In today’s Daily Telegraph, Ahmed Rashid questions how well Pakistan’s military rulers will survive the latest huge natural disaster to hit the region.
The last time the Pakistan army rode to the rescue of its citizens after a massive natural disaster, the result was a civil war and the loss of half the country.
That was in 1970, when half a million people in what was then East Pakistan drowned as a result of typhoons and floods, and the delay of the army in launching a relief effort led to enormous public anger and the eventual creation of Bangladesh….
So far the army has been woefully slow in reacting to the disaster. Its much vaunted Crisis Management Cell – set up after 9/11, run by army officers and modelled on America’s National Security Council – has itself been an abysmal disaster. Management on the ground has been superficial at best. Stories abound, such as the one about a 72-man team of Spanish rescuers and their sniffer dogs being kept waiting for 48 hours at Islamabad airport before someone told them where to go. But as the army operation kicks in, bolstered by foreign aid, money and helicopters, public anger will recede.
One may well ask why the seventh largest army in the world is holding its hand out for helicopters and tents when America has supplied dozens of helicopters since 9/11 and the country is one of the largest tent manufacturers in the world.
The army itself holds thousands of tents in stock, along with tens of thousands of tins of foodstuffs and blankets – which do not seem to have been released. Perhaps this is because the army continues to fight an insurgency in Balochistan and al-Qa’eda remnants in Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan. These operations are on-going even as the army runs the relief effort.
It has not gone unnoticed among Western intelligence agencies that the epicentre of the quake is also the epicentre of the camps run by Pakistani extremist groups affiliated to al-Qa’eda, where hundreds of Kashmiri militants and Afghans are being trained.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pointed the area out to visiting Western leaders on a map as being the centre of Taliban resurgence. The Kashmiris trained in this area still cross the Line of Control to ambush Indian patrols. The army, wishing to continue to exert pressure on India and Afghanistan, has turned a blind eye to these activities. While the army is likely to be wary of allowing Western aid agencies running pell-mell all over Azad Kashmir, it will now be impossible to keep these camps hidden and to continue training.
One positive result of the earthquake may be greater international and Pakistani civilian pressure to close these camps, thereby speeding up the peace process with India.