The once in a century monsoon floods that have inundated large parts Pakistan's farm lands are the latest blow to Washington's increasingly troubled policy in what is now called, "Afpak."
The still rising floodwaters have affected 20 million Pakistanis. Over 1,500 people have died, 800,000 homes have been destroyed. Pakistan's government reports that 10% of this nation of 180 million is now destitute and 20% of Pakistan's land is submerged by the filthy, contaminated floodwaters. Two more waves of monsoon flooding are on the way.
A Biblical disaster, as my friend and Afghan expert Arnaud de Borchgrave aptly calls it. And now come mounting reports of cholera caused by refugees ingesting contaminated water.
Washington, increasingly concerned by Pakistan's stability and loyalty, is rushing $1.5 billion in aid. Other nations have also promised modest aid. The total promised so far is around $230 million.
That's a drop in the bucket for Pakistan, one of the poorest places anywhere and, at 175 million, the world's sixth most populous nation. By contrast, quake-ravaged Haiti got over $1 billion in aid. Israel gets over $3.2 billion annually from the U.S. Congress. The U.S. war in Afghanistan is costing at least $17 billion monthly.
Pakistan was already teetering on the edge of bankruptcy before the floods. Previous governments had looted the treasury. Islamabad was kept on financial life support by steady injections of cash from Washington and from U.S.-controlled financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The military, Pakistan's shadow government, has been more or less rented by the U.S. for $1.5 billion per annum, plus all sorts of secret stipends from CIA and other intelligence agencies. Without Washington's aid, debt-laden Pakistan would probably collapse in short order.
Making matters worse, Islamabad's major cash-earner, cotton, has been severely damaged by the floods. Important food crops have been destroyed, meaning Pakistan will require emergency food aid in the coming twelve months.
The monsoon floods ravaging Pakistan could not have come at a worse time for Washington. The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is at best stalemated as Taliban and its allies gain strength.
In one of the Pentagon's worst nightmares, a rag tag force of lightly-armed Pashtun farmers and part-time fighters ("terrorists" in Washingtontalk) has managed to tie down 105,000 heavily armed, lavishly equipped US and NATO troops and has even has put the Western armies on the defensive.
There are even whispers in the bazaar that the Western powers may face defeat in Afghanistan. The New York Times just broke a front-page "exclusive" today about how CIA and Pakistani intelligence had arrested senior Taliban official Abdul Ghani Baradar last January in order to shut down secret peace talks between Taliban, Pakistan, and the Karzai government in Kabul.
The Times' exclusive was actually reported by this column months ago. Washington and its allies have been straining to stop Afghans from finding an end to their nine-year conflict.
Now, Russia, the former occupier, is giving increasing military and logistical help to the Western powers in Afghanistan and to the still powerful Afghan Communist Party. Talk about déjà vu.
The US and NATO could not continue their occupation of Afghanistan without use of Pakistan's ports, supply depots, air bases, roads, intelligence agencies, and the use of 140,000 rented Pakistani troops.
In 2001, the US threatened all-out war against Pakistan, according to its former strongman, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, unless it joined the fight against Taliban and accepted a high degree of US control. The sweetener: up to $15 billion in aid.
It was the classic Italian mafia offer: "lead or gold."
Now, Pakistan's cataclysmic floods have left the government of President Asif Ali Zardari in Islamabad isolated and despised by the public. The government's response to the inundations has been feeble and inept. Most of the rescue operations were conducted by the military, which still remains popular. Expect accusations that aid money is being stolen by corrupt government officials.
Washington recently arm-twisted the Zardari government into violating military tradition by extending, by an unprecedented three more years, the terms of the armed forces powerful chief of staff, Gen. Ashfak Kayani, and intelligence director, Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha, who are viewed with much favor by the US. The result is unrest in the military's senior ranks as promotions are frozen, and dismay among democrats who fear the US intends to impose a new military dictatorship on Pakistan.
President Zardari made an ill-timed trip to Britain during the floods, reminding Pakistanis that he still owns a lavish country mansion there acquired with funds that Swiss prosecutors claimed were obtained by massive kickbacks when his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, was in power. Before her death, she told me the mansion was bought with legitimate family funds. Zardari also owns a 16th century chateau in Normandy. Per capita income in Pakistan is only $1,000 per annum - about what it costs to clean the windows of Zardari's English country estate.
Pakistanis were furious at Zardari for swanning around Europe while over a third of the nation was drowning. Pakistan's parliament has stripped Zardari, whose popularity is at minus zero, of most of his important powers, handing them over to the amiable but weak prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, another compliant U.S. ally.
Washington promised some more aid, but its primary concern was not humanitarian but political: that Islamic charities and other Muslim groups opposing the US-led war in Afghanistan were delivering effective emergency aid while efforts by the corrupt, US-supported Zardari regime were failing.
This concern, however, seems besides the point since 95% of Pakistanis already hate the United States and see it as even a bigger enemy today than India. Islamic groups, some of them militant, have provided effective humanitarian aid in many nations whose U.S.-backed authoritarian governments do next to nothing for their people. This is the primary reason why groups branded "terrorists" by the US and its allies are so popular -- such as Hamas in Palestine, Hezbullah in Lebanon, and Pakistan's militant Islamic parties.
So another black eye for Washington. Unless Washington keeps pumping billions into Pakistan, the war in Afghanistan cannot be sustained. But how will demolished Pakistan ever be able to afford to rebuild all the roads, dams, irrigation canals, bridges, factories and houses destroyed by the floods? Or feed its people?
Everyone remembers how the New Orleans disaster deflated the arrogant President George W. Bush. Zardari and his allies certainly seem next in line for divine retribution.
It's just tragic that poor Pakistan has to pay the price.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2010