Pakistan's Real Disaster

As floods devastate the country, Islamists reap the benefit.

The toll from Pakistan's worst flooding in more than a century continues to rise as the record Monsoon rainfall refuses to let up and spare the nation more agony. It is believed the death toll has passed 2,000, although no official count has been forthcoming from the government.

Beyond the loss of life are the extraordinarily grim statistics of tragedy; 20 million Pakistanis affected from the Swat Valley in the north to Sindh in the south. The number of homeless, destitute people with no food, no shelter, no medicine, and little hope has reached at least 4 million. The area affected is 62,000 square miles -- about 1/5 of the country. In the Punjab alone, more than 8 million have been forced to flee, returning to homes either destroyed or made uninhabitable in many cases. It is believed by the UN that nearly 12 million Pakistanis are in desperate need of aid.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has called the catastrophe a "slow motion tsunami." Indeed, if one were to look at the number of people affected by this disaster, it would surpass the combined total of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

With nearly $800 million from the international community either pledged to assist the Pakistani government or in the aid pipleline, most observers believe that figure isn't nearly enough and that more is desperately needed. In addition to the more than $100 million in aid pledged or already given by the United States, the US military has stepped forward in its usual competent fashion and, using assets already on the ground in Afghanistan as well as the vast logistical capabilities here at home, a round the clock effort is being made to save lives and bring desperately needed food and medicine into the worst hit areas.

There is some hope in the State Department that this very visible, massive effort on the part of the military will go some ways toward mitigating the hostility of the Pakistani people felt against America. This is not likely. Pakistan, if you can believe the polls, is the second most anti-American country in the world, trailing only Turkey for that dubious distinction. This is a nation where conspiracy theories about America abound and where fundamentalist Imams keep up a steady drumbeat of hate spewed against the U.S.

Unfortunately, the anger Pakistanis usually have no trouble directing against America has undergone a metamorphosis and is now aimed directly at the heart of Pakistan's political stability; the government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

The first fortnight of the unfolding calamity saw a Pakistani government frozen by incompetence, lack of leadership, and bureaucratic inertia. In the first 10 days of the disaster, the government managed to deliver 10,000 food packs that fed 80,000 people out of the more than 2 million who were already destitute.

Zardari only stoked the rage Pakistanis were feeling against the government when he left the country at the beginning of August -- just when the floods had gone from bad, to worse, to catastrophic -- to pay a visit to David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy. A trip to Great Britain and France might ordinarily give a boost to the flagging popularity of a Pakistani president, but in this case, it had the opposite effect. Zardari arrived at Heathrow dressed in casual clothing, looking for all the world like a bored tourist. And then between conferences with officials, he helicoptered off to spend a little time at his fabulous chateau in Normandy owned by him and his late wife Benazir Bhutto.

It's no secret that both the late Mrs. Bhutto and Zardari were spectacularly corrupt politicians. Mrs. Bhutto was sacked in a military coup by General Musharraf largely because of corruption while Zardari -- known in Pakistan as "Mr. Ten Percent" -- who has already served 8 years in jail on corruption charges, is still under a cloud even as president.

What all this added up to was a monumental political miscalculation on the part of Zardari that if it doesn't directly threaten the stability of the government (most observers dismiss the idea of a military coup) it nevertheless opens the door to massively increased influence by two other concerned parties in Pakistani politics; the military, and the fundamentalist Islamist parties.

The only entity that stepped forward immediately to help in search and rescue of the millions stranded was the military, and they are being rewarded by enjoying a huge increase in popularity and prestige. Images on Pakistani television showed dozens of rescues by military helicopters of desperate citizens threatened by the floods.

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.