How can we process the idea of 20,000,000 people homeless and six million facing immanent starvation, with little or no locally produced food available for the next two years, at least?
How do you quantify feeding and housing 20,000,000 people--the seven zeros make the sheer scope of the disaster far more tangible than the word "million"?
More broadly, how do you help a country far larger than any in Europe and, with over 170 million people the sixth most populous in the world, recover from a flood that literally submerged one third of the nation, untold tens of thousands of villages, under water. And more, in a cruel twist of fate, is leaving an ever increasing percentage of the country without fresh drinking water?
For most of the last decade, the United States and its allies have been fighting a so-called "war on terror" in the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But today a new war on terror has to begin, one demanding an approach and commitment of attention, resources, and expertise that must far exceed that devoted to the now outdated war, or the result will be the rise of extremism on a potentially unparalleled scale.
Imagine the terror felt by 20,000,000 people living without homes, water, medicine or food. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki moon, has seen plenty of major disasters, but after flying across the country he declared, visibly shaken, that he's "never seen a disaster as bad as the flooding in Pakistan." Even as he spoke, survivors are so desperately grabbing at any relief supplies, ripping at each others' clothes and causing such a level of chaos that in some places aid distribution has had to be stopped.
Think the post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel The Road, minus the nuclear Armageddon--Indeed, in much of the country, the only place people can sleep is on the open roads, which are, at least in some places, on high enough ground to remain above the floodwaters.
This terror is not going to numb the Pakistani people into apathy of a stupor. If an unprecedented relief effort of a scope that at least equals the amount of resources, men and materiel devoted to the other war on terror still ongoing in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, is not mounted in the next few days that terror is going to produce a level of anger and desperation that is hard to fathom, with consequences impossible to predict. Already "militant" organizations are among the major forces on the ground handing out food and supplies, while the Pakistani government, as usual, stumbles, it's hugely expensive army ill-equipped or trained to take on such a massive rescue operation.
Staggering Numbers--for all the Wrong Reasons
And yet, let us consider the numbers that are being discussed by the UN Secretary-General, the US government and the international community more broadly.
The UN has asked for an initial $460 million to provide relief. So far, only 20 percent has been pledged. The money is less and the commitment slower than that pledged to Haiti after its horrific earthquake in January. The US has committed about $76 million as of the time of writing; that number will surely rise significantly.
But consider this number: The US currently is spending at least $12 billion each month prosecuting the war in Afghanistan and surrounding "war on terror." That's twenty five times the amount Ban Ki-moon has asked for to aid 20,000,000 displaced Pakistanis in order to pursue a few thousand hard core jihadis. Looking more closely, the Congressional Research Service estimates that the United States spends $1 million per soldier per year in the Afpak theatre. Upwards of $300 million per day. Every day, then, we're spending three and a half times more in Afpak than the present total US aid commitment for the flood.
The Obama Administration is allocating slightly over one half of one percent of America's monthly war bill - or about $3.80 per affected person -- to alleviate the sheer terror being experienced by tens of millions of people, presently existing on the edge of death and starvation, who live in precisely the home base of the United States' avowed enemy.
Imagine what happens when the cholera, which is already being detected in many areas, and other murderous diseases, really kick in among the millions of displaced people. Imagine the terror if children start dying by the thousands. And then the winter arrives.
Please excuse the indelicateness of the following question, but, Who the hell is advising President Obama? Not that he or any other person with an average IQ should need advice on what to do in this situation.
The US is spending $12 billion a month to get rid of a few thousand people who hate it in a region that has been deemed of such strategic importance that it will continue to spend $12 billion every month, this despite the disastrous shape of the US economy and the fact that there is little evidence that the strategy is actually working to pacify the people in question. A disaster of biblical proportions has just afflicted the primary target population in this war and the UN has requested the equivalent of pocket change to help get the relief rolling in and save untold lives.
And what does the Obama Administration pledge? A bit over 17 percent of the needed funds. Why isn't the President just writing a check to cover the whole amount if others are dragging the bill? After all, who has anywhere close to the vested interest in how Pakistan turns out compared to the US today?
Is this really the time to be counting pennies? Not a single assessment of the war in Afghanistan can demonstrate that the more than $100 billion spent on the war and occupation have made the situation better, so should the President suddenly be fiscally prudent when six million children are at risk of deadly water born diseases and tens of thousands of women are due to give birth in the coming weeks (up to 25,000 of the newborns are not expected to survive if the current situation continues)?
Think of the good will it would generate if the President stood up and declared, "If we can spent $12 billion per month to fight a few thousand of your fellow country- and tribes-men, surely we can spend $1 billion to keep tens of millions of Pakistanis alive, housed and healthy." If the US has pledged, according to top counterterrorism official John Brennan, a "multigenerational" campaign against al-Qa'eda, wouldn't it be wise today to also pledge a multigenerational campaign against poverty, inequality, authoritarianism and corruption? Does the Obama Administration not understand which war is likelier to produce the desired results?
Besides the paltry sums being pledged (and if Haiti is any guide, only a small percentage of that money will actually ever be handed over), both American and Pakistani officials have pledged that the war on the Taliban in Pakistan, including in the very areas hard-hit by the rains and floods, will continue. As the flooding continued U.S. missiles killed 12 people over the weekend, the first strike in several weeks. Meanwhile, a measly 19 American helicopters are currently involved in the rescue efforts--for 20,000,000 affected people.
Precisely what kind of message does that send? "We're not going to give much to help you stay alive, but we'll make sure to continue killing you during this time of greatest need." Such mixed messages can only inflame anger and resentment.
Pakistani Government in Dire Trouble
Meanwhile, the feckless President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardawi, has told his compatriots: "Despondency is forbidden in our religion. We consider it as a test from Allah for us. This is a test for us and for you We will try to meet all your wishes. We will build a new house for you. We will build a new Pakistan."
Of course, no one believes this, even in normal times. Pakistan's landed elite has long been at the heart of the country's immense social, economic and political problems. It has never cared about "meeting all the wishes" of the mass of extremely poor Pakistanis on whose backs their wealth has long been secured. The majority build houses only for themselves; the "new Pakistan" that has been talked about since the country's founding sixty years ago has always been little more than a chimera for the vast majority of the population.
There are many members of the country's elite who have been working assiduously to try to change the country's political culture and address the rampant inequality that is the source of so much of Pakistan's problems. But the system is so dependent on this dynamic, and the country's main patrons, the US and its allies, so dependent on the elite to acquiesce to their wars, that it's proved impossible to rebuild the system in a more sustainable way.
Time for a Truce
If the fears of the Secretary-General and other aid officials about the scope of this disaster are born out, the Obama Administration has only one option if it wants to ensure that this natural disaster doesn't doom its strategic goal of pacifying Pakistan Afghanistan. The President must immediately declare a cease-fire in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, offer a truce to the Taliban, and pledge to put the full weight of the tens of thousands of soldiers currently in theatre, and huge supply of military aircraft and equipment at their disposal, to the relief efforts in Pakistan. There can be no better strategy today for winning the other, now far smaller, war on terror.
Imagine how Pakistanis would respond to such an action--if instead of competing with the Taliban or al-Qa'eda via drones, missiles and IEDs, the US was clearly at the lead of a a massive and properly funded relief and rebuilding effort across Pakistan, ensuring food, medicine and shelter was promptly being delivered to affected areas.
Imagine if US and other coalition officials, relief specialists and personnel were able to work with the grassroots organizations--many if certainly not all of which are tied to the the conservative and potentially extremist movements that are currently the most visible presence on the ground across the flood-ravaged regions of the country--to prevent the disaster on the horizon, and in the process begin to build bonds of trust and solidarity with the very groups who are currently so suspicious of American intentions and goals.
How would poor Pakistanis respond when the Taliban or al-Qa'eda fighters come by again looking to recruit people for jihad against the US if it was clear that the US was actually spending more money on reconstruction than on destruction? If instead of handing over "crops, fertilizers, and seed" (in the Secretary-General's words) to the country's corrupt landed elite, who for sixty years have profited from the misery of the mass of poor farmers, the US led the drive to work with grass roots forces to break the cycle of dependency and corruption by helping to empower small farmers to take control of the country's agricultural system.
Such a strategy at least has a chance of working; whereas the current strategy of bombs and aid to the government has met with little success.
The question remains whether the Obama Administration, and concerned world leaders more broadly, has the honesty, sophistication, and dedication to take on this task despite the myriad forces on all sides that would be arrayed against it. One things is sure though, the Taliban and al-Qa'eda arean't waiting around to find out. They're already reshaping the battle field, in ways that no amount of bombs, or aid, might be able to counter.
In the meantime, it's up to private citizens to take the lead. Perhaps all those multi-billionaires who just pledged half their fortunes to charity might consider that now would be a good time to start spending their money. And the artists and aid organizations that so quickly put together the concert for Haiti and efficient text messaging system to donate to the quake relief efforts would be well-advised to move quickly to organize the kind of high profile event that could raise much needed funds as quickly as possible.
As much as anything today, Pakistanis need to know that the world cares and will help them get through this unprecedented situation. If we don't step up to fill the void, it's pretty clear who will, and what that will mean for the country's future, and four ours as well.
Since this article was first published an American aid worker who has organized several clinics in the hardest hit areas emailed me the following analysis: "I'm telling the government that they need to change the flood affected people's lives for the better in a big way, one small initiative at a time... if we'd just spend a fraction of what the war in Afghanistan has cost to instead help Pakistan through this disaster then we could turn this whole insane situation around. But if the US doesn't "get it" this time, then I don't think they ever will." So far he has treated about 4,000 patients and handed out $25,000 worth of food, clothes and medicine, "But it's just a drop in the bucket."