Flooding's devastation in Pakistan is seen as opportunity for Taliban

At least 1,600 are dead and millions are homeless after monsoon rains bloated rivers, submerged villages and triggered landslides in Pakistan.
By Griff Witte
Monday, August 9, 2010

CHARSADDA, PAKISTAN -- The slow-motion disaster underway in Pakistan as floodwaters seep into virtually every corner of the nation has devastated basic infrastructure and could open the door to a Taliban resurgence, officials here say.

The emerging landscape in areas where the water has receded is one in which bridges, roads, schools, health clinics, power facilities and sewage systems have been ruined or seriously damaged. With swollen rivers still churning south, the destruction is spreading by the hour.

On a visit to a newly flooded area in Pakistan's south on Sunday, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said the overall impact of the flooding now tops that from the 2005 Kashmir earthquake -- a view echoed by international aid officials.

Although the quake killed far more people -- at least 73,000, compared with the 1,600 who have died in the floods -- Gillani called the scale of physical damage "beyond imagination. . . . Our country has gone back several years."

Pakistan can ill afford that kind of regression as it battles a vicious insurgency that capitalizes on the government's failure to provide basic services.

Over the past year, Pakistan's army has succeeded in driving Taliban fighters out of key sanctuaries in South Waziristan and the Swat Valley. But the damage from the floods could jeopardize those gains, officials acknowledged, unless infrastructure is quickly rebuilt -- an undertaking that will cost billions of dollars and will probably take years.

Swat, one of the worst-affected areas, is a prime example.

Although the valley was once known for its moderate public attitudes and picture-perfect mountain views, militants were able to take over in recent years by capitalizing on residents' hostility toward a government that often seemed distant and indifferent.

Last summer, the army took the valley back with a major offensive, and it launched a series of public works projects intended to repair the damage. The efforts were starting to pay off: Just last month, residents celebrated traditional agricultural festivals without fear of violence, and tourists packed newly reopened hotels.

But on July 28, the floods hit. Army officials say that every major bridge in the valley was destroyed, and aerial photographs of the region show that rivers have been diverted -- perhaps permanently -- down the center of once-thriving bazaars.

"It will take us months just to get the electricity back in Swat. For now, people are living in darkness," said Rahim Dad Khan, the planning minister for northwestern Pakistan.

Khan said all plans for development in the northwest have been canceled and the money diverted to reconstruction. "We thought we would build roads, hospitals and schools. But now, everything we were planning is ruined," he said.

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