How the Pakistani Floods Help the Taliban

Fire and Flood: Asia's Climate Calamities Paula Bronstein

Besides sharing the wrenching loss of loved ones, homes, possessions, farms, livestock, livelihoods, and businesses, many of Pakistan's millions of flood victims also seem to have another loss in common: their faith in government and its ability to help them. More than a score of those displaced by the raging floodwaters in the hard-hit northwestern district of Nowshera, some 90 miles west of Islamabad, told NEWSWEEK today that they had received no aid from the government, nor any visits from officials in the more than two weeks since they were driven from their homes.

"We haven't seen, or heard from, or been helped by the government," says Inayat Ali, a tall, 25-year-old driver who pointed toward a large lake of brown water less than one mile away. His house and all his possessions, he says, rest somewhere under that body of water that has been formed by the swollen Kabul River. "We don't expect any official help," he adds stoically. But he and his family of 10 have been fortunate. A U.K.-based Islamic charity, the Ummah Welfare Trust, has provided Ali's family and 150 others with tents that are precariously perched by the side of a road on the outskirts of Nowshera town, much of which is still partially or completely submerged. The charity provides tents, two meals a day, and medical care.

But there are so many who need help: this crisis is worse even than the earthquakes of Kashmir (in 2005) and Haiti (this past January). The deadly flooding has swept down the Indus River corridor from the Himalayan foothills in the north to Arabian Sea in the south. Along the way the rush of rising floodwaters have swept away or inundated everything in its path, killing at least 1,600 people. The U.N. estimates some 300,000 homes have been destroyed, and many more have been badly damaged, rendered uninhabitable. Some 6 million people are in need of some kind of aid, and 14 million lives have been disturbed. And those are only preliminary estimates. As more rain falls during this monsoon season, until the end of August, more destruction is likely on the way. Many communities in northwest Pakistan, particularly in the hard-hit Swat Valley, are isolated and have received little or no aid. The country's barely adequate infrastructure has been ravaged: hundreds of bridges have been destroyed or made impassible; electricity generation, transformers, and power lines are down; schools and medical facilities have crumbled.

Near Inayat Ali and his family of 10, Sher Zaman, who says he is between 25 and 30 years old, is desperately searching for a tent. Three years ago, the cobbler was forced to flee his home in the northwestern tribal district of Bajaur, near the Afghan border, as the Pakistani military launched an offensive against Pakistani Taliban militants. It is still too dangerous to return, he says. Since then he and his extended family of 18 had been living in a displaced-persons camp near Nowshera until the floodwaters drove them out on July 29. Now they are camping under a tree with only some blankets for protection from the sun and continuing rain. "We have nothing, nothing," he says. "And no one to help us."

Even the spirits of once relatively well-to-do Nowshera shopkeepers seem broken. Gul Zaman, wearing a mud-streaked gray shalwar kameez and a white prayer cap, removes soaked, muddy bundles from his flooded shop on Nowshera's once bustling main commercial street. The only sign of aid downtown is a station set up by the Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami political party that is distributing relief goods out of an abandoned shop. Zaman, 27, says he has lost his entire inventory of $100,000 worth of imported clothes and textiles, and that he fears his business is finished. "I'm afraid 90 percent of the merchants here like me won't be able to restart their businesses," he says. What about aid from Islamabad? "The government can't help anyone," he says coldly. "The government itself is a disaster."

The mood of frustration, even anger, is both palpable and understandable among the many flood victims. They have been desperately in need of food, clean water, shelter, and medical assistance since these floods of biblical proportions—caused by the heaviest monsoon rains on record for eight decades—began. Some of the mounting antigovernment criticism may be unfair: even a well-organized, well-equipped, and resourceful government would have probably not been able to cope quickly with the scope of this massive disaster. "I think that no government could have responded to it adequately," says Ayaz Amir, an opposition member of Parliament and a respected political columnist. "Look at how the Bush administration failed to deal with Hurricane Katrina's victims, and that was just one city."

What's more, Pakistani officials also have complained that the international community has not been pledging and delivering enough aid and money. (International aid pledges seem to be running behind those made for the Haitian quake, for example.) The U.N. is urgently appealing for some $460 million in badly needed aid. The U.S. has pledged and delivered the most so far, some $71 million, and has several helicopters flying relief missions when weather permits. It has also dispatched the USS Peleliu, an amphibious assault ship carrying 19 helicopters, to beef up the airlift to isolated areas. The Pakistani military—with its helicopters, C-130s, and other assets spread across the country—has delivered food and water, rescued tens of thousands of stranded people, and even set up some tent camps to house victims. As a result, the military—which has discipline and resources—has gained in public standing. "Clearly the military's reputation is now slightly better than it was," says political scientist Hasan Askari Rizvi.

But in the eyes of most Pakistanis, flood victims and the urban middle class as well, Islamabadhas fallen way short in responding to one of the biggest crises in the nation's history. And it could snowball into a political crisis for the government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari. "To put it mildly, the government has not shown the energy and vigor that was called for in these serious circumstances," says Amir. Not only is Islamabad being seen largely as a no-show during the disaster, but Zardari went a step too far by leaving the country as the flooding began on a previously scheduled trip to France and the U.K.—even reportedly against the advice of senior leaders in his party. Many saw his flight to Europe, and his foolish side trip to visit his 16th-century chateau in Normandy, as the action of a detached and uncaring leader. "He has really proved he is inept, out of his depth, and uncomprehending," says Amir. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece this week, Zardari—defending his foreign junket—says he chose "substance over symbolism" in order to "mobilize foreign assistance" for flood victims. Few Pakistanis seem to believe that.

And so once again the lack of a strong government response to a national disaster has allowed Islamist groups to fill the vacuum. They are casting themselves as the most caring parties for the victims. As in the 2005 earthquake response, Islamist and jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (which is believed to have been behind the November 2008 massacre in Mumbai), along with its several charity fronts, are the most visible providers of aid that is delivered with a militant message. Even the Pakistani Taliban got into the act by exhorting the government not to accept Western assistance. "We urge the government not to take Western aid," a Taliban spokesman told Reuters. He also accused government officials of accepting the foreign aid money not to help flood victims but to "make their bank accounts bigger."

As libelous as that accusation is, it could resonate with desperate people who are living on the edge without adequate shelter, food, and water, and with little hope for the future—and arguably draw them closer to the militants. Amir, however, dismisses the appeal of the militants. He says they may make some political gains in remote areas, but that the most important political game will be played out in the living rooms of urban Pakistanis. "Not long ago people were resigned to having to endure this thing [the Zardari government] until the next election [in three years]," says Amir. "That is now gone … It has been replaced by a feeling that we can't go on like this." In that sense, he adds, "the government has been dangerously undermined."

Zardari just made his first trip to visit the flood victims today (in the southern province of Sindh, where Islamists are not as acute a threat to his credibility). If the government cannot soon establish strong leadership and vision in leading Pakistan out of this crisis—and if it continues steadily to lose moral authority—the militants can't help but make political gains. That would deal a setback to what already seems to be a flagging campaign against extremism.