Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

With Pakistan on the ropes, the fight against extremism just got harder

August 15, 2010



Pakistan’s army has said it won’t be diverting forces from the fight against Islamist militants while it helps deal with the country’s worst floods  in 80 years . Troops who were on training have been called back to lead the flood relief effort, leaving those  deployed on the Afghan front to continue operations against militants, the army said.

But with the floods devastating the trunk of Pakistan running from the northwest to Sind, through the growthengine of Punjab, disrupting the lives of an estimated 20 million people - which is 12 percent of the population – and delivering a serious blow to an already enfeebled economy, it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be any impact on the deadly, costly battle to win back ground from the extremists, bothinside Pakistan and Afghanistan.  It is hard enough for any nation to fight a war such as the one Pakistan is engaged in, willingly or otherwise, against an enemy that it once nurtured.  But to be at war when a third of the land  is affected by the most devastating floods yet,  crops worth a $1 billion are damaged in a country in a country where agriculture is the mainstay  and popular anger is  running high, calls for nerves of steel. And all this when it is already on a $11.3 billion IMF bailout programme whose stringent conditions Pakistan was struggling to meet even before the floods struck.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, underscored the scale of the disaster, calling it a challenge similar to the one that marked the birth of Pakistan when the bloody partition of the subcontinent in 1947 led to the flight of an estimated 10 million people, perhaps the greatest migration in human history. 

Noted Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid said all of Pakistan’s four wars with India, including the 1999 faceoff in Kargil, did not cause the kind of damage that the floods have unleashed. The disaster, he  wrote in the Daily Telegraph,  presents an unparalleled national security challenge for the country, the region and the international community.

It has become clear this week that, unless major aid is forthcoming immediately and international diplomatic effort is applied to improving Pakistan’s relations with India, social and ethnic tensions will rise and there will be food riots. Large parts of the country that are now cut off will be taken over by the Pakistani Taliban and affiliated extremist groups, and governance will collapse. The risk is that Pakistan will become what many have long predicted – a failed state with nuclear weapons, although we are a long way off from that.

The floods have devastated the poorest and least literate parts of  the country where  extremists and separatist movements  thrive, stretching from Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa to Baluchistan, Rashid points out.  The have spared central Punjab which is the country’s richest region where incomes and literacy levels are twice those in other parts. The resentment felt towards Punjab will only increase, he warns. Even within Punjab, the disparities have been accentuated with large parts of the poverty-stricken southern part of the province under water.  Southern Punjab has been a key recruiting ground for militants, and this will only grow as millions of acres of crops are destroyed and villages washed away leaving large-scale unemployment.

Rashid is not alone painting a grim picture. Cyril Almedia in a column for The Dawn says the  country is now much closer to economic collapse than the administration seems to be aware of. Away from the political world of Islamabad, serious-minded folks are making back of the envelop calculations and the conclusions are numbing, he says.  Pakistanis have complained incessantly about loadshedding or power cuts in the past few months, but now there won’t be any power at all in the grid following the damage to infrastructure . Inflation, which has stayed stubbornly high, will spike again.The current account deficit could balloon yet again as remittances stagnate, putting pressure on the exchange rate and making the days of the 100-rupee dollar a distinct possibility, Almedia says.

Even before the floods, Pakistan seemed to be heading for economic collapse; after the floods, that appears to be all but a certainty. ….What is terrifying some people in Islamabad, however, is the attitude of the present government. Like first-class passengers demanding caviar on a sinking Titanic, the federal government seems supremely unaware of the storm that is slowly engulfing it.

With the nation, which marked the 63th anniversary of its founding on Saturday, facing such a grave challenge,  is it realistic to expect it to go after militants the way the the rest of the world wants it to ?

 Already the United States may have eased back some of the pressure on Pakistan to go after militant groups operating in Afghanistan, realising the limits  of pushing its ally too hard. The Wall Street Journal reported this week, that quite apart from the floods which represent an immediate challenge for the Pakistani army, the United States has stopped lobbying Pakistan to attack the Haqqani network. Military officials have decided that pressing Pakistan for help against the group which Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has long considered a strategic asset to retain influence in Afghanistan  is counter productive, the newspaper said.  It said officials believe that making more demands on Pakistan, whether in public or private, to start a military offensive against the Haqqani would only further strain relations.

Washington might be starting to do more on its own in going after the militants,  instead of relying on Pakistan.  The military has stepped up its own operations against the Haqqani network since April, and most significantly in the last two weeks, the Wall Street Journal  reported  military officials as saying.  Strikes have significantly reduced the Haqqani network’s ability to mount attacks in Kabul and outside their traditional tribal areas of eastern Afghanistan, it said.

On Saturday, an unmanned U.S. drone aircraft fired missiles into North Waziristan killing 12 militants, Pakistani intelligence officials said.  It was not known which mioitants were targeted, but North Waziristan is a power base of the Haqqanis.




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