Op-Ed

Lessons from Pakistan’s Latest Catastrophe

Stephen P. Cohen

The flood in Pakistan, which is expected to affect 20 million citizens, is working its way down to the sea from the northwest, turning deserts into lakes. The current event is by no means the country’s biggest natural disaster in terms of lives lost—that dubious honor goes to the 1970 cyclone that killed almost a quarter million East Pakistanis, and had profound and negative consequences for Pakistan’s political stability. But, in terms of numbers affected, Pakistanis compare this event with the forced migration of millions during Partition.

Beyond being an obvious humanitarian calamity, the flood and subsequent relief operation are important politically for at least three reasons: what they say about the government’s competence, what they tell us about the American response, and what lessons, if any, can be drawn regarding their impact on Pakistan’s political future.

Natural and man-made disasters

Almost every natural disaster has a man-made component. Individuals, governments, and private organizations generally have a good idea of a people’s vulnerability to floods, cyclones, and even earthquakes. To the degree that they prepare ahead of time, such as in this case tending to forest management (critical in holding back storm water), or constructing irrigation and drainage systems, and after the disaster strikes, to the degree that they manage rescue relief operations, they can both save life and reduce damage to property and crops.

Unfortunately, Pakistan gets a failing grade for the historically abysmal management of its natural environment. George Schaller long ago documented the demise of Pakistan’s Snow Leopards, due partly to the destruction of their high forest environment and settler encroachment; the disappearance of these cats was one of many warning signs ignored by civilian and military regimes alike.

When it comes to the rescue and relief operations, the Pakistan government, and its under-funded provinces, have not fared any better, but this is to be expected in a country where less than one percent of its population pay taxes.

The government’s capacity to both anticipate and respond has been systematically weakened, even as Pakistan’s population has grown at an alarming rate. No one trusts the government—the major political parties have had to negotiate the creation of a new disaster management organization to carry out relief operations. The military remains credible, but it is now hip-deep in counter-insurgency operations in Pakistan itself, and covertly running some operations in Afghanistan. The army’s reputation has rebounded after the disastrous Musharraf years, it has more relevant assets (such as helicopters), than the civilian government, but that is not saying much, given the scale of the disaster, now affecting every province in the country.

America to the rescue

American officials are intensely interested in the ‘bounce’ in Pakistani attitudes towards the United States afforded by the opportunity to show the United States in a positive light. They worry about America’s low standing in Pakistan, less even than India. Only one month ago, they were reminiscing over the 2008 U.S. relief operation after a major earthquake. The belief took hold in the U.S. government that disaster relief is a powerful way of demonstrating America’s positive intentions towards Pakistan, and its capability to do good there.

Thus, the Obama administration sees a large-scale relief program as a way of undoing the PR damage caused by increased drone attacks and support for the hapless (but democratically elected) present government of Pakistan. It is explicitly competing with the large network of Islamist charities, some of whom have links to known terrorist groups. Notably, an advantage those groups had is that they outlasted the American effort during the 2008 earthquake—we went home, they stayed on.
Led by Richard Holbrooke, the Special Representative for “Af-Pak,” Washington boasts that only America can do humanitarian relief on such a vast scale, and the administration sees an opportunity to do well by doing good. Like a puppy dog, Washington is eager to demonstrate its good will and its competence, and some officials tout the disaster relief role as a component of the new “strategic” relationship between Washington and Islamabad.

From the short-term public relations perspective, the American effort should be applauded, even if some assets have to be drawn from Afghanistan, where they were ironically enough battling hostile forces supported directly and indirectly by the government of Pakistan. Yet, from a policy perspective, the U.S. effort is misplaced. The Pakistan army remains convinced that the threat to them is from India rather than al Qaeda or the Taliban and no amount of puppy love will change their minds.

This is one of the many paradoxes surrounding the U.S. effort: we are assisting a country that itself supports (or tolerates) groups hostile to America. Pakistan’s defense, of course, is that it does not exercise sovereign control over its own territory: therefore, the irony is that weaker it is, the more assistance it requires, especially because it remains convinced of India’s bad intentions.

The floods and Pakistan’s future

Some have speculated that these floods will be a critical event in Pakistan’s political history. Like the 1970 Cyclone, which turned many East Pakistanis against the military-dominated government, this wave of floods could trigger massive resentment against the present regime of Asif Ali Zardari, who notably was visiting family properties in Britain and France as the floods hit. A dramatic change in leadership is still possible, but as a recent Brookings study of Pakistan found, this is a country that has both considerable resiliency, and is under pressure from so many directions that it is very hard to predict its future over the next few weeks, let alone the next few months. Pakistan is under attack from at least two insurgencies (Balochistan and Waziristan), the state has lost control over huge tracts of territory, sectarian discord is growing in the major cities, suicide attacks against the very core elements of the state are growing, and, as far as its army is concerned, India remains the chief military threat.

In sum, the United States has a policy to deal with natural disaster—help as much as it can, as fast as it can— and that is to be applauded. But it still has no true policy to deal with either Pakistan’s declining integrity as a state or the army’s obsession with India.