COMMENTARY
 
Caught between Flood and Terror
Weekly Pulse
August 13-19, 2010
While Pakistan’s week economy is already struggling to cope with the devastating impact of terrorism in recent years, the worst floods in the country’s history caused by torrential Monsoon rains may lead to its virtual collapse if the international assistance is not commensurate with the extent of the disaster.

Such tragic eventuality will be a blessing in disguise for al-Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups in the region to exploit genuine grievances of the people in flood-affected regions, which ironically happen to be the hub of recent domestic terrorist activities, thereby complicating the government’s ability to combat terrorism in the long-run together with the international community.

Already, on August 9, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) announced that the number of people affected by catastrophic floods in Pakistan may outnumber those suffering from the recent major natural disasters -- the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (five million), the 2005 South Asia earthquake (three million) and the 2010 Haiti earthquake (three million).

Unparalleled Disaster

Pakistani government has estimated the total number of people affected by floods across the country to be around 14 million, a figure cited also by the UN agency. The region most affected by the disaster includes Swat, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, South Punjab and parts of the Sindh in close proximity to River Indus, whose flooding has principally played havoc with the lives of people.

The latest governmental figure of confirmed deaths due to floods is 1,600 people, while 650,000 homes have been destroyed, and more than 50,000 square miles are under water in a disaster still in its early stages. However, UNOCHA puts the number of homes destroyed or seriously damaged at 290,000, which, it says, “is almost the same as those destroyed in Haiti.” The actual number of deaths, Internally Displaced Persons, areas residential areas and agrarian lands due to flooding may be much higher.

The mere scale of the disaster is such that it is not possibly for the government of a country already beset by the terrorism quagmire to manage it. Even in relative peace time, it would have been difficult to tackle this natural calamity. There may be a mismatch between the government’s claim of rescuing victims and delivering relief supplies to them and the actual performance of its disaster management workforce in this regard. On this count, the current government has, indeed, come under domestic and international criticism. However, the fact remains that a disastrous situation that is still developing cannot be managed without due international help.

International Help

That is why, on August 9, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wisely urged donors to contribute generously to the humanitarian response. “The scale of this disaster [floods] rivals that of the earthquake in October 2005, but this time the geographic range is much greater,” he said. The 2005 earthquake had claimed the deaths of over 80,000 people. The UN Secretary-General added” "Let me stress now that we must also give thought to medium and longer-term assistance. This will be a major and protracted task. I appeal for donors to generously support Pakistan at this difficult time.”

Richard Holbrooke, special envoy of US President Barack Obama for Afghanistan and Pakistan, in a recent statement highlighted the traumatic nature of the disaster by saying, “Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of other people are inaccessible: clinging to rooftops, swept away.” While underlining the fact that the worst effect of flooding may still not be visible in the country amid continuing rainfall, Mr. Holbrooke pointed to the danger of donors’ fatigue in this case by saying: “I'm concerned that perhaps people think that it's just another one of the endless tragedies that Pakistan endures.”

Even though the Obama Administration has come up with a $35 million pledge in emergency aid to Pakistan, the response from the rest of the international community to the disastrous situation in the country has been thus far quite disappointing. As of now, the world community has pledged relief assistance of about $102 million, and only $10-20 million of the amount has been delivered through official channels.

Reportedly, China has delivered to the government about $10 million worth of goods, including water filtration equipment, medicines, tents and electric generators, while the British Department for International Development has agreed to provide bridges worth $10 million. The Islamic Development Bank has offered a soft loan of $10 million for flood relief. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Indonesia have only hinted at providing relief goods. Most of the commitments for relief assistance have come from the World Bank, United Nations agencies, the United States, and European countries. The donations to the Prime Minister’s Flood Relief Fund 2010 are mostly from local sources, and they are only a few dozen millions of rupees so far.

The United States has sent four Chinooks and two Blackhawks to Pakistan, which fly with a representative of the Pakistani military on board. It is the second time since the 2005 earthquake that the US government has sent helicopters to Pakistan for relief operations. The Chinooks and Blackhawks are assisting the country’s air force and army aviation in the rescue efforts and airlifting of supplies in Swat and the rest of Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa areas most affected by floods. Moreover, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is reportedly engaged in providing basic relief supplies, including the provision of “heavy-duty plastic sheeting as emergency housing for more than 140,000 flood victims” within weeks.

Terrorism Issues

The US interest in aiding Pakistan in its hour of need might be guided by simple humanitarian concerns. But its longer-run outcome could be instrumental in reversing the wave of rampant anti-Americanism in the very regions of the northern-western border regions as well as parts of south Punjab. After all, the use of Chinooks during the 2005 earthquake had made a significant difference in the US campaign to win the hearts and minds in Kashmir and Hazara regions of Pakistan.

No surprise that Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the country’s chief domestic terrorist group whose back is significantly broken due to a successful security operation since last year, has urged the government to reject the US aid for flood-affected people. “The government should not accept American aid and if it happens, we can give 20 million dollars to them as aid for the flood victims,” TTP spokesman Azam Tariq was quoted as saying in a news report. The frustration of TTP and other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the country with a US assistance bid that potentially helps the government to prevent extremist-terrorist forces from filling the void created by its natural inability to help the victims of disaster is quite understandable.

It is also no surprise that TTP and its terrorist affiliates have tried to exploit the most tragic situation in the country’s history—which will surely take it decades back in economic terms—by engaging in targeted suicide attacks. The recent upsurge in instances of target killing in Karachi, the country’s financial hub, and the assassination of heroic Frontier Corps commander Sifwat Ghayur in Peshawar early this month are indicative of this heinous trend in domestic terrorism amid a natural calamity.

To conclude, Pakistan is currently caught between severe flooding, on the one hand, and rampant terrorism, on the other. The country is urgently in need of the sort of international help that the UN has called for and the US government is trying to muster. For that will not only help Pakistan manage the short and long-term effects of the ongoing floods but will also go a long way in reversing extremism and terrorism in the country and the region.