One afternoon, in the aftermath of the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, I was sitting in the lounge room of my house in the North West Frontier Province. I shared it with half a dozen Pakistani friends. After a perfunctory knock on the front door, the room was suddenly filled with four well dressed Americans, identifying themselves as 'from the embassy" and smilingly asking us about 'the terrain'. What did we know, who did we know, and how did we know it? The female American showed particular interest in me - the lone westerner seemingly out of place in a house full of Pakistanis. She asked me about 'activities' I had witnessed. After distributing their name cards and entreaties to call if we had any interesting information ("anything at all"), they piled into their SUV and were gone.
We concluded, of course, they were CIA. The earthquake had created open routes in and out of Kashmir and previously off-limits areas, and thousands of people were daily trekking in and out, over rubble and ruins and suffering. It seemed that not only aid workers but those in the battle for hearts and minds were swarming in and assessing the lie of the land.
Late one afternoon in Kashmir, we clambered up a hill to visit a makeshift radio station. In a flimsy one-person tent a bloke transmitted religious sermons and songs and barked out a bit of ideology. We had tea. My local colleagues cracked up laughing when he asked me to teach him interviewing skills. "He's Taliban," they said as we slid down the hill in the dark.
Poor old Pakistan is again in torment. Floods have destroyed the homes, livelihoods and health of millions of its most vulnerable citizens. The majority of Pakistanis are helpless in the face of their self absorbed and corrupt government, an army and secret service that have their own agenda, and their country's western allies who can be ham fisted in their attempts to negotiate the landscape of South Asian politics and culture, and are often thwarted by the treachery of the government they are trying to assist.
There is now great concern about jihadi groups moving in to fill in humanitarian holes left by apathetic countries unwilling to stump up dollars and resources for flood aid. They will take over the hearts and minds, goes the reasoning, as their hand out medication and clean water. This may be a good fear tactic to motivate the tardy, but the Taliban, it's splinter groups and unrelated Islamist groups have been active throughout Pakistan for decades, and the flood while giving them an opportunity to assist their fellow citizens (instead of just brow beating them) is not actually creating jihad groups.
The hard line Islamist groups were some of the most efficient during the 2005/2006 earthquake crisis. All over north Pakistan, camps and workers funded by jihadi organisations provided shelter, food and health care. It was not unusual to hear loud speakers blasting out anti-western rhetoric in the crisis areas urging people to refuse "western aid". But in reality, the UN co operated with many of those groups, who were far more efficient than the hide bound UN, which fussed over distribution lists and created complicated vehicle rosters. In an interview with Australian TV, UNICEF's chief of mission at the time said he wasn't aware that that such groups were 'political' while at the same time UNICEF HQ was voicing concern about madrassa schools popping up everywhere.
The International Crisis Group analysed the situation in 2006 and reported the same issues that are causing deep concern now.
Jihadi groups are moving into the flood areas with a ruthless efficiency, providing basic needs for the population. Is this new? No. Is it cause for concern? Absolutely. But it is neither a flood nor an earthquake that is giving the groups opportunities for their own brand of psy-ops. The problem is far greater than that, and right in front of our noses, all of the time. Until Pakistan's government destroys the treachery within its own ranks, delivers on its endless broken promises to its allies and makes educating and feeding its citizens a priority, the ruthlessly efficient ideologues will continue to recruit successfully, come hell or high water.