In the aftermath of the Pakistan floods disaster by Ishtiaq Ahmed

6. Sep 2010

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon who visited Pakistan a week after the unprecedented monsoon rains that started in July 2010 described the scenes that he saw as far worse than the havoc unleashed by the recent Haiti earthquake and the infamous tsunami of 2004 that hit Southeast and South Asia. To some casual listeners that may sound strange because in terms of loss of life the floods in Pakistan claimed much fewer lives: some 2000 as against the hundreds of thousands of deaths that took place at the time of the Haiti earthquake and the Asian tsunami.

Evaluation of the harm wrought by natural disasters can be controversial, but the UN Secretary General was probably thinking in terms of the hugely greater number of people and area affected by the floods. Some one-fifth of the Pakistan population of 170 million and an area greater than Italy submerged under flood waters. Some eight million people are in need of food, water and shelter. Waterborne diseases can cause considerable loss of life. The Pakistan meteorological office has warned that more rain is on the way. So, the worst is not over. Some people think that the worst is still to come as the gigantic problems of rehabilitating the millions of displaced people will have to be tackled. For a country seriously wanting in natural and educated human resources and notoriously mismanaged by a ruthless and corrupt power elite the future does not augur well at all.

Beginning in the north and expanding southwards the floods have followed the course and direction of the Indus River as it flows into the Arabian Sea. Not unsurprisingly the response of the government was slow, inefficient and incompetent. In particular the conduct of the president, Asif Ali Zardari husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, shocked many Pakistanis as he stayed away in Europe allegedly taking care of his-ill begotten wealth and investments. The Pakistan military distinguished itself much better.  Television channels showed officers and soldiers along with personnel of the UN and other international agencies organizing relief work under very difficult circumstances. The US Air Force provided a fleet of helicopters which have been helping the Pakistan Air Force with dropping of food parcels to people marooned on high spots, roof tops of houses and in water. They also airlifted people in the thousands.

India offered $ 5 million to which it added another $ 20 million. Pakistan initially hesitated in accepting such help from its arch rival but then sense prevailed or as some say, US pressure compelled Pakistan to respond positively to the Indian gesture. Rabidly anti-Indian circles in Pakistan denounced such a decision.  The Taliban came out strongly against accepting US and western aid in general. There is no evidence that people in general backed any such political manoeuvre.

On the other hand, Islamist organizations known for their extremist agendas and involvement in terrorist activities stepped in with their networks and have been delivering help to the people. Their activities constitute a nightmare scenario for the left-of-centre government of the Pakistan People’s Party, the United States and other western nations who dread that it will strengthen the Taliban movement. The situation currently remains too critical for any involved party to draw full political capital out of the natural calamity which has hit Pakistan. However, as soon as the floods recede and some sort of normality is restored the implications and ramifications of the politics of flood relief will begin to unfold.

Western media has been reporting that scepticism at both the level of states and among the general public exists as to how to help Pakistan. The notoriety that the Pakistani governments have gained over the years for corruption is proverbial – irrespective of whether elected governments were in power or the military.  The distrust is not only about the money of taxpayers in the West ending up in some illicit accounts in Switzerland, France and so on but also about some of it ending up with the Taliban or forces sympathetic to them. A great deal has been recently written by Western analysts and governments about Pakistan playing a double game with regard to the ‘war on terror’. Pakistan has refuted such charges by pointing out that the military has been fighting the Taliban head on since at least May 2009 and has inflicted defeat on them in many theatres: in return suffered thousands of casualties. Notwithstanding such arguments the fact remains that the Pakistani power elite and establishment enjoy the unenviable reputation of being untrustworthy.

It is to be noted that the UN has continued to raise the level of disaster relief. Beginning with $ 460 million it is now increased it to $ 1 billion. The World Bank has also pledged to increase its loan to Pakistan by a significant proportion. The Pakistan government estimates that the economy has suffered a loss of $ 3 billion in terms of destruction of infrastructure, livestock and crops. For the next three years, Pakistan would be in need of huge amounts of economic help and assistance. Inflation is expected to rise by 20% and the growth rate will go down from 4.5% to 2.5%.

Some voices have been raised in Pakistan imploring international financial institutions and powerful nations such as the United States, EU and Japan to write off Pakistan’s foreign debt. Pakistan will not be in a position to pay back its accumulated debt of $ 54 billion for a long time. Under international law a state can in situations of economic collapse or bankruptcy suspend its debt obligations. This was done by Argentina in 2001. However, the Pakistani trade union and leftist leaders are demanding a cancellation of the debt by the lenders. It remains to be seen how the world will respond to such a plea.

In terms of politics, it would be a tragedy if in the aftermath of the flood disaster nothing is done to weed out corruption rampant in the corridors of power. Pakistan has been written off as a failed state by many analysts but the violent conflict with Taliban-Al Qa’eda duo has meant that the western powers have continued to provide military and economic aid to Pakistan. That may continue even afterwards but it cannot be taken for granted forever. Pakistan’s power elite will have to reconsider its policy of confrontation with India which has resulted in three wars and a mini-war in 1999 at Kargil. It could have escalated into a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan.

It is therefore imperative that under no circumstance the Pakistan military and intelligence services continue to help and protect the Taliban and a host of other extremist Islamist organizations. Some were created to challenge the Indian hold over Kashmir. In November 2008 cadres of one of them, the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, were involved in terrorists attacks on India’s financial capital, Mumbai. It nearly led to war between India and Pakistan. International diplomacy plus the fact that both states have nuclear weapons meant that better sense prevailed and all out war could be prevented. Pakistan has to ensure that such an outrage will not be repeated.

With the economy now badly shattered and millions of Pakistani rendered homeless, hungry and vulnerable to disease and epidemics any continuation of the politics of Islamism and militarism will only result in the total collapse of whatever modicum of law and order remains in tact. From an objective point of view the objective basis for war mongering and patronage of militant Islam has now been completely undermined. Therefore the Pakistani power elite has to radically alter its political agenda and list of priorities.

The most positive outcome can be the elite realizing that it and the Pakistani nation stand to gain more from economic development than from military adventurism. Investments have to be made in enlightened education instead of indoctrination into Islamism and militarism. The state must also do away with draconian Islamist laws that serve no purpose but to generate an obscuranti
st and anti-intellectual milieu in which religious and sectarian minorities and women become easy targets for discrimination and persecution. The population explosion in Pakistan has to be brought under control. In 1947 when Pakistan was founded the population of West Pakistan (that is current Pakistan) was only 33.7 million. It is now estimated in the vicinity of 178 million. The best way to achieve birth control is to empower women by providing them with micro-finance and other facilities to start earning an income. Once women begin to work and earn an income independently they also become less readily available to produce children against their will. In Bangladesh such a strategy has been extremely successful and the birth rate has declined dramatically. Pakistan can benefit from such an experiment and with the whole social order now in turmoil the scope for such policy interventions has improved.  Pakistan must also evolve a federal structure of government with substantive power devolving to the provinces and to local government. In short, Pakistan must change course drastically before it is too late.


The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at [email protected]