Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
The Islamists and the Great Flood of Pakistan
Pakistan’s floods are now considered to be more damaging than the massive earthquake that devastated its part of Kashmir in 2005, not least because of the inability of the administration to respond quickly to the crisis. Pakistan is not alone in the region ill-prepared to cope with natural disasters. Bigger, richer India is just as unable to either eliminate or limit the destruction that its bountiful rivers unleash each monsoon, and you hear the same chorus of criticism of government apathy. Bangladesh, too, gets more than its share of cyclones and floods each season, and yet successive governments are overwhelmed each time disaster strikes.
But the one difference in Pakistan is that Islamist charities, some believed linked to militant groups, are ready to step into the breach. And that is worrying a lot of people, as the flood waters sweep over Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa, the province in northwest Pakistan which has been the main battleground in the fight against militants, down to the heartland province of Punjab and into Sindh.
The concerns centre on Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the charity arm of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the banned Pakistani militant group blamed for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai in which 166 people were killed. The Jamaat, which was banned by the U.N. Security Council last December, is working with Fatah-i-Insani Foundation, which is also suspectedof links to extremists, setting up relief camps and sending medical camps to the flooded northwest. It had also organised medical ambulances for emergency treatment, survivors said.
While foreign and government officials debate the security risks from venturing into the troubled northwest, the Islamists groups have penetrated even remote villages with ease, they said. As our correspondents report, they may not bring huge resources to bear, but they establish a presence in the affected areas, often setting up a canvas awning beside a road, with a banner appealing for donations and table covered with bottles and jars of basic medicine. At one village near the swollen Indus in Punjab province, our reporters saw workers of the Jamaat preparing food in huge pots over a smoky fire while four burqa-clad women sat at a charity medical post.
The New York Times said a brigade of 4,000 volunteers from Islamist groups was on the ground in Nowshera to rebuild homes in villages far too dangerous for foreign aid workers to enter.
Is the Jamaat about to pull off another publicity coup building on from its success in 2005 when it moved quickly to deliver aid to survivors of the Kashmir earthquake ? The group then had the most efficient response teams on the ground, and boasted the most functional and well-stocked relief camps. Its mobile X-ray machines and operating theaters made international headlines. Through their clever use of mobile technology, the group’s volunteers established an unparalleled communications infrastructure that facilitated relief work. The government and army, meanwhile, fumbled in early relief and reconstruction efforts, as charges of corruption in the distribution of aid and resources were rampant. For ordinary Pakistanis, the Jamaat had stepped in where others had failed, and they gave their full backing.
But this is also the group whose armed wing, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, is accused of mass casualty attacks in Mumbai, and increasingly seen as a top threat to the West. Brookings scholar Bruce Riedel wrote last month said that it was time Pakistan came clean on the Lashkar and its patrons in the Pakistani security establishment. “There is no excuse for not executing a more robust crack down on Lashkar e Tayyiba and its front organizations from the Pakistani government and for not conducting a thorough house cleaning within the Pakistani army.” The truth about Mumbai and the future of the Lashkar was a ticking time bomb that could wreck the U.S.-Pakistan partnership, he warned.
But is Pakistan in a position to act against the group, even it wanted to, especially in the face of public support for it ?