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Current Affairs ( 26 Aug 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Understanding the Pakistani floods

By M.K. Bhadrakumar

The floods have further exposed the regional, political and ethnic divisions in Pakistan. 

One day in mid-April, Dr. Bernard Rieux spotted a dead rat in the building he lived in the Mediterranean city of Oran, Algeria. Thousands of rats staggered out of their hideouts in the following days and died on the streets gripped by violent convulsions, spitting blood. A fortnight later Michel, concierge of Rieux's building, was down with a strange illness. While the rats suddenly disappeared, Michel died within two days.

That is how the terrible arrival of the bubonic plague in Albert Camus' masterpiece is chronicled. Major catastrophes tiptoe unnoticed. Pakistan's flood too appeared from nowhere. When the plague first arrived, the Oranites seemed to take life for granted and couldn't grasp its full import but soon they understood they must face up to an extraordinary situation and decide on their attitudes to it. They were forced to think, reflect and discard their “unauthentic” existence.

The flood is described in cold figures — 20 per cent of Pakistan devastated; one out of five Pakistanis' lives ruined; hundreds of thousands of electric pylons, cattle, culverts and bridges perished; farmlands inundated and crops rendered unworthy. The flood is destined to become a mathematical constant sooner or later and the residue that will endure is that the millions of human beings helplessly tossed around by it have become variables.

Pakistan, especially its elite — civilian but, more importantly, the military — faces an existential choice. They need to realise, as Greek philosopher Socrates once said, that the unexamined life is not worth living and they need to react in a unique way. A major catastrophe is also an opportunity to undergo transformations. However, regrettably, the discourse of the Pakistani officials and analysts has continued to turn in its old gyre. The well-known Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid, typically summed it up last week as “an unparalleled national security challenge for the country, the region and the international community. It has become clear this week that, unless major aid is forthcoming immediately and international diplomatic effort is applied to improving Pakistan's relations with India, social and ethnic tensions will rise and there will be food riots.”

Mr. Rashid added: “Large parts of the country that are now cut off will be taken over by the Pakistani Taliban and affiliated extremist groups, and governance will collapse. The risk is that Pakistan will become what many have long predicted — a failed state with nuclear weapons… All of this will dramatically loosen the state's control over outlying areas, in particular those bordering Afghanistan, which could be captured quickly by local Taliban.” Mr. Rashid, of course, concludes predictably, taking a swipe at India and seeking the West's mediatory “help” in India-Pakistan relations: “India has failed to respond to the crisis and there remains bitter animosity between the two countries, particularly because India blames the current uprising in Indian Kashmir on Pakistan — even though Indian commentators admit that it is more indigenous than Pakistan-instigated.”

From the above we get a fair idea of the thought processes in Rawalpindi within the military establishment: Pakistan's coffers are empty and the international community should loosen its purse-strings; the military is overstretched with relief work and as Mr. Rashid put it, “the army is unlikely to be in a position even to hold the areas along the Afghan border;” Pakistan's stability which is linked to tensions with India ought to be the concern of the West whose mediation on Kashmir, therefore, is an imperative need so as “to sort out acute differences over their river systems.” Fortunately, Mr. Rashid stops just short of accusing India of engineering the floods.

The shocking reality is that there has been no trace of any new thinking. The Pakistani military continues to be in a game of one-upmanship with the civilian leadership. Unsurprisingly, the military's work of rescuing flood victims is a visible act and politicians cannot match that. As a perceptive young Pakistani scholar Ahsan Butt put it: “This needs to be understood because to the extent that this is purely a logistical crisis, the military almost has an ‘unfair' advantage in that it has the better toolbox for the immediate aftermath … To use a cricketing analogy, batting is a lot easier at the non-striker's end.” The fact remains that the military establishment has excellent spokesmen in the mainstream media, especially the top news channels, and the media invariably apply exacting standards to the civilian leaders while, for example, the military's institutionalised corruption is simply ignored or downplayed.

Given the gigantic scale of reconstruction that lies ahead and the tardy performance standards of the civilian governments of the South Asian region, the Pakistani political elite will inevitably appear chaotic and inept in its response to the floods, while any further drain of support for the already-weak civilian government can only tighten the powerful military's grip on the power structure. This means that for the foreseeable future, the military will continue to operate with full autonomy on foreign and security policies of core concern, although the scope for conflictual relationship with the civilian leadership or the launch of a coup will not necessarily increase — and may diminish — in the given situation of a fundamental imbalance in the calculus of power.

To be sure, the floods have further exposed the regional, political and ethnic divisions. Most certainly, there will be nasty disputes in the coming period over the allocation of aid, especially on the part of the smaller provinces, as regards the Punjabi-dominated establishment's perceived self-aggrandisement. On the other hand, in Punjab, the main Opposition, Pakistan Muslim League (N), is in charge and it would get into a blame game with the federal government over the inevitable acts of commission and omission in relief and reconstruction. In fact, the signs are already there.

A core issue concerns the strategic impact of the floods on regional security issues devolving upon the United-States led war in Afghanistan. A mixed picture emerges. To quote an expert in the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, “The U.S. has an opportunity in this disaster to do even more to demonstrate to the people and leaders of Pakistan just how helpful the U.S. and the American people can be to move Pakistan forward. But, at the same time, the problems that Pakistan faces, in the immediate near-term as well as the longer term, have simply been compounded. Everything that the U.S. already thought was going to be very difficult.”

In financial terms, it means a need arises to reassess the disbursal of the $7.5-billion aid package under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation — shifting attention from long-term projects to the immediate priorities. In political terms, the impact will be felt on several templates. One, there are no means of divining whether with all the King's men and all the King's horses deployed in Pakistan, Uncle Sam's image would still get burnished in the Pakistani eye. Probably, it is a long haul for the U.S.' public diplomacy — even with George Sores brought into the act. A July 29 Pew Global Attitudes Project estimated that 59 per cent of Pakistanis regarded America as an enemy country. In short, the fragility of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship remains a fact of life.

On the contrary, USS Peleliu arrived off the coast near Karachi on August 12 along with helicopters and a thousand Marines who have since been deployed and Pakistan hasn't erupted in flames or protest marches. Not only will this “collaboration,” to borrow the words of noted author Shuja Nawaz, “go a long way toward building up relationships among rank-and-file service members.” It is also an extraordinary sight to see the Marines involved in relief work alongside some controversial Islamic charity organisations such as the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation linked to the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba and the social welfare wings of the rabidly “anti-American” Jamaat-e-Islami.

The million-dollar question indeed is what will happen to the Pakistani military's operations in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, especially the North Waziristan area. Even the U.S. special representative for AfPak, Richard Holbrooke, wryly said, “It is an equal-opportunity disaster, and military operations have effectively faded away.” The bitter truth is that the U.S. is fated to learn — even if Mr. Holbrooke is loath to admit it — that aid will not address the real security threats in Pakistan. The high probability is that the U.S.-led coalition will soon find itself out on a limb in Afghanistan with the Pakistani military nowhere seen cracking down on the Haqqani insurgents and their allies ensconced in FATA. The implications are, simply put, too stunning to want to think about — although the flood waters may help wash away the WikiLeaks documents detailing not only how the ISI sympathises with the Taliban but they also meet to plan joint actions.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

Source: The Hindu, India