In Flooded Pakistan, Islamists Ride High

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Arif Ali / AFP / Getty Images

Pakistani flood survivors try to catch bags of food dropped from an army helicopter in Lal Pir on Aug. 7

The floods are unrelenting. Nearly a month since heavy monsoon rains began to devastate remote regions of Pakistan, intensifying in force as they spread, the picture of the damage wrought only worsens. Over the past week, the number of people thought to be affected by the disaster has soared to 13 million, according to an estimate provided by the Pakistani government to the U.N. If so, that is far larger than the number who required humanitarian assistance after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined (though the death toll in Pakistan so far is much smaller than in each of those disasters). Meanwhile, infrastructure damage will require billions of dollars for rebuilding that the country just doesn't have. The crisis has dealt yet another blow to the Pakistani people's faith in their civilian government; it has enhanced the standing of its national army; and, most worrisome to the government, it may have given hard-line Islamists an opening they have long eyed.

People in all four Pakistani provinces have lost their homes, their schools, hospitals, workplaces and the farmland that provides them with food. Clean drinking water is scarce. Not only are the rescue and relief efforts proving inadequate, there is little prospect of life in the worst-hit areas returning to normal anytime soon.

Given the sheer ferocity of the floods, even the best-prepared government would have struggled to cope. Bad weather has made it impossible in many cases to mount relief efforts or transport relief goods. But the government has not helped itself with its inept bureaucracy and advice for the victims. Popular fury has settled on President Asif Ali Zardari, who has been criticized for abandoning his people to tour Europe. As television channels carried images of waters washing away buildings and homes, Zardari was seen racing off on a private plane, sporting blue jeans and his trademark high-voltage smile. As flood victims anxiously awaited the arrival of a rescue helicopter from the Pakistan military's limited fleet or the half-dozen Chinooks supplied by the U.S. military, Zardari was seen floating across northern France in a private helicopter to visit his family's château in Normandy. And when he made a nationally televised speech, while addressing a gathering of party supporters in the British city of Birmingham, there was only a glancing reference made to the tragedy unfolding at home.

During the Birmingham speech, a protester who had managed to sneak into the hall hurled his two shoes at Zardari, missing by some distance. Zardari's supporters insist that his visit was necessary to secure aid for disaster relief. Opponents counter that such aid could have been appealed for from home and that even the $150 million that has been received, $35 million of which was donated by the U.S., is barely a fraction of the amount needed.

One of Zardari's ministers was less fortunate. In a sign of the rage that has built up in recent days, crowds pelted the junior economic-affairs minister Hina Rabbani Khar's convoy with stones as it arrived in southern Punjab on Sunday, Aug. 8. It was the first time, enraged constituents said, that she had ventured there since the floods had hit. Had she arrived a week earlier, they said, they could have urged her to ask the civilian administration to fill a hole in a nearby embankment, possibly saving many homes and acres of agricultural land. Punjab is Pakistan's breadbasket, and the agricultural sector is more than a quarter of the nation's economy and employs half the province's workforce. Now, more than 1.4 million acres (about 570,000 hectares), about 5.6% of the region's total, have been submerged. Critics say the flood damage could have been mitigated were it not for decades of bureaucratic negligence and petty corruption.

Shehryar Mazari's home and 200 acres (80 hectares) of cotton- and wheat-growing land in the Rajanpur district of southern Punjab, one of the worst-hit areas, are all underwater. "Everyone's lost everything," the farmer says. Only the Umarkot area of the district endured the deluge. "The rest of the areas are now a part of the Indus River," says Mazari. While the area is susceptible to flooding, the government has never built any embankments there. When it came to the flood warnings, Mazari adds, local politicians did not do enough. "If we had known how bad it was going to be, we could have evacuated people in time, but now we have women and children hanging in the trees, waiting for rescue." For the most part, local residents have been trying to help one another, volunteering money to buy boats and food. "The army only turned up on Sunday," he says. "As for the government, there's no sign of it."

Although its response has been limited, the Pakistan army at least has been visible. Television images prominently showed soldiers plunging into high waters to rescue the stranded, though critics said the footage was courtesy of camera crews dispatched there on helicopters that could have been used for further rescues. Some 30,000 soldiers are currently at work in the affected areas. In the country's major towns and cities, men in fatigues have set up makeshift tents to gather donations. In sharp contrast to Zardari's summer sojourn, Army General Ashfaq Kayani was the first of Pakistan's prominent leaders to hasten to see flood victims. He announced that every soldier in his force would donate a day's pay to flood relief — a gesture that shamed lawmakers who refused to do the same.

"The reality is that the army really doesn't have to do very much to look good," says Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan expert at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs and the author of Making Sense of Pakistan. "When things go badly with the civilian government, people in Pakistan often fall back, sit around themselves and say, 'Well, at least the army's there. It knows what to do.' Even if this isn't the case, the public perception is that the army has risen to this challenge — a perception that has, of course, been helped by its friends in the media." The army's enhanced standing, says military analyst and retired lieutenant general Talat Masood, "will mean that it will occupy more political space and strengthen its dominance over political institutions."

Also standing to benefit from the disaster are Pakistan's hard-line Islamist groups, pushed to the sidelines by elections and weakened by military offensives. Unlike the civilian government and the army, which took days to marshal aid, Islamist groups boasted of efficient networks of volunteers. This is especially true in the volatile northwest, where the bulk of the devastation is taking place. The Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, a charity with alleged links to the banned Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) — which was blamed for the 2008 Mumbai massacre — has for days been feeding tens of thousands of affected people. Drawing on a similar popularity achieved during the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, members of the group say they receive donations from the urban middle class of Punjab, who are turning increasingly to religious conservatism.

Such aid will make it difficult for the government to crack down on the do-gooders, no matter how malevolent Islamabad alleges their motives to be. "The government now finds itself in an awkward position," says Shaikh. "If there is any pressure for it to move against these groups, it's going to find itself in much the same position as Gen. Musharraf, who during the Kashmir earthquake said, 'We need all the help we can get from whatever source.' Given the circumstances, for it to now act against groups who are seen to be doing a sterling job in terms of helping people will be absolutely suicidal."

Working alongside the LeT-affiliated charities are the social-welfare wings of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the hard-line Islamist political party. It and other Islamist parties have lately been polling poorly in elections, perceived as having been too close to former dictator Pervez Musharraf and too indulgent of the Pakistani Taliban in the northwest when they controlled the provincial government there. But observers warn that with the failures of the current civilian government, the Islamists could seize the opportunity to rebuild local support. More worrying, the devastation wrought by the disaster might give armed militants — chastened by a Pakistani army offensive last year — an opportunity to stage a comeback, seizing advantage of a government in crisis, an army overstretched and a local population enraged.