COMMENTARY
 
Opportunity in Disaster
Weekly Pulse
August 20-26, 2010
The flood disaster in Pakistan is a continuing tragedy, as the figures of the displaced, the dead, and the diseased are rising. It is still not possible to assess the full impact of this calamity on the country’s fragile economy devastated by terrorism.

That it is a major challenge for both Pakistani government and the international community is unquestionable. However, the tragic situation underpinning this challenge also offers a unique opportunity to help millions of hapless people in their hour of need. Otherwise, they will become an easy prey for the forces of terror, who crave for a chance like this to spread their extremist message and terrorist cause.

The magnitude of the flood disaster facing Pakistan is amply clear from the following reported accounts, as of past week: According to the United Nations, the number of displaced people reached 20 million, and the area covered by floods 160,000 square kilometers, almost the size of Ireland. While the death toll was still over 1,600, millions were at risk of starvation.

Almost all the roads, bridges and other civic infrastructure along the river that cuts across the entire north- and south-western regions of the country were washed away by the flood water. Entire towns and villages in the disaster-hit areas had submerged under flood water. Livestock had vanished and entire seasonal crops destroyed. The power supply had stopped and the communication system was in a mess.

As for the response to the disaster, the civilian government either does not have the capacity to cope with it, or its national and provincial disaster management authorities are not able to fully harness their limited national capacity due to inefficiency and lack of coordination. The army’s performance, despite its extensive engagement in fighting insurgency in Afghan border regions and safeguarding security on the eastern frontier, in managing the disaster is praiseworthy.

Slow Response

Unfortunately, the response of the international community to the flood disaster in Pakistan continues to slow and short of not just the expectations of the Pakistani government but also is not commensurate with several appeals for international help made by the UN and the extensive coverage this disaster is receiving in the world media.

The UN has appealed for an international donation worth $460 million, but it has so far only received less than half of the amount. The Red Cross has launched a new appeal to double the $16 million it has raised so far.

The reason why the international community is not forthcoming to help Pakistan in its hour of need may be many: the continuing fallout of the global financial crisis and the consequent donors’ fatigue, especially in the case of a country like Pakistan that has faced recurrent crises in recent years could be one. Pakistan’s image problem and its government’s credibility issue could be another. Whatever the case, the fact that Pakistan needs international help, and it needs it now, cannot be overlooked.

Only a million people, out of 20, have received food and just over 100,000 of them have received tents. According to the International Organization for Migration, the greatest need for tents and plastic sheets is in Punjab, where 484,000 families are waiting for shelter aid, and in Sindh, where there are 176,000 homeless families in need of protection from rain and occasional blazing sun. Pakistani government claims some 900,000 homes have been destroyed nationwide. The UN fears 3.5 million children would be affected by various waterborne diseases, such as cholera. In some areas, the signs of epidemic are already visible.

The disappointing response from the international community in general aside, the United States and the World Bank have, indeed, come up with crucial help. The United States has been the biggest and the quickest single international floods donor, committing 200 million dollars to help its ally in the fight against Islamist extremism recover from its worst-ever natural disaster. The United States currently has 22 helicopters rescuing stranded villagers and ferrying relief supplies around the country.

Additional Choppers

On August 29, the US government announced the deployment of 18 additional helicopters to Pakistan. The 10 CH-47 Chinook and eight UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were to l operate in partnership with the Pakistani military throughout flood-impacted areas beginning in mid-September.

What happens in a situation where the government is unable to cope with the disaster, and the international response also does not match its magnitude, is that forces other than the state and its international partners jump in to exploit a population facing misery and destitute. They are the one who fill the void. In the absence of due national and international flood rescue, relief and reconstruction effort, this is the sort of danger Pakistan will face in the disaster-struck regions in future.

Ironically, the regions hit hard by the floods—from Swat to the rest of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and south Punjab—are those where extremism has thrived, and terrorist organizations have found their recruits, including suicide bombers. Thus far, the country’s campaign to combat terrorists and fight insurgents has been limited largely to the employment of force. However, in any counter-insurgency campaign, the real battle against the enemy begins once the areas under its control are liberated and the writ of the state is re-established.

Since early last year, these two initial goals of the country’s counter-insurgency campaign have been realized in much of Swat, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and tribal areas. Even in the case of south Punjab, the law-enforcement agencies had tightened their grip over terrorist hideouts. The time was, therefore, ripe to take the national war effort against terrorists and insurgents to the next crucial level: one where roads are built, hospitals are constructed, and schools are established. The purpose of extending healthcare, educational and infrastructure facilities to economically-impoverished areas is to win the “hearts and minds” of their populace.

Blessing in Disguse

Unfortunately, before the government could start exercising these crucial options as part of its long-term agenda to finish the root-causes of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, a natural calamity of such unprecedented scale has hit the country. Otherwise, with due support for the purpose, especially from the United States, the country’s current civilian authorities and security establishment were well on their wave to take core security, economic and socio-political initiatives to credibly reverse the recent wave of extremism and terrorism. All of these plans, for whose implementation the sort of calamity that has hit Pakistan was not factored in, are now in serious jeopardy.

The only way out is if the entire international community, not just the US government or the World Bank, gets united in its urgent response to managing Pakistan’s calamity. In the absence of that, just to re-iterate and be more specific, it is al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the country such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Wahhabi charities, and banned jihadi outfits like Jamaat-u-Da’wa who will use the worsening tragedy in their favour. Local media reports suggest the extremist charities are already cashing in on this unique opportunity.

For Pakistan and the world, this may be a gigantic challenge. However, in the perception of the non-state extremist-terrorist groups, the tragedy underpinning this challenge may be a blessing in disguise. Given that, if not for any humanitarian reason, at least for the pragmatic purpose of defeating the forces of extremism and terrorism in the region, the world in general must come to Pakistan’s help. In the absence of that, the entire global project of defeating extremists and terrorists in the region is in jeopardy.