The ongoing floods in Pakistan have killed 1,100, displaced 25,000, put 100,000 at risk for water-borne diseases such as cholera, wiped out much of the rural regions' frail infrastructure, and is only going to get worse as the rains continue and many of the displaced go without aid. The Pakistani government, stretched thin by decades of war, has been unable to adequately respond. Could the U.S.-led security assistance force in Afghanistan, 120,000 troops strong, step in and use its considerable transportation and construction resources to provide relief? The clear and urgent humanitarian need aside, many in the U.S. may be wary of helping the Pakistani government owing to long-held suspicions, reaffirmed by the recently released Wikileaks documents, that its military spy service sponsors some of the insurgent groups ravaging Afghanistan and Kashmir. However, there are four ways that the U.S. could significantly boost its regional and global security interests with an aid mission to Pakistan.
(1) Build trust in governance and institutions. This is a part of the world where the government is mistrusted and often despised, which fuels public support for the insurgents who are seen as a preferable alternative. As both Dawn's Huma Yusuf and journalist Amil Khan explain, the Pakistani government's insufficient flood response has both reiterated and worsened the mistrust in institutions that fuels so much of the regional militancy. This is part of why the Pakistani military spy service sponsors some Taliban factions: It fears that it cannot compete with Taliban influence due to the state's weak hold. If the government could step in with our help and aid flood victims, it would give the state both credibility and sovereignty in regions where it has little of either.
(2) Counter anti-Americanism. In much of Pakistan, especially the troubled border regions, predator drones and Blackwater are the face of America. A recent Pew survey reported 93 percent of those aware of the U.S. drone program call it "bad" or "very bad" and 90 percent say they kill too many innocent civilians. Only 17 percent of Pakistanis view the U.S. favorably. However, 64 percent want improved relations. The U.S. recently pledged $500 million in additional aid to Pakistan, but this is our chance to give Pakistanis a more tangible sign that the U.S. commitment to Pakistan goes beyond blowing up the occassional wedding party.
(3) Show that the Taliban doesn't have Pakistani interests at heart. This is one of the best ways that the world undermined al-Qaeda: Showing Muslims that the terrorist group doesn't care about the people they purportedly fight for. This was especially effective in Iraq, where even virulently anti-American community leaders such as Moktada al-Sadr learned that their interests aligned much more closely with the U.S. than with insurgents. However, the opposite approach--standing by idly and allowing extremist groups to spearhead relief--is how the world allows terror groups like Hamas and Hizbollah to become stronger and more popular. A relief effort led by the U.S. and Pakistani governments would do much to convince Pakistanis to reject groups like the Taliban.
(4) Counter Baloch extremism in Iran. Much of the flooding is in Balochistan, an unofficially semi-independent ethnic region spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. Humanitarian disaster in Pakistani Balochistan would send many fleeing across the Iranian border, where Baloch insurgent groups are already at a state of undeclared war with Iran. An influx of angry and desperate Balochs would worsen the Baloch violence in Iran, which in the past has led the regime to strengthen its already oppressive police state. This would be a setback for the long-held international push for Iran to liberalize, which is expected to increase the influence of U.S.-friendly politicians and to reduce the regime's desire for nuclear weapons, which is driven in part by its insecurity. Preventing a humanitarian crisis in Balochistan would make convincing Iran to liberalize much easier.
It is also worth considering the reasons not get involved. An international aid effort would require complex legal wrangling, both in international bodies and within the U.S. and other countries involved, to secure the sufficient legal authority. Once they arrived, the foreign force--which would have to be heavily military in nature because there are 120,000 troops in neighboring Afghanistan but simply not enough aid workers--would attract Pakistani insurgents like magnets. The last thing that we want is to spread more violence. However, if there is a way for the U.S.-led force in Afghanistan to quickly respond to the Pakistani floods while leaving a minimal military footprint, it could do real good for regional security in one of the world's most troubled areas. More importantly, it could help a lot of people who badly need it.
Photo: Flood victims outside Peshawar evacuate, by Hasham Ahmed/AFP/Getty.