide all kinds of relief to the people, any group which can help them earns their gratitude and respect.

    The Jihadis led by LeT are flush with funds, courtesy the donors in the Gulf and the collections within Pakistan from the increasingly conservative urban middle class mainly in the Punjab province. They have many doctors and other professionals and service providers as their members and sympathisers who are ready to do their bidding. The misery that the floods have brought upon the hapless people of Pakistan has provided a heaven sent opportunity to Islamists to ingratiate themselves with the people and win their hearts and minds. The Pakistani leadership has literally raised their hands in helplessness and paved the way for the Islamists to be seen as legitimate players in Pakistani society.

    Many of the militants in KP are reported to have moved to relief camps after leaving their weapons and caches to help the people in need. They have an opportunity not only to survive this tragedy but to build their support bases amongst dislocated and disaffected people. It is hardly likely that anyone of them would be reported to the authorities. It is therefore expected that buoyed by increased public support and inability of the government to challenge them head on, the jihadi groups will stage a comeback not only in areas like Swat and Malakand but also in Punjab.

    The IMF will clear the scheduled tranche of more than $1billion by the end of this month, and perhaps more. As per UN officials, Pakistan will require more than $500 million to keep the people affected by floods alive in the coming months. Whole villages having been washed away, the bill for resettling the people will run into billions. Besides, the time that it will take for re-settlement and rehabilitation of the people and recreating the infrastructure will take years.

    It seems that America, Army and the Islamists are in a race to earn public gratitude. In this race for winning hearts and minds of the people and moderating anti-Americanism in the country, USA has moved in force with helicopters, relief material and economic assistance worth more than $51 million, which is included in about $200 million already pledged by various countries so far. This is only the first instalment and much more can be expected from the US and its allies in days to come. It would be interesting to see how Pakistan’s closest friend China responds. If past experience is any indicator, China would be miserly in assisting marooned Pakistan despite holding trillions in reserves.

    The floods will dissipate sooner or later and agriculture maybe benefited in the medium term despite a severe hit that it will take in the current kharif season. Food shortages which are already acute in some areas will accentuate and inflation is bound to shoot up. Even in the best of times there are no easy solutions for Pakistan’s food and energy shortages. The rich will take the deluge and its effects in their stride but the poor have nowhere to go. They have lost their houses and will now be hard pressed to make both ends meet. Infrastructure like roads, bridges, irrigation canals, hospitals, schools and houses have suffered massive damage. As per some estimates the immediate loss to Pakistan’s economy will be about $1.8 billion and will shave off about 1 per cent of its GDP. Given the insensitivity and inadequate capacity of the administration and state of governance in Pakistan, returning the infrastructure back to pre-flood days, leave alone improving it, will be a Herculean task.

    The anger and frustration of the people against the political parties and the nimble footed response of the Islamists will result in disaffection of people towards the state and rising support for the jihadis. The jihadis will find enough recruits for their cause and public support for them will solidify. The performance of the Pakistan government can hardly improve during this period and Army’s resources will be further stretched in trying to rebuild the damaged infrastructure. A government with reduced credibility and an overstretched Army will provide the perfect opportunity for the jihadis to regroup and reassert themselves even in those areas where they had been forced to lie low due to ongoing Army offensive.

    If the Islamists are the ones who are doing any good to the people, the government will not be in a position to act against them even if it desires. Doing so would be seen by the people as vengeance of the evil government against the do-gooders. There have been no US missile strikes in the tribal regions during the floods. If the US were to resume firing missiles at such a sensitive time, it could erase any gains it has made in public opinion because of its aid efforts. The flood is impacting army operations as well since large numbers of bridges in KP and FATA have been washed away and roads damaged, affecting the mobility of troops. Aerial operations are affected due to prevailing weather conditions. Although the jihadis will also face logistical problems their requirements are comparatively much lesser and hence they would still be able to act when they decide.

    Even the most optimist scenario for Pakistan in the short to medium term is bleak. In the long term, in any case Jihadis like Hafiz Saeed would like to see the government so weakened and the Army so exhausted that they can glide into the seat of power without much difficulty. Therefore, even the long term scenario for Pakistan is no better. Growing misery of the people and chaos created by the Jihadis has the potential to make the mainstream political parties irrelevant in the longer term unless they change their ways. Should the situation not improve there is likelihood that there can be a chaotic leaderless revolution leading to bloodshed and instability, with temporary and inadequate leaders rising to fill up the vacuum and jihadis with active support from elements within the Army attempting to take over the state. History is replete with examples of peoples’ revolutions sweeping even the most powerful regimes away. Pakistan could be the latest edition to history.