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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

US clutches at flood relief opportunities

By M K Bhadrakumar

The humanitarian situation resulting from the unprecedented floods in Pakistan has been turned into a playground of regional geopolitics. The responsibility for this primarily lies with the United States, which fashioned its response to the crisis in a needlessly competitive spirit.

The needs of Pakistan are of stupendous proportions. Even cold statistics bring this out. One fifth of the landmass of Pakistan is inundated and the lives of 20 million people have been affected. Nothing further needs to be said about the enormity of the human sorrow.

The fact that the United Nations launched an initial appeal for US$460 million for the immediate relief underscores the magnitude of the crisis – although, according to the Pakistani foreign minister, that amount "will only cater to about 6 to 8 million people for 90 days only".

Yet, Pakistan's crisis presents itself as a theater of public diplomacy for the United States to burnish its image among Pakistani people, of whom 59% regarded America as an enemy country, according to a July 29 Pew Global Attitudes Project poll.

A flood of opportunities 
The window of opportunity opens in other directions, too. The areas of Pakistan where the extremists and terrorists have been most active also happen to be the most affected. The expectation in Washington seems to be that US marines will be working in the field closely with the Pakistani military, and that a sort of rank-and-file camaraderie is expected to develop that could have useful fallouts for the war in Afghanistan.

Indeed, the marines will likely come across the relief workers of the Islamist charity organizations affiliated to rabidly "anti-American" groups, especially the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba (which figures in the US' list of terrorist groups) and the political party Jamaat-e-Islami, which takes pride – publicly at least – in berating the US regional policies. The US operatives could make useful contacts with the Islamist elements involved in relief work and these could be followed up.

Again, the US is a global power and, unsurprisingly, it has begun linking the floods in Pakistan with the problem of climate change, one of the lead items on the foreign policy agenda of the BarackObama administration.

Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for AfPak, openly wondered: "I know we don't have a definitive answer, but to what extent is there some connection between the [Pakistani] floods, the Russia fires, global warming, the Himalayan [glacier] runoff, what is the preliminary best sense of that?"

Another senior US official, Rajiv Shah, Administrator of the US Agency for International Development added: "I think we all can recognize … that we should expect to have more large-scale, erratic weather events … that trend is leading to a greater number of large-scale hurricanes, a greater number of floods, hotter and dryer growing conditions … and it's making it very hard for the least resilient, the most lower income communities in the world to survive."

How the US links these "ink-spots" in climate change – Pakistan's floods, Russia's fires and the glacier melt up north of Kashmir in the contested region of Siachen – on the geopolitical plane and transfers the impulses to its regional and global diplomacy in the coming period will bear watching.

Then, there are the profound implications of the Pakistani floods from the strategic and political angles, which are uniquely important to the US's war effort in Afghanistan at the present time. First, there is the lurking possibility that the Taliban might take advantage of the crisis in Pakistan.

The noted Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote recently in the British Daily Telegraph: "Large parts of the country that are now cut off will be taken over by the Pakistani Taliban and affiliated groups, and governance will collapse." The scary scenario may seem far-fetched – and somewhat propagandistic – but the possibility remains that tepid response by the Pakistani government to the massive reconstruction task would alienatepublic opinion.

War spirit dampened 
However, the bigger danger lies elsewhere: to what extent would the crisis be seized by the Pakistani military to fob off any continuing US pressure to crack down on the so-called Haqqani network affiliated with al-Qaeda which is ensconced in the North Waziristan?

The Pakistani military can claim that its hands are full with the priority tasks of relief and reconstruction work and that leaves hardly any surplus capacity for attending to unfinished business on the Afghan-Pakistan border region.

Clearly, the floods may have helped washed away to some extent from the public perceptions the stigma of the recent WikiLeaks disclosures. But the well-established ground reality, which Washington quietly acknowledges, cannot be wished away – the Pakistani security establishment and the military continue to keep an unholy alliance with the Haqqani network.

All in all, therefore, the Obama administration, which is gearing up for the latest troop "surge" aimed at an intensification of counter-insurgency operations inside Afghanistan, need not expect a simultaneous thrust by the Pakistani military from its side of the border. This disconnect imparts urgency to the search for a political settlement with the Taliban, which will also be precisely what the Pakistani military is seeking.

Significantly, John Kerry, the chairman of the US senate foreign relations committee and who visited Kabul and Islamabad last week, has been quoted as saying on his return to Washingtonthat there is a "very active" effort under way to reach a negotiated political settlement with the Taliban. Kerry told National Public Radio: "I can report without being specific that there are efforts under way. They are serious and I completely agree with that fundamental premise – and so does General [David] Petraeus and so does President Obama – there is no military solution. And there are very active efforts now to seek an appropriate kind of political settlement."

The Obama administration's best hope is that Pakistan will reciprocate the robust US support – financially, materially and politically – by helping out on the Afghan front. Quite obviously, US officials are bending over backward to create goodwill with Pakistan.

All this is linked to a much bigger question as well: to what extent will the 2010 floods turn out to be a game changer for Pakistan'spolitical economy? Will the civilian leadership grab the opportunity to seize the political high ground in its shadow-boxing with the military?

The signs available so far are that, on the contrary, the Pakistani civilian leadership stands tarnished by its handling of the crisis. This means the military retains the upper hand vis-a-vis the embattled civilian government in the calculus of power for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, aid politics is likely to become a divisive issue among the civilian politicians as the blame game begins, and the smaller provinces are bound to harbor grievances of discrimination in aid allocation by the Punjabi-dominated establishment. Political corruption will most certainly take its toll too.

Finally, geopolitics has already descended on the Pakistani flood situation. In an extraordinary outburst to the media, Holbrooke mocked China for being allegedly tight-fisted in helping Pakistan. "I think the Chinese should step up to the plate. They always say that Pakistan is their closest ally, and vice versa." He was rubbing in that China's assistance to Pakistan so far amounts to only 5% of the $150 million the US has pledged.

Holbrooke remarked that the US suffers from "famously low popularity" in Pakistan. "And although other countries' popularity is greater, including China's, the US is first and foremost" in aid to Pakistan. The Faustian tone patently laid claim to the Pakistani soul. Beijing refrained from joining issue.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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