Floods leave 20 million homeless

Pakistani floods could further hurt unstable nation as military focuses on aid

At least 1,600 are dead and millions are homeless after monsoon rains bloated rivers, submerged villages and triggered landslides in Pakistan.
Map of flooded areas in Pakistan
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Staggered by the scale of destruction from this summer's catastrophic floods, Pakistani officials have begun to acknowledge that the country's security could be gravely affected if more international aid does not arrive soon.

The floods have submerged an area roughly the size of Italy, displaced 12 percent of the population and destroyed billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and crops.

But with the government admittedly overwhelmed and foreign aid trickling in, the worst may be still to come, as Pakistan struggles to deal with food shortages, disease outbreaks and a mass migration of homeless families. All those factors have the potential to further destabilize a nation undermined by weak governance and a vicious insurgency even before the crisis.

"There are already signs that people are restive," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a Pakistani military spokesman. "If not addressed, it could balloon and will create a security situation in the areas where the government has not taken care of people's needs."

The army has had to reorient itself in recent weeks, shifting its focus from counterinsurgency toward relief and recovery missions. A potential offensive in the militant haven of North Waziristan has been placed on indefinite hold, as has the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees from last fall's battle in South Waziristan. Meanwhile, efforts to rebuild the Swat Valley, the scene of intense fighting last year, are back to square one after flooding from monsoon rains knocked out every bridge and many schools, health clinics and communication towers.

"The so-called war on terror has to be on hold," said Ayaz Amir, a security analyst and a member of Pakistan's Parliament. "As long as the nation, the government and the army are dealing with this flood situation, the war takes a back seat."

That is bad news for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where commanders seeking to turn around a flagging war effort are relying heavily on Pakistani cooperation. It could particularly affect plans in eastern Afghanistan, where the United States had been contemplating a fall offensive in areas across the border from North and South Waziristan.

So far, the Pakistani Taliban has not made any visible efforts to exploit the three-week-old crisis, although some Islamic charities linked to banned militant groups have distributed aid in certain areas. Abbas said there was no indication that the group was mobilizing for major attacks, and analysts said Taliban operations could have been hamstrung by the floods. The group might also be wary of alienating the public by carrying out strikes at a time of mass hardship.

"We can do with a lull on both sides," Amir said.

Fertile recruiting grounds

But it's not clear that the lull will last. The floods have inundated some of the poorest and least-accessible areas of Pakistan, many of which were already fertile recruiting grounds for militants. Some heavily affected areas of Swat can be reached only by helicopter, and residents are building wooden bridges by hand to reestablish links to the outside world.

Southern parts of Punjab province, too, have been heavily affected, exacerbating the threat from Taliban affiliates that have moved in recent years to expand their influence beyond Pakistan's northwest.

The center of militancy in Pakistan remains North Waziristan, and while it was not among the worst-hit parts of the country, the army's focus on the floods means any counterinsurgency operation there now is extremely unlikely.

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