Mullahs taking advantage of flood victims?

Hearts, minds and floods

By Rafia Zakaria

Workers arrange the US relief goods for flood victims which arrived at Karachi airport, Pakistan, on Monday, Aug. 16, 2010. – Photo by AP.

It is the militants that the world is worried about. Weeks into the devastating floods that hit so many parts of Pakistan, the international media concentrated on one aspect of the issue: what this would do to Islamic militancy and the Taliban.

Major newspapers and media outlets like the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, the BBC and the New York Times all angled their news coverage on how militant organisations were beating the Government of Pakistan and foreign aid agencies in rescuing victims and providing for survivors. On Aug 10, the Los Angeles Times ran a story that focused on the humanitarian activities of Falah-i-Insaniat, the welfare wing of the banned group Jamaatud Dawa, highlighting how the group was front and centre in providing services, an act that could easily translate into a recruitment tool for further militancy.

Similarly, on Aug 11, while warnings were issued for more devastation over the weekend, the Associated Press ran a widely circulated piece entitled ‘Pakistan floods could give Taliban time to regroup’. Circulated in newspapers all over the United States and worldwide, the story focused primarily on how the redirection of Pakistani soldiers to rescue efforts could easily allow the itinerant Taliban to re-amass resources and regain ground among a stricken population angry with the government.

On Aug 15 Jemima Khan wrote about how the world’s failure to send aid to Pakistan would certainly leave an opening for the Taliban to gain popular support.

The problems posed by religious militancy in Pakistan are not revelations. However, the focus on this singular theme bears many clues to the mistrust and dejection that are fuelling the very problem the world wishes to resolve. In the midst of millions displaced, over 1,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of destroyed homes, once again the only hope for getting any attention — let alone aid — for Pakistan relied on its reputation as the breeding ground for the world’s most vexing problems.

In providing such a framework for interpreting the catastrophe that befell Pakistan these past weeks, international audiences see not the dejection, the gaping desperation, the heartrending suffering of children swept away by currents, of homes being washed away in seconds or thousands waiting for food and water under an unforgiving sky. They see instead possible militants, opportunities for recruitment and a deflection of efforts from the fight against the Taliban.

This disdain towards the Pakistani condition, emanating as it does from the inability to ever see Pakistan as something other than a militant haven, was aided by additional cruelties of timing and political opportunity. The floods struck in the bare aftermath of the Wikileaks controversy, whose only repetitive headline was Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. The detritus of this and the ill-timed remarks of British Prime Minister David Cameron all exerted their toll on the very people who are most often the targets of terrorism.

The American public, mired in an economic recession, is angry at the current administration; a frustration reflected in recent polls which revealed the president as having an all-time low approval rating of his handling of foreign policy. A Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll also revealed that only four per cent of Americans had a favourable view of Pakistan.

A Pew Survey released on July 29 showed that six out of 10 Pakistanis view the US as an enemy. This two-way street of mistrust and mutual derision thus lay in the way of available help that could not be utilised in the sort of humanitarian effort that could well have countered much of the very militancy that billions of dollars of other aid is meant to quash.

In the US, the choice to deploy military resources for a massive humanitarian effort is a political decision and thus belongs to President Obama alone. Without orders from Washington the kind of hearts-and-minds campaign that could have won millions of Pakistanis over was never initiated and an opportunity to forge truly meaningful ties was lost. By Aug 12, large swathes of Pakistan were under water and all that was done in Washington was a deployment of the routine humanitarian mechanisms that the United States avails of every time there are major natural disasters anywhere in the world.

On Aug 12 a shipload of Marines did reportedly arrive with some humanitarian relief. But given the enormity of the US presence in the region, the participation could be described as meagre and even half-hearted. Helicopters, it seemed, could be used for war but not for rescuing flood victims.

A catastrophic crisis provided an opportunity for a historical effort that could well have dissolved the otherwise unshakeable taints of imperialism and self-serving strategic interests that have typified the relationship between the two countries. In transcending the frame that only looks at Pakistanis as possible terrorists, the United States could have laid the foundation for perceiving them as humans in terrible need and afflicted by debilitating suffering.

Such an initiative required a level of political heroism from President Obama that he was unwilling to commit to. It is indeed true that the US has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to the flood effort and attempted to encourage Americans to donate to relief efforts. But even while they have been doing that, the drumbeat of Pakistan as an unstable ally has not abated. The question, therefore, is not one of whether or not the United States is aiding the relief effort but the relative weight given to relief versus warfare.

With one of its largest military deployments in such close proximity to the region, a historic effort was required but refused, the costs of which the world may have to bear in the continuation of an interminable war.

The writer is a US-based attorney and teaches constitutional law and political philosophy.

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