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Pakistani floods can have immense strategic impact

August 18, 2010 15:45 IST

Apart from the humanitrian losses, Pakistan's floods will further damage the reputation of the country's political class and, in turn, benefit terrorist groups that have undertaken relief work feverishly. Indian strategic experts must sit up and watch the post-flood situation in Pakistan, feels security expert B Raman.

On November 12, 1970, a cyclone of devastating magnitude struck the then East Pakistan. Over 3 lakh people -- majority of them Bengalis -- perished and East Pakistan's economy suffered extensive damages.

The indifference shown by the federal government, then headed by General Yahya Khan, to the plight of the Bengalis and its failure to mobilise humanitarian relief for the victims created a permanent wedge between the Bengalis of East Pakistan and the non-Bengalis of West Pakistan.

The floods set in motion the train of events that ultimately led to the separation of East Pakistan and the birth of independent Bangladesh.

Forty years later, as Pakistan faces the worst flood in 80 years, it is not without reason that an increasing number of Pakistanis with a sense of history are today asking: Is history repeating itself?

Those who rule out a repeat of 1971 have pointed out that the devastation caused by the current floods in Pakistan is not comparable to the cyclone in East Pakistan.

However, some sections have pointed out that the present political class in Pakistan has been as indifferent to the plight of the flood victims as that of 1970.

The only difference might be that the 1970 disaster took place when army was in power, however the current disaster has struck when an elected civilian government is ruling Pakistan.

According to many, the elected government in Pakistan has shown itself to be not only incompetent but also uncaring.

In fact, the international community has cared for the victims more than Pakistan's political class.

The impact of the floods in Pakistan can have two dimensions -- humanitarian and strategic.

While the humanitarian dimensions are important from the immediate and short-term point of view, the strategic dimensions could assume importance from the medium and long-term view.

The humanitarian dimensions are quantifiable and their consequences predictable, while the likely strategic dimensions are not fully visible yet, are unquantifiable and their consequences unpredictable.

The strategic dimensions of the disaster will arise from the following factors:

  • Firstly, nearly 90 percent of the fatalities have taken place in the areas inhabited by non-Punjabi minorities -- in Khyber-Pakhtunkwa, the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas and Balochistan. Of the ethnic communities that constitute the Pakistani population, the Pashtuns have suffered the worst with nearly 1,100 fatalities of the total 1,400 deaths. Most Pashtun families live in Khyber-Pakhtunkwa and the FATA. Following the Pashtuns, the Balochs, the Punjabis, the Kashmiris and the Sindhis, in the same order, have also suffered immensely in floods.
  • Secondly, in terms of economic and infrastructural damages, Punjab and Sindh have suffered more than the Pashtun belt and Balochistan. The devastating quake of 2005 in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and some parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkwa did not have a major impact on the Pakistani economy. Agriculture, the main prop of the Pakistani economy, had hardly suffered any damage. However, the present floods have hit hard the granaries of Pakistan in Punjab and Sindh and its gas-rich areas in Balochistan. The resulting impact on the agricultural and industrial economy will be considerable. The Baloch freedom struggle has already affected the flow of gas from Balochistan to the industries of Punjab. The damage caused by the floods will only add to their difficulties.
  • Thirdly, the floods have hit the main recruiting grounds of the Pakistani Army -- specifically the rural areas in Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkwa and the FATA -- from where most Pakistani soldiers hail from. This may have huge impact on the morale of the soldiers whose minds will be on the sufferings of their families back home than on their fight against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda.
  • Fourthly, the rise in rural unemployment could help the recruitment drive of the army as well as the terrorists. An increase in the flow of suicide volunteers to terrorist organisations is a possibility to be reckoned with.
  • Fifthly, the credibility of the political class, which has never been high, has suffered further due to its slow response to the tragedy. Disconcerting veiws that the government and bureaucracy have been more concerned with repairing of economic and infrastructure damages in Punjab and Sindh than with the human tragedies in the Pashtun belt and Balochistan could aggravate the feeling of alienation in these areas with unpredictable consequences.
  • Sixthly, from all accounts, the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and the Jamaat-e-Islami have been winning the hearts and minds of the affected people by mobilising relief and rehabilitation measures immediately. While the image of the mainstream political class has suffered, that of the jihadis and fundamentalists has benefited.
  • While aid from the US and other countries have been sent to the discredited governmental agencies, the aid flows from individuals and charity organisations of the Islamic world have been sent to the LeT and the Jamaat. Any mismanagement in the relief and rehabilitation measures by the government can not only further dent the image of the political class, but also damage the image of the West.
  • Seventhly, what impact will the floods and the resulting damage have on the capacity of the Al Qaeda and its associates? It would be difficult to answer this question presently. But it is noteworthy that the North Waziristan area has suffered the maximum damage in the FATA, where the Al Qaeda and its associates are based.
Indian strategic experts must carefully examine the post-flood situation in Pakistan.
B Raman