Pakistan stares into a void
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
NOWSHERA, Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province - The coalition government of Pakistani
President Asif Ali Zardari, the brainchild of the United States for an
anti-Taliban political force that could effectively fight and support the
American war in South Asia, has proved itself incompetent in the face of the
country's unfolding flood disaster.
Devastating floods over the past month have affected more than 20 million
people and laid waste a fifth of the country's land mass. The real fear now is
that in the much-anticipated anarchy in the coming weeks, a fiercely
anti-American Islamic revolution could
break out if correct and timely steps are not taken as the waters recede and
lay bare ruined lives.
Underscoring these fears, the latest in a string of bomb attacks took place on
Tuesday in the northwestern town of Kohat, killing 16 people and injuring more
than 50. This took the number of people killed in attacks in the past week to
more than 120.
Zardari warned on Monday that the country’s "survival is being threatened" by
both extremism and flooding as insurgents take advantage of the upheaval caused
by the overflowing Indus River.
Millions of people are camping in the open, totally reliant on foreign aid,
Islamic charities and other social organizations in the absence of government
At this stage, few people have an understanding or a plan for the
rehabilitation of these millions of people. Pakistani intellectuals agree,
though, that the floods have created a huge vacuum in the country, already
battered by multiple issues including terrorism and insurgencies.
Displaced, dislodged, ignored, suppressed
As one enters Nowshera, a city in northwestern Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province,
there is a large tent village, managed by an Islamic charity, where displaced
people live alongside their livestock.
As I left my car and approached the tents, people rushed towards me, thinking I
was going to distribute aid or money. However, they remained equally
enthusiastic when they learnt of the presence of newsmen - they wanted to tell
They came from Wisalabad village, Risalpur, where about 150 of 200 houses were
destroyed by the floods; the remaining homes are too battered to live in.
"Sugarcane and sunflower were our main cash crops, but the flood destroyed them
all. Our houses have been destroyed, all we are left with is some livestock,
this is our only asset now," Ibrar Hussain said.
None of the villagers owned farmland - they were all laborers.
"All farms belong to the feudals of Nowshera city. We are laborers. After six
months, we are bound to pay Ijarah [an agreed amount of money] to the
landowner. No matter that the flood has destroyed everything, we still have to
pay the Ijarah," a visibly upset Ibrar said.
Hussain and his fellow villagers had no idea where they would get the money to
pay the Ijarah, but they were determined to get it somehow.
This is a big issue all over the country, especially in southern Sindh
province. Many people have left the fields and moved to the southern port city
of Karachi, saying they do not want to have to pay Ijarah as the land on
which they had worked had been lost.
Most landowners in Sindh are either politicians or belong to big political
families and their influence runs everywhere, from the legislature to the
police station. They have the capacity to do anything to force laborers to
cough up the money.
The flood displaced these people, but the social and economic order will throw
them into permanent suppression. The state has turned a blind eye to this,
leaving the people to weigh their options, one of which is to become a part of
the anarchy that is emerging out of the receding water.
Another side of the story
About two kilometers from the first tent village I visited was another one,
also with people from Nowshera displaced by the flood. They had lived in the
slums - taxi drivers, bricklayers and other daily wage-earners.
Muhammad Nasir had a donkey cart in which he transported cement, sand and other
construction material. He earned about 200 rupees (US$2.50) a day - all of
which he spent, leaving him with no savings. His donkey drowned in the floods
and his mud house was destroyed, leaving Nasir's family of five homeless,
jobless and penniless.
Said Bacha, a laborer with a family of seven; Omar Badshah, a taxi driver with
12 family members; Amjad Ali, a bricklayer in a family of 15, had similar
stories - all lost their jobs and homes and have to rely on charities in the
In the holy month of Ramadan, all Muslims donate 2.5% of their total annual
savings, gold and other assets, to charity (zakat). This is customarily
done by paying the money to the central government, which then distributes it
to the poor and needy.
However, many people do not trust the government to do this effectively, so
they make direct zakat payments either to individuals or to Islamic
charities. Even these private charities, though, don't have the capacity to
rehabilitate people in the long term. They simply arrange for food and medicine
to be delivered regularly - exactly as is happening in flood-hit areas.
These people will most likely receive assistance for a few months, but then
what happens? The government does not have the capacity - or seemingly the will
- to fully rehabilitate people. Yet people will have to find new housing,
schools, jobs; these problems are not being discussed.
More tales of woe
Nowshera's Hospital Road was hit the hardest when the flooded Indus River
struck on July 29, with the water only receding in early August 2. Hoti Khel,
the main wholesale market, was also destroyed.
"The floods made all millionaires poorer. However, the big wholesalers of Hoti
Khel still have money in the bank to buy new material, and maybe after a few
months they will be back into their routine, but small shopkeepers, grocery
storeowners who earn a little, have been completely wiped out," Amanullah,
owner of Amanullah Trunk House, an aluminum trunk and cupboard maker and
seller, told Asia Times Online.
"Their sugar bags, tea, lentils and so forth have been taken by the flood, and
now they don't have the money to buy new stocks," he said. Amanullah came from
the city of Mardan, in the northwest. to open a shop in Nowshera. He admits the
buying capacity of the masses is now very low, but he hopes the situation will
return to normal in a few months.
The flood also destroyed the District Headquarter Hospital, a symbol of the
state of Pakistan. After the water receded, watermarks could be seen up to the
ceilings. The hospital's operating theaters and equipment were lost, including
X-ray and ultrasound machines, and drugs - all that remained was a building
full of filth.
Nevertheless, patients lined up for treatment of skin diseases, infected eyes,
diarrhea and other ailments. The head of the hospital (medical superintendent),
Dr Mohammad Arshad, told Asia Times Online that in the absence of any
government assistance, international medical and humanitarian aid organization
Medicine Sans Frontieres provided medicine. Former students of medical colleges
donated equipment while the World Health Organization helped get the hospital
The Taliban's mobilization begins
Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, has brought forward a new face in Badar Mansoor, a Pashtun
commander who has risen through the ranks of al-Qaeda-linked militants. He has
gathered a large number of recruits for a new phase that includes spreading
terror in urban centers such as Karachi, Lahore and Quetta, where already in
the past month scores of people have been killed in suicide attacks and
On Monday evening, militants carried out three blasts in Lahore. One was at the
residence of a police officer, another at Minhajul Koran University, run by Dr
Tahirul Qadri. Qadri is renowned for compiling a fatwa (religious
decree) against al-Qaeda that was distributed in Arabic, Urdu and English all
over the world. He lives in exile in Canada.
The pattern of attacks shows that al-Qaeda aims to exploit ethnic and sectarian
divisions to create maximum friction, chaos and anarchy.
The next step is to mobilize militants to regain a foothold in lost territory
in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa. The first and primary targets will be the police. The
aim is to terrify the police so much that very much like in the Swat region in
2009, the police network will collapse.
On Monday, a suicide attacker rammed an explosive-laden van into a police
station in the northwestern city of Lucky Marwat, killing at least 19 people.
The Pakistani Taliban were repulsed from this city two years ago, and they want
to return as it is close to the North Waziristan tribal area - a militant
Militants have also launched organized attacks on security forces around
Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, using remote-controlled bombs to
On Tuesday, in addition to the suicide attack in Kohat, militants abducted the
vice chancellor of Islamia College and University Peshawar, Dr Ajmal Khan. He
is a cousin of long-time anti-Islamist and now anti-Taliban leader Asfandyar
Wali Khan, the chief of the Awami National Party that governs Khyber
The next stop is Malakand division, which includes Swat Valley and Buner.
Militant contacts told Asia Times Online that militant leaders had already
begun gathering in Mohmand Agency and would soon go into Swat, where girls'
schools are now being blown up.
General Hamid Gul, a former director general of Pakistan's Inter-Services
Intelligence (ISI), spoke to Asia Times Online about the challenges ahead for
"The situation is very complex. Nobody is in a position to bring about any
change, not even the military," said Gul, who recently joined the editorial
board of directors of Veterans Today, a network of web sites that serves the
veterans community of the US military.
"Actually, the Americans are promoting the idea of a military takeover in
Pakistan as they see a serious problem simmering in the near future. But a
military coup is impossible in the present circumstances and the military is
fully cognizant of the situation. The Pakistan army is in a state of war as
150,000 soldiers are deployed to confront the insurgency or handle relief
operations. No army in a state of war can afford a coup.
"Secondly, coups have always been supported by right-wing political parties.
When General Zia ul-Haq imposed martial law in 1977 and the Pakistan People's
Party vowed to take to the streets in protest, the right wing Jamaat-e-Islami,
the major supporter of the coup, threatened the Pakistan People's Party that if
its workers tried to oppose martial law, they would be confronted on the
"At the moment, the hardcore right-wing parties are dead against the army
because of its support for the American war [on terror], so who would support a
military takeover? And without support from a strong segment of the masses, a
coup is not possible," said Gul.
"In the present [political] circumstances, the military is supposed to have a
very limited role. That is supposed to be under the constitution ... it cannot
play a political role. The best solution is a combined role for the judiciary
and the military to facilitate a forum of elders, who would run the country
under an interim arrangement and with the help of the judiciary and the army to
take the country out of its present crisis," Gul said.
"Otherwise, the country is heading towards chaos and anarchy. In such chaos and
anarchy, sometimes the masses search out leaders who can take them on the road
of revolution. In Pakistan, if a revolution comes, it would have to be an
anti-American Islamic revolution. And history tells us that whatever happens in
this region, its effects always trickle into Delhi," Gul warned in reference to
the capital of India.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at email@example.com