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Flooding could weaken Pakistan security

Army shifts from insurgents to relief

A woman fell off a truck distributing relief goods in Muzaffargarh, Pakistan. The nation is dealing with food shortages. A woman fell off a truck distributing relief goods in Muzaffargarh, Pakistan. The nation is dealing with food shortages. (Aaron Favila/Associated Press)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post / August 18, 2010

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Staggered by the scale of destruction from this summer’s catastrophic floods, Pakistani officials have begun to acknowledge that the country’s security could be gravely affected if more international aid does not arrive soon.

The floods have submerged an area roughly the size of Italy, displaced 12 percent of the population, and destroyed billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and crops.

But with the government admittedly overwhelmed and foreign aid only trickling in, the worst may be still to come, as Pakistan struggles to deal with food shortages, disease outbreaks, and a mass migration of homeless families. Of 10,000 patients cared for by Doctors Without Borders, the group said, about 10 percent were treated for acute watery diarrhea, a mild form of cholera.

All those factors have the potential to further destabilize a nation undermined by weak governance and a vicious insurgency even before the crisis.

“There are already signs that people are restive,’’ said Major General Athar Abbas, a military spokesman. “If not addressed, it could balloon and will create a security situation in the areas where the government has not taken care of people’s needs.’’

The army has had to reorient in recent weeks, shifting its focus from counterinsurgency toward relief and recovery missions. A potential offensive in the militant haven of North Waziristan has been placed on indefinite hold, as has the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees from last fall’s battle in South Waziristan. Meanwhile, efforts to rebuild the Swat Valley, the scene of intense fighting last year, are back to square one after flooding from monsoon rains knocked out every bridge and many schools, health clinics, and communications towers.

“The so-called war on terror has to be on hold,’’ said Ayaz Amir, a security analyst and a member of Pakistan’s Parliament. “As long as the nation, the government, and the army are dealing with this flood situation, the war takes a back seat.’’

That is bad news for US forces in Afghanistan, where commanders seeking to turn around a flagging war effort are relying heavily on Pakistani cooperation. It could particularly affect plans in eastern Afghanistan, where the United States had been contemplating a fall offensive in areas directly across the border from North and South Waziristan.

The Pakistani Taliban have not made visible efforts to exploit the crisis. Although some Islamic charities linked to banned militant groups have distributed aid in certain areas, the Taliban have remained relatively quiet since the flooding began three weeks ago.

Abbas said there was no indication that the group was mobilizing for major attacks, and analysts said Taliban operations could have been hamstrung by the floods.

The Taliban may also be wary of alienating the public by carrying out strikes at a time of mass hardship.

“We can do with a lull on both sides,’’ Amir said.

But it is not clear that the lull will last. The floods have inundated some of the poorest and least accessible areas of Pakistan, many of which were already fertile recruiting grounds for militants.

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