The flood waters of the Indus finally poured into the Arabian Sea on 01 September after devastating the country for over five weeks, submerging almost one-fifth of land mass and making hundreds and thousands homeless. Eight million people are now aid dependent as their agricultural produce is washed away or land silted. The death toll from floods, which have officially claimed over 1,600 lives, is likely to rise as the missing are counted as the waters recede. The first wave of floods started on 29 July triggered by heavy monsoon rains in north-west Pakistan which caused rivers to burst banks and destroyed entire villages. By 31 July UN described the monsoon floods as the worst in living memory. These unprecedented floods also have the potential to create a triple crisis in Pakistan, relief and rehabilitation, political fissures and violence.
The floods have inflicted major damage on the country’s economy estimated by the Prime Minister on 1 September at $43 billion. The real GDP growth is also likely to come down to 2.5 percent for 2010-11. The Prime Minister Mr Gilani as per the Daily Times said one-fifth of the country’s irrigation infrastructure, livestock and crops had been destroyed and inflation was likely to rise up from 9.5 percent to 15-20 percent while the budget deficit would grow to 6-7 percent of the GDP. Economic distress normally is transformed into political confrontation and security concerns which are evident in the country in the wake of the floods over the past one month.
The floods impact on political situation was evident as parties attempted to maximize gains from the dire situation, such is the response due to frailty of human nature which attempts to draw benefits from every circumstance. Thus differences in the two main parties the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML N) in power in the most populated province Punjab came to the fore after some initial signs of cooperation in organizing flood relief. The PPP and the PML N which had agreed to cooperate in a meeting between the Prime Minister and the PML N chief Mr Nawaz Sharif failed to reach a consensus with the Prime Minister announcing that the National Oversight Disaster Management Council (NODMC) as the key body for distribution and ensure transparent utilisation of funds that would be received from foreign donors rather than a multi party committee suggested by Mr Sharif. The NODMC is however to be constituted on all party lines.
This dissension in the main political ranks is seen to benefit three constituencies of public support, smaller political parties such as that run by former cricketer Imran Khan, the Army which has been sending vehicles with big banner proclaiming names of the Corps commanders on whose behalf the relief is being sent and finally the sectarian and terrorist groups with their front organizations providing relief to the people. It would do well for the mainstream parties to come together rather than lose out to these elements outside the political hold. However given the politics of flood relief which has taken over the tragedy it does not appear likely that this will materialize.
A combination of the flood crisis and spiraling violence in Karachi over the year also led leader of Pakistan's third largest party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, (MQM) Altaf Hussain to call for a return of the, “patriotic Generals,” and, “martial law-like step against corrupt politicians,” raising a storm in the country. He later claimed that he was against martial law and only wanted to speak against selective accountability of the current political leadership. “Nowhere during my entire speech had I mentioned imposition of Martial Law,” Altaf Hussain clarified. The flip flop by Mr Altaf Hussain chief of the MQM who is in self imposed exile in the UK is natural given that he was possibly testing waters as to how far he could go after the incessant political violence in Karachi in which his party leadership and workers were being targeted.
The MQM has been very deftly maneouvring the political space in the country and has managed to stay in a coalition with all formulations in the country so far and has also been a part of the General Musharraf led political combination in the past. While civil incapacities have been fully exposed in Pakistan due to failure on many fronts, the Army has also ensured that it does not allow other institutions to grow thereby perpetuating the rot in its favour. Whether the MQM call will be taken up by other parties remains to be seen, though the PML N has already stated that legal action should be taken against Mr Hussain for his statements.
What ever it be, the political space for the army is increasing given the failure or at least a perception of the same in the masses that the civil administration has not provided adequate relief and it is the trucks bearing the flag of the Army and the Corps commanders so to say who have in the fore front of the relief effort.
On 1 September, sectarian terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami targeted Shias marking Hazrat Ali’s (RA) martyrdom in Lahore, killing 29 people and injuring 243 others in two suicide and one grenade attack denoting that they would not spare their opponents despite the dire state in the country. Even as Hyderabad in Pakistan’s Sindh province which is the second largest city in the province was being threatened by the floods, terrorists were making hay in South Waziristan and increased intensity of their attacks. The floods also gave a boost to the fund collection drive of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), and the front organization that supports the various social and education activities under its umbrella the Jamaatud Dawa. These banned militant groups like the Jaish-e-Muhammad and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, set up camps in Karachi to raise funds to help victims of the disaster and also included Jamaat-ud-Dawah, Sipah-e-Sahaba, Harkatul Mujahideen, Hizbut Tahrir and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. "JuD, under the name of Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation Pakistan, also set up around 29 relief camps at Khalid Bin Waleed Road, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Gulstan-e-Jauhar, Landhi, Clifton, Korangi and other areas (of Karachi)," an office-bearer of the organisation told the media.
The agenda of these groups is clear. For providing food and medicine, they demand that men pledge to take up their cause. Al Qaeda supported Al Rehmat Trust and Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) is reported to have started a recruitment campaign which some have described as 'the Talibanisation of the flood,' for recruiting over 50,000 new guerrillas. This could lead to a significant upswing in Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and in adjoining Afghanistan by using food and medicines as a bait to demand that men take up their cause in return.
The second security challenge is the threat by the Taliban to target foreign aid workers which would cause serious disruption in relief and rehabilitation in the country. However the Taliban would attempt to calibrate their strikes to gain support by the people. The government would have to ensure that the foreign aid workers are provided added security particularly those operating in the tribal areas and Swat where there is presence of the Taliban in pockets. In other areas they may use their associates to advantage such as the Lashkar e Taiyyaba. As foreign aid and rehabilitation workers have expertise in providing relief, their presence in the country is essential, thus the importance of security for them is highlighted.
We hope and pray the coming days of crisis will not lead to loss of more lives in the country, but for this Mr Zardari, Mr Gillani and General Kiyani will have to demonstrate greater empathy for the people of Pakistan rather than their chairs in high office.