Floods and Radicals

Posted Aug. 18, 2010, at 6:12 p.m.

While the United States and other countries must focus on humanitarian aid in the initial response to the devastating floods in Pakistan, they must keep a wary eye on how the crisis weakens an already unpopular government. There are also concerns that the floods and their aftermath could empower the Taliban and other militant groups, which would complicate U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

Flood waters have covered about a quarter of the country and driven at least 12 million from their homes. Cholera and other illnesses are now a concern in makeshift refugee camps.

With so much farmland underwater, starvation is a major worry. In addition, Pakistan was Asia’s third-largest grower of wheat. The revenue from wheat exports was an important part of the economy and farming employs about two-thirds of the country’s work force. Without income, these farmers are likely to go hungry and, in their desperation to support their families, are more likely to be radicalized.

“This is the basic reason for militancy: anger at the government,” Obaid ur-Rehman told The Washington Post. The 26-year-old had taken refuge with hundreds of others displaced by the floods in the median strip of a major highway. “If we had a place to live, if we had food, if we had schools, there would be no militancy in Pakistan.”

Sen. Susan Collins said the slow response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis from governments around the world is dangerous for this very reason. “I am very worried that this threatens Pakistan’s stability and creates an opening for the Taliban.” The first priority, she said, is humanitarian aid, but such assistance must be more quickly coordinated and delivered.

Groups with terrorist ties were quick to offer aid. In an opinion column in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, Marisa Porges, a former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that Falah-e-Insaniyat, the charitable arm of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, was serving meals to victims and providing them with clothing, medicine and even money. A fundamentalist boarding school that proudly counts senior Taliban among its alumni has converted itself into a shelter and is giving meals, electricity and medical treatment to at least 2,500 victims.

“There is already evidence that such activities are earning these groups public support from Pakistanis, wrote Ms. Porges, who was an adviser in the Defense and Treasury departments.

While the aid offered by such groups is crucial to the well-being of many Pakistanis, growing support for militant organizations will complicate U.S. relations with Pakistan. This, in turn, will make it more difficult to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan.

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