Pakistani president recognizes flood's potential to destabilize nation

The army and aid organizations struggle to cope with the severity of a disaster that has killed more than 1,600 people and displaced millions.
By Karin Brulliard
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Pakistan's president said Monday that the calamitous flooding that is wreaking havoc across his country could foment public anger and embolden Islamist militants, but he expressed confidence that his government would survive the crisis.

Asif Ali Zardari, in a meeting with a small group of foreign journalists, called it the "ideal hope of the radical" that the floods would discredit Pakistan's government, which has been criticized for a slow and muddled response. "One has to fight," he said, against extremist groups that aim to scoop up orphaned children and "create them into robots."

Even before floodwaters submerged one-fifth of Pakistan's territory, Zardari's unpopular, U.S.-backed government was struggling to contain a rising insurgency and cope with a weak economy. The floods have caused widespread destruction and left at least 6 million homeless, further straining the nation and providing an opening to Islamist charities, some of which have provided aid to victims.

Some of the challenges to the government were underscored over the past two days. On Monday, militants broke a lull in attacks by carrying out three bombings that killed at least 36 people in the restive northwest, where the flooding began.

The day before, the leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a political party that is in a coalition government led by Zardari's ruling party, seemed to call for martial law, suggesting in a public address that "patriotic generals" weed out corrupt politicians. Zardari has long been dogged by graft allegations.

As floodwaters began spreading early this month, Zardari was in Europe, visiting leaders and his family's French chateau. He was assailed as a symbol of government failure and detachment, and some critics have blamed him for international donors' initially tepid response to aid pleas.

On Monday, Zardari defended his government's response, saying any nation would be overwhelmed by a catastrophe of such proportion and arguing that his trip helped strengthen relations that would help in the long run. The prime minister, to whom Zardari ceded most of his powers earlier this year, was in control of the situation, he said.

The fact that so many people were saved shows that the government was doing its job, Zardari said. "Government is functioning to its fullest capacity."

Many of the most visible relief efforts have been made by the military, which has run Pakistan for half its existence and still is viewed as the true power. The floods have diverted the army's attention from its fight against insurgents in the northwest, and its manpower could be key to post-flood recovery. Zardari declined to comment on whether that would delay new counterterrorism offensives that the United States has encouraged, but said the "resolve is not going down."

On Monday, water continued spreading across southern Pakistan. It is expected to flow into the Arabian Sea from there. Zardari said the nation would need at least three years to recover from the flooding, which has left about 1,500 people dead.

The United States has contributed food, helicopters and $150 million of the $815 million in international assistance pledged to Pakistan. That is more than any other nation, and U.S. officials hope it will also help improve the American image in a strategically crucial nation with strong distrust of the United States.

Zardari appeared uncertain that would happen, saying Pakistan was grateful for the aid but would also like the United States to reduce tariffs on textile goods.

"Hearts and minds is a long-term commitment," he said.

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