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Around 30,000 Pakistani soldiers are delivering food and setting up relief camps, as well as rebuilding bridges in the northwest – the main battleground in the fight against the Taliban. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of army staff has made sure his face has appeared regularly on television, describing acts of heroism on the part of his soldiers.
By boosting the visibility and popularity of the army at the expense of the government, Kayani has, in effect, inoculated the military from public criticism for their support of the Taliban and other extremists in Pakistan. Already firmly in control of the national security agenda, the military will be even more difficult to deal with from an American point of view now that their star is ascendant.
The other major political force that has benefited from the flooding has been the Islamist parties and extremist groups who have been dispensing massive amounts of aid through their charities. The Pakistani people generally frown on the extremist elements within their midst, eschewing the radical kind of Islam practiced by the Taliban and other terrorist groups. But when your belly is empty and your child is crying, you don’t care about the religious beliefs or politics of those who help you.
“There was God and then these people who helped us,’’ said Taheem Khan, who was at a relief camp set up by Jamaat ud Dawa. “When we were starving, these people fed us. When we were thirsty, these people gave us water. Our children were sick and they treated them,’’ Khan said.
Such is the case in the northwest Pakistani town of Nowshera where an offshoot of the Falah-e-Insaniat — the new name for the banned Jamaat-ud-Dawa group of terrorists responsible for the Mumbai massacre — is operating a relief camp that includes plenty of food, doctors, medicine, and even cash for those who need it most. The government has just recently banned these charities from assisting in the flooded areas, but no one expects them to enforce the stricture and indeed, the government is unable to reach the areas being served by these front organizations.
The assistance by these groups spells trouble for Zardari and the US. The people are tired of the constant threat of terrorism and the refugee situation as a result of the military’s war against extremists is at crisis proportions. Like Hezballah in Lebanon, and the Taliban in some places in Afghanistan, even extremists can achieve acceptance by the population if they address the physical needs of the people; food, water, shelter, education, and a sense of community.
The rains are expected to slacken and the government appears to be doing a slightly better job with their relief efforts. The big challenge ahead is convincing the people — and foreign governments — that relief aid will get to the people who need it and not be pocketed by the famously corrupt Pakistani bureaucracy. To that end, Zadari rival, former coalition partner, and head of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Sharif suggested an independent commission be set up to dispense assistance.
That idea was shot down by Prime Minister Gilani and a National Oversight Disaster Management Council charged with “ensur[ing] the transparent utilization of funds that would be received from foreign donors” would be set up. Sharif was thrown a bone when Gilani announced that two “impartial personalities” would be appointed members of the Council, but given the mistrust of the people and most foreign governments, that concession is not likely to build much confidence.
Enormous challenges face the shaky Zardari government over the next few months. The economy, already moribund before the flooding now lays in tatters as a huge part of the agricultural sector is in ruins. The transportation sector is reeling from hundreds of bridges being washed away, while one estimate of the dollar damage to the economy is over $7 billion.
In the security sector, the war against extremists has been put on hold while the army helps deal with the calamity. And politically, it’s hard to imagine how Zardari’s government and his own personal standing could be in worse shape. Talk of a coup is in the air but the military, already in the driver’s seat, doesn’t need to formalize what they already enjoy as far as power and influence over the civilian government.
As bad as it seems, it could be worse. Extremists could take advantage of the situation and threaten a government takeover. But as long as the army remains committed to a marginally secular Pakistan, that isn’t likely, nor is it imminent.
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