Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
The exaggerated role of violent groups in Pakistan’s relief effort
Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari has once again spoken of the danger of hardline Islamists exploiting the misery of the flood-affected to promote their cause, which must be cause for worry for security forces in not just Pakistan but over the border in Afghanistan as well, fed by the same militant fervour. Zardari called it the ” ideal hope of the radical” that the floods would discredit Pakistan’s government and warned that some of these extremist groups aimed to scoop up orphaned children and “create them into robots.”
Such fears, though, didn’t stop Zardari from proceeding on a heavily criticised foreign tour just as the flooding was getting worse, even though that was exactly the sort of thing that would fuel public anger and hand the initiative to the Islamist groups.
But quite apart from Zardari’s fulminations, the question, nearly a month into the disaster is whether the Islamists charities linked to militant groups have really made a difference to the lives of the millions hit by the floods. Setting up a tent here, offering food and medicines at another place are all good, but they would seem like a drop in the ocean, literally, given the scale of the devastation Pakistan is confronted with.
If Pakistan’s army, one of the few institutions in the country seen as effective, is struggling to reach aid to the people despite the assets at its command, it’s difficult to see how the Jamaat-ud Dawa, a front of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, can supplant the state in providing assistance in a sustained manner and over such a vast stretch of territory.
On Wednesday, the head of the United States Agency for International Aid, Rajiv Shah, toured a camp which had received supplies from the Falah-e-Insaniyat, which is the name the banned Jamaat is using to operate in the flood areas. U.S. officials said the camp was not run by the Falah e-Insaniyat but the charity had independently distributed relief supplies a few days ago.
The effect the Islamist charities may have on the overall relief effort is overstated, America’s NPR quoted Vali Nasr, a senior adviser to the U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, as saying. The groups face the same problem of logistics as the government or other aid organisations face, and the militants don’t have the means to solve it on any significant scale. “They basically set up a tent and take pictures, but they can’t get meaningful amounts of food and supplies to the disaster areas.”
Jan Egeland, a former U.N. official who managed the international response to the Indian Ocean tsunami, agreed the benefit to violent groups has been exaggerated. For one thing, he said, disaster victims tend not to remember the providers of short-term aid.
After the tsunami and the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, he says, the U.S. military “found that they were enjoying rare moments of popularity because they performed very well. But for the U.S. military as for the violent groups, that popularity doesn’t last.”
What can make a difference, though, is long-term assistance. Whether it is the government or the militants, they can win the people’s support by helping them back on their feet, Egeland said. The reason Hamas is strong in Gaza or the Hizbollah in Lebanon is because of the long term social services they provide. “If somebody gives you your daily bread, your education, your health service, then you do feel a kind of loyalty.”
Besides, the militants after a lull in the first two weeks of the floods, are back to suicide bombings in the turbulent northwest. Three bomb blasts killed 34 people on Monday in northwestern Pakistan, authorities said.
One of the attacks occurred in South Waziristan, the tribal area along the Afghan border long regarded as a stronghold for the Pakistani Taliban. A teenage suicide bomber appeared at a mosque in the town of Wana where 200 worshipers were praying and detonated explosives strapped to his body, witnesses said. The blast killed 25 people and injured 36, hospital officials said. Among the dead was a cleric who had just finished reading verses from the Koran when the bomber came up to shake hands with him. He then detonated the explosives strapped to his body.
Killing people while they are praying is not the kind of thing that can win public support.