A Paradigm Shift Floods in Pakistan; Impact on the Economy, Fight Against Extremism and NATO’s Operation in Afghanistan

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Context

According to official estimates from the Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) the unprecedented flooding has affected around 12 million, with more than 1500 people dead. The UN officials are classifying the scope of the disaster to be larger than 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan and the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti put together.

The gushing waters have destroyed whole villages, infrastructure, ruined food crops. The devastation is unparalleled in Pakistan’s history and the death toll from food shortages and water-borne diseases is likely to rise in the coming months.

Aside from the immediate tragedy of the floods, a careful examination is needed to evaluate the longer-term impact of the floods on Pakistan’s economy, the fight against extremism and NATO supplies to Afghanistan. As the scale and scope of he devastation becomes clear, Pakistan may be forced to revamp its existing geostrategic posture. Additionally, the major political parties of the country appear to be conducting business as usual and are failing to foresee the emerging, dramatically transformed, political landscape.

Analysis

Pakistan Army, Politicians and Extremists

The massive floods have affected only a few areas where the army is actively conducting military operations. Swat valley being one exception and it has suffered acutely from the floods. However, the army operation in the valley is all but completed and only a mopping up operation is still ongoing. The troops in Swat, as expected, are involved in the rescue and relief operations, but not to the detriment of the military operations.

On the other hand, North and South Waziristan have been unaffected by the large-scale floods and the army troops there are unlikely to be moved to other areas for relief and rescue. Similarly, the army is conducting operations in Darra Adam Khel and Orakzai Agency. Both were untouched by flood waters though the areas faced heavy rains. Up north, the valley of Peshawar was, however, flooded. Nowshera city was hit hard by the floods but the city hosts a large cantonment and did not need army personnel deployed from elsewhere to help with relief efforts.

Most of the flood damage in Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa province has occurred in areas around the rivers as oppose to the remote mountainous locations where Taliban and other extremists are active. One of the main reason extremists have been successful in Waziristan and other remote tribal agencies was the poor state of the local economy and lack of government services. The extremists have been comparatively less triumphant in the fertile valleys that surround the rivers of Indus, Kabul and Swat in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The floods appear to have disproportionately impacted people in the valleys and if they are not rehabilitated quickly, we could see support for religious extremists grow in these areas.

In addition to playing a dominant role in the fight against extremism, Pakistan army is also now overseeing the relief and rescue operations and to monitor the unfolding crisis. The rains have continued and several dams in the country are under pressure as water levels are still rising. With political system of the country not functioning ideally, the Army is being forced to take on additional roles.

There are an estimated 50,000 troops involved in rescue and relief efforts. Much of the Pakistan armed forces air power, particularly helicopters have been relegated for use with rescue missions; the PAF deputed all its C-130 aircraft for relief and rescue. The ground troops are dependent on close air support to conduct counter insurgency operations and thus in the absence of this facility the pace of these operations is likely to slow down. The floods have forced the military to shift its focus to rescue, relief and rehabilitation efforts (winning hearts and minds), as oppose to fighting the extremists.

Meanwhile, according to media reports, the Pakistani Taliban have also announced to suspend their military operations and carry out relief efforts. This could be, however, a tactical move and a decoy to hide the disruption and disarray caused by flood waters to the terrorist infrastructure and coordination. As the armed forces are distracted in dealing with the floods, the country is by and large vulnerable to further attacks on one hand, and ripe for militant reorganization and recruitment on the other.

The greater concern for Pakistan is that militant organizations will capitalize on the misery and suffering of the flood victims and the perceived ineptitude of the government rescue efforts. The ruling party has faced severe criticism on account of President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to the UK and France at a time where large swathes of land in the country are flooded and people are dying. Moreover, the ruling party has been unable to coordinate and plan the kind of rescue and relief that the people expected and circumstances have demanded.

The local organizations and religious charities were quicker to act and start relief efforts than the authorities. Authorities are concerned that groups such as Falah-e-Insaniat, who have provided thousands of people with flood aid, are using charity work as a way of recruiting supporters for militant organizations across Pakistan; Falah-e-Insaniat is linked to Jamat ud Dawa and Lashkar e Taiba.

NATO Supply Lines

The issue of supplies continues to haunt NATO commanders in Afghanistan. Around 75 per cent of NATO’s supplies pass via Pakistan and the logistics has been the achilles’ heel for the US and NATO troops. There is no safe route on which the coalition troops can rely.

The NATO supplies originate from Karachi and move on two routes. The first is through Chaman in Balochistan province and the second goes north and enters Afghanistan through Torkham and the Khyber Pass. The route through Balochistan has seen the lesser number of attacks on vehicles carrying goods for the NATO troops; however, the attacks have been on the increase. On the other hand, trucks on the longer route through Khyber Pass have faced more frequent attacks over the years with casualties now running into several hundred.

The floods in Pakistan will have a definite impact on NATO logistics. According to local media reports more than 5,000 oil tankers and trucks carrying goods for the NATO troops are stranded in Dera Ismail Khan, Zhob and Qila Saifullah, as the roads are either impassable due to the flood waters or washed away. The Dera Ismail Khan route ends up at Torkham while the Zhob and Qila Saifullah are in Balcohistan and lead to the Chaman border. On August 7, the flood waters entered the southern province of Sindh, thereby further affecting the supplies that are taken through Punjab and Khyber-Paktunkhwa provinces.

From time to time NATO and US officials have looked for alternative routes to decrease their dependence on Pakistan.  They have evaluated the use of the Iranian supply route originating from the Persian Gulf port of Charbahar and a Northern route through Central Asia. However, geopolitical realities and tussles of global powers have made the use of these routes either expensive or extremely time consuming.

The ravaging floods in Pakistan will have a significant impact on the counter insurgency operations. If critical roads and bridges have been washed away as reported, the supply line passing through Pakistan will slow down, thus impeding the NATO mission and US surge strategy in Afghanistan.

In addition to damaging the infrastructure, the public reputation of the ruling party has been severely dented. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has been particularly slow in gauging the severity of the crisis and nature seems to have utterly rearranged the political landscape of Pakistan. A large number of dislocated people will soon be demanding relief and rehabilitation at a scale not seen before in the history of the country. The economy of Pakistan was already crumbling as a consequence of the war against terror. The devastation brought by the floods will sink the economy even deeper.

With the failing economy, it will be harder and harder for Pakistan and its army to maintain the present strategic outlook, while increasing foreign dependence. In this environment, as the focus shifts to survival, the threat perception of the country is bound to deviate and this will make it difficult to keep the spotlight on the fight against extremists. The debilitating floods in Pakistan could dramatically shift the focus of the war against Pakistan origin extremists towards a political solution, and winning hearts and minds of the masses.

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