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    South Asia
     Aug 3, 2010
Militants see opportunity in disaster
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - The worst floods in Pakistan's history have claimed more than 1,100 lives and rescue officials are trying to save about 27,000 stranded people in danger. Officials said on Sunday that more than 1.5 million people, mostly in northwestern Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and Punjab provinces, had been affected.

More than 30,000 troops have been deployed in rescue efforts and militants have seized on the natural disaster to re-emerge in areas from which they had been driven out by military operations.

Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban) in the Swat Valley, announced in a video message that the Taliban were returning to the area. Earlier, there


had been reports that Fazlullah had been killed by the Afghan army in Nuristan province.

Pakistani counter-terrorism officials said that as a result of the floods and landslides, operations against militants in tribal areas such as Khyber Agency and Orakzai Agency had been halted. Similarly, a crackdown in the southern Punjab is on hold.

"The infrastructure of Swat and Malakand [Agency] could be affected for as long as a year. All main bridges have collapsed and the mobilization of the army is limited. The militants will of course take full advantage of this situation," a counter-terrorism official told Asia Times Online. He added that militants are believed to have already moved a large amount of arms to Punjab for "major action" there.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supplies passing through northwest Pakistan on the way to Afghanistan have also been severely disrupted. According to some reports, NATO has had to shelve small-scale operations in Helmand, Kandahar, Kapisa and Nagarhar for the most crucial month of August. Last month, 63 American soldiers were killed, making it the worst month since the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

In Pakistan, Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province), has been worst hit by the monsoon rains, where whole villages have been wiped out. With local rescuers struggling to cope, Pakistan sought help from American forces stationed across the border in Afghanistan. They responded with helicopters, boats, temporary bridges, water units and other supplies as part of an initial US$10 million aid pledge. According to the Edhi Foundation, a private relief organization, the death toll may reach 3,000 in the coming days.

The problem for Pakistan now is how to deal with more than a million displaced and homeless people, while also confronting emboldened militants.

Commenting on the flow of NATO supplies, an official from the National Highway Authority told Asia Times Online, "The interruption may last for at least a few weeks. Bridges and roads leading to Peshawar [capital of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa] have been washed away due to the floods and therefore all heavy traffic, including NATO containers, has been stopped."

NATO, as a standard operating procedure in a conflict zone, has at least 15 days worth of food, arms and fuel in stock for special operations. Frequent disruptions to supplies passing through Pakistan - the vast majority of NATO supplies - have disrupted operations in Afghanistan, most notably the offensive on Taliban strongholds in Kandahar, which has been postponed for several months.

The Taliban, who travel much lighter than NATO and who don't rely on regular routes to move fighters and supplies from the tribal areas into Afghanistan, can be expected to make the most of any serious disruption of NATO goods to jack up their activities for what they have dubbed Operation Victory.

Similarly in Pakistan, al-Qaeda has already laid down the infrastructure of its insurgency from the southern port city of Karachi all the way to the Torkham border crossing into Afghanistan. As soon as the flood waters drain away, exposing much of Pakistan's destroyed infrastructure, al-Qaeda-led militants can be expected to swing into action.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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