Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani chaired an unscheduled and “special” corps commanders meeting on Thursday to discuss the situation resulting from the massive floods that the United Nations referred to as the worst humanitarian disaster in recent history. That the army leadership decided to cancel its annual independence (Aug. 14) and army day (Sept. 6) celebrations is an implicit admission on the part of the country’s most powerful institution of the magnitude of the destruction from the floods, which inundated large parts of three of the country’s four provinces. The floods over the past couple of weeks have affected as many as 20 million people, requiring nearly $500 million now and likely billions in the long run to rehabilitate the affected public.
Natural disasters have geopolitical consequences no matter where they occur. In the case of Pakistan, the implications are in a league of their own, given the South Asian nation’s significance in the U.S.-led war against jihadists and the American need to bring closure to it within a short time. Exacerbating matters even further is the fact that Pakistan in the last three years or so has undergone an unprecedented level of destabilization, due to a combination of factors. These include socio-political unrest, a declining security situation due to a raging jihadist insurgency, an energy/power crisis and an economy that is managing to steer clear of bankruptcy only because of multibillion-dollar international loan and aid packages.
In the past year or so, since mounting a massive counterinsurgency campaign and retaking large areas formerly under the control of Taliban rebels in the northwest, Pakistan had begun showing faint signs of improvement. Those efforts have been dealt a major blow by floods that have wreaked havoc on a national scale and threaten to cause conditions to deteriorate further.
Since flooding continues and rescue and relief efforts will be ongoing for quite some time, current damage assessment reports present only a partial picture of the devastation that has taken place. Therefore, it is difficult to offer a forecast in any meaningful sense. Nonetheless, judging from the scale of destruction and the pre-existing problems that Pakistan has been facing, a number of scenarios can be sketched out. By no means are we saying that these are inevitable, but depending on how events unfold, they remain very much within the realm of possibility.
The most immediate concern is that a crisis of these proportions represents a massive logistical challenge, especially for a state with no shortage of other problems. If not managed, the dislocation of such a large number of people who have been deprived of their homes and livelihood, coupled with the destruction of vast chunks of largely agricultural territory in the core Indus River region, can easily translate into massive social unrest. Thus far, the government has not demonstrated much capability. The rescue and relief efforts that have been mounted were made possible by the military’s institutional infrastructure. It will be some time before the focus shifts from short-term emergency relief efforts to long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction measures, which is when there will be an increasing threat of social unrest due to food shortages and the lack of other basic necessitie.
Some 60,000 troops have been deployed to deal with the flood situation, which means that the military has had to shift considerable resources away from the counterinsurgency efforts in the Pashtun areas along the border with Afghanistan. The floods have likely kept the militants from conducting business as usual, but the shifting of the army’s focus toward disaster management gives the Taliban and al Qaeda elements space and time to try to expand their activities in Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan. The deterioration of social and economic circumstances creates the perfect atmosphere for jihadists to realize their goals of undermining the state.
Should the civilian government prove incapable of managing the overall situation, will the military be forced to step in and take a more active role in governing the country? The government — especially President Asif Ali Zardari, who is also the de facto chief of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party — is, rightly or wrongly, extremely unpopular. Zardari’s decision to take a week-long trip to Europe while the floods were hitting the country has only worsened the situation. Rising social unrest down the line could create a political situation in which the government may be unable to complete its term, which ends in 2013.
These are obviously worst-case scenarios, but ones that cannot be dismissed. Even if the floods had not happened, the security, economic, and socio-political circumstances in Pakistan demanded close observation. The floods have increased this importance, especially since U.S. President Barack Obama’s entire war strategy involves stabilizing Pakistan. (STRATFOR)