Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Scale of Disaster in Pakistan

As the blogosphere wrangles over the Ground Zero mosque, the current disaster in Pakistan hasn't seemed to get as much coverage. But the sheer scale of the devastation raises all sorts of questions, not only about the future of that country, but about its impact on U.S. policy in the region. Here's Ralph Peters, writing in the New York Post.
Try to grasp that number. Twenty million people, overwhelmingly poor, have lost their homes, their slight "wealth" and their livelihoods. Thousands have died.

And international aid groups estimate that 3.5 million children are at mortal risk from diseases spread by polluted water and poor sanitation. Think cholera, typhoid, dysentery and common diarrhea -- the latter a killer among children in the developing world.
As Peters points out, this makes Hurricane Katrina "look like a thunderstorm." Even the Haitian earthquake, which attracted massive international attention and aid, pales before the scope of this disaster. And unlike Haiti, Pakistan is a nuclear power, home of the strongest branch of the Taliban, and full of millions of people with Islamist sympathies. The U.S. has pumped billions of military aid into the country in an attempt to keep it on-board in the fight in Afghanistan, with mixed results. We are now sending in large amounts of humanitarian aid. But the government, which was already shaky, now appears utterly incompetent to deal with the massive flood. Governments have fallen before because of their inability to respond to disaster. What will happen in Pakistan, and is there anything we can do about it? Peters argues that the Taliban will attempt to exploit the situation.
Islamist extremists will attempt to capitalize on the disaster by 1) providing local aid to the poor; 2) blaming the government for not helping sufficiently; 3) claiming that the deluge was a judgment from Allah for Pakistan's cooperation with the West and for not supporting jihad, and 4) spreading rumors that the US masterminded the flooding to take control of Pakistan and punish Muslims.
This is an extremely volatile situation. Desperate people often do or support things they would never countenance in normal times. And with a fifth of their country underwater, there is incredible desperation in Pakistan.

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