Flood relief and politics in Pakistan By Brian M Downing
The world is seeing a tragedy unfold as monsoon rains swell the expansive Indus River and flood large parts of Pakistan from Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province to the Arabian Sea. Whether directed by Pakistanis or outside agencies, relief will not always be a straightforward humanitarian effort – neither in intent nor result; it will be tempered with civil-military issues, international politics, and concerns with Pakistan’s very future.
Civilians and soldiersPakistan has alternated between civilian and military governments since its inception in 1947. Neither established a record of capable government in the eyes of the people and according to polling data, neither enjoys substantial support – Pakistanis are not supportive of rule by heavy-handed authoritarians or grasping oligarchs.
Politicians and generals are vying for popular support not on the mustings but through relief programs. Campaign promises and legitimizing slogans have been pushed aside as each side must either deliver food, water and medical aid to millions of displaced Pakistanis or face reduced support, if not open opposition.
The military has the edge in this competition, though an appearance of cooperation will be maintained. It is the army that has the trucks and helicopters, the logistical skill in moving large quantities of goods into place, large-scale medical resources, and the hierarchical command structure. Paradoxically, perhaps, many of the resources and skills of modern warfare are essential for relief work.
There is little likelihood that the military will once again seize power in the near future. The military will, however, present itself as a competent institution embodying the principles of national honor and aspirations. Whatever new presence it establishes in stricken districts will be used to enhance its prestige. Depending on its success in relief operations, the military will be able to maintain its position in public affairs and resist efforts by civilians – and the US – to exit from politics altogether.
US effortsAmerican diplomacy has alternately supported civilian and military governments – sometimes out of geopolitical necessity, sometimes out of the government’s incompetence or brutality. At present, the US supports the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, but the floods will require it to work closely with the military on logistical, medical and other matters.
The US has been leaning on the Pakistani military, especially Inter-Services Intelligence, to end its support for militant groups such as the Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e Taiba and even al-Qaeda. American diplomats and military officials have been decrying military support, formal and informal, to these groups and pressing the Pakistani generals to force the Taliban to the bargaining table.
But this pressure will likely be reduced as the immediacy of the disaster and the need for cooperation on relief take precedence. And cooperation may well strengthen the Pakistani military’s standing in the country.
The US will seek to enhance its abysmal image in a country where anti-Americanism and related conspiracy theories abound. Results on this score are unlikely to be impressive. Hostility is simply too deeply embedded in the culture and the US presence in relief work will be often seen as an effort to dominate the country, probably in conjunction with India.
United States relief efforts will in some respects mesh with those of Pakistan’s other geopolitical partner, China, but in other respects the two powers will be competitive if not antagonistic. The US wishes to contain China’s influence in Pakistan as it might lead to sharper tensions between Pakistan and India, which has a decades-long hostility toward China and which opposes any expansion of Chinese influence in South Asia.
China has longstanding cooperation with the Pakistani military, including arms sales and military planning. China is less ideologically motivated in its approach to Pakistan. It cares little about civil-military rivalries and looks chiefly for a stable partner to oppose India and to exploit the mineralogical wealth of Afghanistan. Insomuch as China already operates an immense copper mine above the Af-Pak border – with little if any insurgent obstruction – one might suspect that China and the Pakistani military formed at least the basis of a partnership on this regard some time ago.
Pakistan’s futureThe deluge is of such a magnitude as to pose a risk to the country’s stability and unity. The military’s resources are formidable but not limitless, even with the influx of foreign help. Relief efforts will take resources away from the campaign against the Pakistani Taliban in the northwest and related development programs in the region.
This will afford related groups – the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda among them – to enjoy greater freedom of action in the region and in Afghanistan.
Resources may also be reallocated from Balochistan – the country’s restive western province where a separatist movement has been gathering momentum. Separatists may avail themselves of the state’s attention being shifted to the Indus valley and use it to further their cause.
A more serious challenge has already been launched by al-Qaeda. A year ago or so, al-Qaeda was of limited importance in Pakistan. Its forces were thought to be withdrawing from the region for more promising campaigns in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere outside South Asia.
More recently, however, with open fighting between the Pakistani military and its erstwhile client group known as the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan – TTP), al-Qaeda has regrouped and made common cause with the TTP to effect the country’s break with the US and support, even more openly, the Afghan Taliban in order to drive the West out of the region.
Al-Qaeda has been notably effective in establishing itself in the port city of Karachi, which has a large Pashtun refugee population that could be used to interdict North Atlantic Treaty Organization supplies there.
Perhaps of less immediate concern is the potential for discontent in the Punjab region to develop into another insurgency. Land ownership is highly concentrated in the area – a longstanding problem that the country’s political elite, which contains numerous big landholders, has neglected. The Punjab’s century-long tradition of military service would provide an insurgency with experienced leaders and a rank-and-file with military knowledge.
The monsoon rains are expected to continue for several weeks.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Flood relief and politics in Pakistan By Brian M Downing