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How the Pakistan Floods Could Change the War in Afghanistan

The human suffering of millions in Pakistan's floods may have just begun if the country destablizes -- meaning, the U.S. could be there for a very long time.

The world is seeing a tragedy unfold as monsoon rains swell the expansive Indus River and flood large parts of Pakistan from Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province to the Arabian Sea. Whether directed by Pakistanis or outside agencies, relief will not always be a straightforward humanitarian effort - neither in intent nor result; it will be tempered with civil-military issues, international politics, and concerns with Pakistan's very future.

Civilians and Soldiers

Pakistan has alternated between civilian and military governments since its inception in 1947. Neither established a record of capable government in the eyes of the people and according to polling data, neither enjoys substantial support - Pakistanis are not supportive of rule by heavy-handed authoritarians or grasping oligarchs.

Politicians and generals are vying for popular support not on the hustings but through relief programs. Campaign promises and legitimizing slogans have been pushed aside as each side must either deliver food, water and medical aid to millions of displaced Pakistanis or face reduced support, if not open opposition.

The military has the edge in this competition, though an appearance of cooperation will be maintained. It is the army that has the trucks and helicopters, the logistical skill in moving large quantities of goods into place, large-scale medical resources, and the hierarchical command structure. Paradoxically, perhaps, many of the resources and skills of modern warfare are essential for relief work.


There is little likelihood that the military will once again seize power in the near future. The military will, however, present itself as a competent institution embodying the principles of national honor and aspirations. Whatever new presence it establishes in stricken districts will be used to enhance its prestige. Depending on its success in relief operations, the military will be able to maintain its position in public affairs and resist efforts by civilians - and the U.S. - to exit from politics altogether.

U.S. Efforts

American diplomacy has alternately supported civilian and military governments -- sometimes out of geopolitical necessity, sometimes out of the government's incompetence or brutality. At present, the U.S. supports the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, but the floods will require it to work closely with the military on logistical, medical and other matters.

The U.S. has been leaning on the Pakistani military, especially Inter-Services Intelligence, to end its support for militant groups such as the Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e Taiba and even al Qaeda. American diplomats and military officials have been decrying military support, formal and informal, to these groups and pressing the Pakistani generals to force the Taliban to the bargaining table.

But this pressure will likely be reduced as the immediacy of the disaster and the need for cooperation on relief take precedence. And cooperation may well strengthen the Pakistani military's standing in the country.

The U.S. will seek to enhance its abysmal image in a country where anti-Americanism and related conspiracy theories abound. Results on this score are unlikely to be impressive. Hostility is simply too deeply embedded in the culture and the U.S. presence in relief work will be often seen as an effort to dominate the country, probably in conjunction with India.

United States relief efforts will in some respects mesh with those of Pakistan's other geopolitical partner, China, but in other respects the two powers will be competitive if not antagonistic. The U.S. wishes to contain China's influence in Pakistan as it might lead to sharper tensions between Pakistan and India, which has a decades-long hostility toward China and which opposes any expansion of Chinese influence in South Asia.

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