Taking stock of the Zardari government’s [slack] response to the floods

Flood affectees evacuating in Dera Ismail Khan. PHOTO: EXPRESS

Al-Jazeera Report 11 August 2010
Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan, returned home on Tuesday after controversial visits to France and the UK. Zardari is facing rising anger in Pakistan from victims of what some are describing as the country’s biggest catastrophe since its creation 63 years ago.

While the government response to the devastating floods has been heavily criticised, Pakistan’s army and religious groups are earning praise from the public for their efforts. Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan reports from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

How the Floods Help the Taliban
It showed ordinary Pakistanis that the government isn’t there for them.
Source: Newsweek, 12 August 2010

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 Ayaz 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. Ayaz 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.



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