Golden Oldie: Pakistan Needs U

Just over three years ago, National Review Online published an article I wrote urging the U.S. to rush aid to Pakistan in response to a cyclone that had devastated Pakistan’s coastal regions. Much of it appears all too relevant now.

July 6, 2007 7:30 A.M.
Pakistan Needs U
And we need Pakistan.
Hopefully the United States is preparing a massive relief package for Pakistan’s coastal regions, which have been hard hit by flooding caused by a cyclone and heavy monsoon rains since June 23. In addition to the humanitarian importance of this mission, aiding Pakistan’s response to the flooding could have some positive implications for the U.S.-Pakistani relationship.

While possibly not as horrendous as the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, there have been over 200 deaths so far and at least two million are homeless. Karachi, Pakistan’s leading port, and a sprawling megalopolis with over ten million inhabitants (some population estimates double this figure) that suffers from power outages and poor municipal services at the best of times, was battered. Particularly hard hit were the coastal regions of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, where the floods have isolated communities, cutting transport and communications links. Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases also loom.

The Pakistani provincial and federal governments have been slow to respond. In shades of our own Katrina disaster, Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has been roundly criticized for its failures. At one point, the NDMA chairman claimed that there had been 14 deaths when the media had already confirmed nearly 100. There have been large-scale protests throughout flood-hit parts of Baluchistan.

At the moment the Pakistani government is distracted. There is a standoff in Pakistan’s capital between government forces and the radical Islamist “Red Mosque.” The nation has also been rocked with massive protests in the wake of President Musharraf’s ham-handed firing of the chief justice.

A timely and large-scale relief package is much needed. Aiding people suffering from natural disasters is always the right thing to do. Also, it is good public diplomacy. The Pakistani image of the United States changed when the U.S. led the way in delivering assistance to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquakes. Models of U.S. Army Chinook helicopters became the favorite toy for Kashmiri children.

U.S. aid to Pakistan’s coastal regions would also serve a range of positive strategic purposes. The aid would be an opportunity for U.S. and Pakistani military forces to work together in a peaceful role. The Pakistani military is effective, but heavily focused on a conventional war with India. The U.S. has been assisting the Pakistani military in its transformation into a more nimble force that can perform a range of missions. Collaborating on flood relief would be a learning experience for both militaries.

One of the Pakistani government’s major concerns is that eventually the United States will abandon it, leaving Pakistan encircled by India. A major rescue operation might help reassure Pakistan that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is for the long-term. If the Pakistani government were more confident in strength of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship it might also be more flexible in undertaking political reforms that move the country back to democratic civilian rule.

The region hardest hit by the flooding is Baluchistan, the largest in area, but poorest province of Pakistan. Sitting on mineral wealth, including natural gas, and with a seacoast that is just beyond the Straits of Hormuz and the terminus for the shortest land route to Central Asia, Baluchistan has become central for Pakistan’s future development. Baluchi frustration with the Pakistani government has sparked uprisings in the past. The current round of violence between the Baluchi tribes and the government is fueled by the failure of the investments in the province to bring benefits to the inhabitants. Past Pakistani governments responded to Baluchi uprisings with negotiations, but currently the Pakistani military is responding with a large-scale offensive. Last year, the Pakistani military assassinated a prominent tribal leader, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. The government’s failure to deliver disaster relief is seen as simply another example of the Pakistani government’s attitude towards the region.

A strong aid program might help defuse some of these tensions and allow the government and the Baluchis to resolve their disputes. With Baluchistan bordering southern Afghanistan (Taliban leader Mullah Omar is rumored to be in the vicinity of the provincial capital Quetta) the Pakistani military does not need this distraction from the main battle against the radical Islamists. Additionally, China has built a deep-water port at Gwadar on the Baluchi coastline. It would only be prudent for the United States to also be engaged in this strategic region. Finally, if assistance from other sources is not forthcoming, the void will be filled by Pakistan’s powerful Islamist organizations. The Baluchis have not traditionally been extremist in their religious beliefs, but if no one else shows concern for their plight that could change.

Delivering aid to the suffering people in Pakistan’s coastal regions is an opportunity to provide much needed humanitarian relief while improving relations with a nation crucial in the fight against radical Islam.

— Aaron Mannes is a researcher in international-security affairs and Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland.

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