Nothing sums up the plight of Pakistan like what happened—or did not happen—at the Shahbaz military base in Jacobabad. The U.S. Air Force has been operating out of that base since the war in Afghanistan began nine years ago. According to Pakistani media, Jacobabad was in the path of the approaching flood waters. The waters were diverted to save the base, inundating the town of Dera Allahyar instead. Some 800,000 people were added to the swelling list of millions already displaced by the floods.
In other countries, floods are humanitarian catastrophes. In Pakistan, they are security threats.
“The only framework the U.S. has for comprehending anything about Pakistan—be it culture, society, or politics—is the security framework,” says Manan Ahmed, a Pakistani historian currently teaching in Berlin. “From the point of view of the hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Even Pakistanis, especially those writing for Western media, have bought into this storyline.
“Even greater than the human cost of this devastating event are the security challenges it poses,” writes Ahmad Rashid in the New York Review of Books. Rashid warns that without major emergency aid, “the country risks turning into what until now has remained only a grim, but remote possibility—a failed state with nuclear weapons.”
One-fifth or more of Pakistan is under water. Twenty million people have been affected. Thousands are still stranded, out of the reach of aid workers, marooned because bridges and roads have been swept away.
“And they [the Americans] are worried if a militant group [like the Taliban] bandages a person or gives someone a gallon of water, they are going to become suicide bombers heading to New York?” Ahmed scoffs. “That is completely reductionist.”
The only group that benefits from this kind of rhetoric is the Pakistani army, which has long presented itself as the indispensable bulwark—or at least the only one Washington has—against Islamic militants. The army has kept a low profile since the downfall of General Pervez Musharraf in 2008. But now the miltary can be heroes with helicopters. “It’s an image makeover for the army,” says Saadia Toor, professor of sociology at CUNY and member of the group Action for a Progressive Pakistan. “They want to wash away the stain of the Musharraf government.”
Sahar Shafqat, professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, is already seeing evidence of that. “Politicians from different parties are saying, ‘Bring the army back,’” Shafqat says. “They say the democratically elected civilian government is weak and has fallen down on the job.”
The army’s message of order and stability is going to become even more resonant in the months to come as the waters recede. The floods have wiped out Pakistan’s bread basket. The cotton crops have been destroyed, meaning hundreds of textile mills will suddenly be faced with closure. Millions of displaced Pakistanis are heading to cities like Karachi where huge relief camps have been set up, adding to the sense of chaos and turmoil.
Pakistan’s foreign debt was already $54 billion before the floods hit. “What Pakistan is going to need is not new loans but debt relief,” Toor says.
“The simple fact is Pakistan will default on its loans,” Ahmed adds. “And the World Bank will demand denationalization and higher tariffs as it did in Argentina.”
In her influential book Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein argues that huge natural disasters and political upheavals are the perfect opportunity to push a radical neo-liberal agenda onto a shell-shocked populace. It happened, she says, after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Mitch.
“In Pakistan, it’s different,” Toor says. “The economy is already firmly under military control. So there is no need to change it in the interest of the power broker.”
For example, the military is the largest landowner in Pakistan. “For the millions displaced by the floods, the ability to go home will depend on the powers that be,” says Shafqat. “And they can say to them in order to continue farming, you have to buy seeds from Monsanto.”
The Pakistani newspaper Dawn is already warning that a major land grab might be underway in the wake of the floods as corrupt officials try to force desperate small farmers out of their land. Environmentally controversial proposals like dams will probably get pushed through more easily.
The irony is that the last time a huge natural disaster hit Pakistan, the army was in charge. “The movement against Musharraf and the army came out of the way in which the army handled the 2005 Kashmir earthquake,” says Toor. “The middle and upper-middle class, which had always been staunchly pro-army, started rethinking its image of the army as the super technocrats.”
The civil society movement quickly grew, bringing in lawyers, students, journalists and ultimately led to Musharraf’s exit. Shafqat says the only silver lining to the current devastation is that re-energized civil society and media. “That’s the wild card in all this. I can see them playing a constructive role,” she says.
The army, for its part, is also probably not in any hurry to oust President Asif Ali Zardari. He is no threat to the military, and his government’s ham-handed handling of the situation suits the generals perfectly.
Yet for Zardari, the situation will only get grimmer. Before the floods, some 37 percent of Pakistan’s population lived below the poverty line. Now millions have lost land and livestock—their only means of livelihood. Millions of unemployed Pakistanis will be pouring into the cities. “Even if the government had the will to help them, it has no money,” says Toor. Just replacing the lost cattle would take years.
The Pakistani government and the army are instead playing the only card they know to get aid—the terror threat. Zardari brought it up in a press conference with Sen. John Kerry earlier this month. “[Militants] would take babies who become orphans and put them in their own camps, train them as the terrorists of tomorrow,” he said.
Hillary Clinton has said Washington will increase its aid to Pakistan to $150 million. On Aug. 25, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced another $50 million in aid. The militant-mullah bogeyman and fear of a failed state might loosen Congress’s purse strings and garner Pakistan even more aid.
But the real problem, says Ahmed, is not that the Pakistan government failed in its response to the floods.
“No state has the resources ready for a catastrophe of this magnitude. Look at Katrina,” he says. “The question is, in the long term can [Pakistan] absorb the initial blow and start to rebuild? Is there a FEMA? We need an aid program that puts those structures in place.”