Originally published in The Mantle.
After suffering through months of intense battles between Islamist militants and the army, the impoverished northwestern region of Pakistan must now endure the severe ramifications of a fierce wave of flooding in September that has so far claimed close to 2,000 lives, wiped out whole villages, and left innocent families clinging to the tops of their submerged homes hoping to be rescued.
Flooding blocked major roadways and damaged almost every bridge in the Swat region as well. At its height, the flooding left, an incredible one-fifth of the country submerged. The heightened prevalence of militant activity and the recent heavy flooding all stand as painful examples of how the country has been rigorously consumed by a sequence of disasters over the past year.
The Pakistani army launched a major offensive against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley last spring, sparking a fight that caused widespread destruction and drove some two million people from their homes. According to Dawn News, the Pakistani government has said that rehabilitating the area is a crucial step in diffusing militant influence, a goal that has been consistently hampered by a lack of funds. Ongoing reconstruction efforts will now face greater challenges due to the devastating floods, which destroyed more than 14,000 houses and 22 schools in Swat alone, the result of one of the worst natural disasters to strikenorthwest Pakistan in the past eighty years.
The United Nations estimates that more than twenty million people across Pakistan have been affected by the disaster, with some facing a life-threatening lack of food as fields of crops have been destroyed and livestock drowned. Officials also say they fear an outbreak of waterborne diseases such as cholera among survivors. The American embassy in Islamabad pledged that the U.S. would provide $10 million in humanitarian assistance as well as 50,000 meals for people in the affected areas. In an attempt to enhance rescue efforts, Afghan and NATO forces used helicopters to conduct rescues and distribute aid to the flood-impacted regions of Afghanistan, including the southern Kunar and Nangarhar provinces. The Pakistani Army said that it had not expected such a widespread disaster. Tens of thousands of soldiers who are accustomed to battling militants have instead redirected their focus to search-and-rescue operations in highly-affected regions.
The Pakistani government says it has deployed thousands of rescue workers who have so far saved an estimated 28,000 people and distributed basic aid to survivors. The army has also sent some 30,000 troops and dozens of helicopters, but the scale of the disaster has been so vast that many residents say it seems like officials are doing nothing. The government, which was hoping to achieve a popularity boost by providing emergency flood assistance, appears instead to have alienated wide segments of the population with a disaster responsethat residents consider both sluggish and disorganized. Residents railed against the government for failing to provide appropriate emergency assistance in the weeks after the extremely heavy monsoon rains produced raging floodwaters in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. For example, residents complained that the government did not provide evacuees with temporary shelters until the floodwaters receded.
Militants Step Up
In past emergencies, including a massive earthquake in 2005 that killed 79,000 people and the refugee crisis initiated by last year’s anti-terrorist military offensives in Pakistan’s Swat region, Islamic charities with close ties to banned militant organizations have been more adept at providing them with vital necessities, such as medical aid, food, shelter, and water, than has the Pakistani government. For instance, previous reports from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars discussed how the army’s apparent inability to provide basic necessities to earthquake victims in 2005 was partially replaced by the humanitarian efforts of three organizations that had been banned by the government for their links to terrorism. The quick and visible initiative by these groups in providing life-sustaining supplies to the victims helped them win considerable support from even apolitical Kashmiris, a group of individuals who normally have no interest or association with political affairs.
More recently, representatives from a charity allegedly linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group distributed food and offered medical services to victims in the town of Charsada, one of the areas hit hardest by the floods. Lashkar-e-Taiba (L.E.T.) was banned in Pakistan in 2002, after which the group used the name Jamaat-ud-Dawa, though it claims to be unrelated to Lashkar-e-Taiba. Formed in 1990 in the Kunar province of Afghanistan, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is based in Lahore, is one of the largest and most active Islamist militant terrorist organizations in South Asia.Both the Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio reported that the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which the United Nations listed as a terrorist front group in the wake of the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, has been openly distributing food and running an ambulance service. Jamaat-ud-Dawa even set up an aid camp on the main road east of Charsada where industrial-sized cooking pots were set up, steaming with food being distributed to the needy. In addition, the group loaded ambulances with bundles of second-hand clothing to be given away and demonstrated prompt resourcefulness by establishing a first aid clinic in a nearby college.
These and other similar reports indicate that well-organized Islamic groups worked to fill a gaping void left by a government overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster and accused of a slow response to the worst flooding in Pakistan in nearly a century. While locals across the deluged northwest complained that the government had been all but absent, Islamic militants are beginning to “win hearts and minds” in a region of the country that is consistently living under the threat of a Taliban take-over. They are replacing the government’s role as providers of social welfare and acting as saviors for the disaffected and dispossessed. With this reality in mind, it makes far more sense for the impoverished masses to flock to religious organizations and militant groups than to the allegedly secular political parties that may be popular among Western observers, but which are rapidly losing credibility within the country itself.
An influx of communities within the international realm fail to understand that the problem is not Islam, but with the people who misuse the religion for political purposes.
Countering Extremist Influences
The Pakistani people must whole heartedly support the army’s offensive against the Taliban and stand together in unity because, as the old saying goes, divided we fall. Itis also crucial that the Muslim community stands in unity against the dire acts of hostility being endorsed by Islamist militant groups. Besides the painstaking repercussions followed by bloodshed, the ideology of a peace-loving religion is simultaneously being tarnished. In addition to stemming Taliban influence, an offensive should not end on the battlefield, but instead progress beyond the heavy artillery to empower the people, strengthen the civil service, and upgrade the education system.
None of these tasks can be achieved overnight. The aftermath of the floods shows how militant institutions are much better at addressing the people’s immediate needs than the government, which is presently consumed by its own twisted political rivalries and is unable to disperse aid effectively amongst families that are in the direst need of social, financial, and emotional sustenance. The rapid emergency response exhibited by militant branches juxtaposed against the slow and disorganized reaction of the government should be perceived as another reminder of how the impact of a prolonged military offensive is not the key solution to alleviating the terrorist threat and instilling political stability within Pakistan.
The recent flood devastation is a great tragedy that has not only stripped away lives, but also left those who managed to survive in ruins. As the death toll rises, we must remember that even one death is of great consequence because it verifies that a single parent, spouse, child, or friend has suffered a great and irreplaceable loss. These people should not only be seen as numbers, but also as individuals who, without warning, fell victim to nature’s unforeseen wrath. The very foundation of a society’s daily existence was swept away within seconds. Immediate relief and donations are highly effective, but only sustainable up to a certain point. Livelihoods need to be reconstructed and rebuilt, a valuable endeavor that will take years to implement. While joining hands in helping the flood victims rebuild their lives, the people of Pakistan and the international community should keep in mind that their turmoil also poses a danger to the already struggling national government, which now must compete with Islamist movements to deliver aid in a region where the Taliban already has a strong influence. Long-term solutions require solid commitment, patience, and dedication.