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    South Asia
     Sep 9, 2010
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 assistance.

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 their stories.

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 tented village.

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 functional again.

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 targeted killings.

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 stronghold.

Militants have also launched organized attacks on security forces around Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, using remote-controlled bombs to attack vehicles.

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 Pakhtoonkhwa.

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 Pakistan.

"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 streets.

"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 saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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


Pakistan mulls 'flood taxes'
(Sep 3, '10)

Al-Qaeda makes a point with Lahore attack (Sep 3, '10)


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