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Pakistan: Hobson's choice

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October 24, 2005 15:29 IST

Politics doesn't even respect natural disasters; in fact, it revels in them.

This axiom is unfolding itself once again in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that ravaged much of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and northern parts of the Pakistani state of North West Frontier Province.

Much like the physical aftershocks that result from the earth trying to settle itself after a tectonic shift, the political aftershocks are also the result of the jostling among political players for a new equilibrium in the post-quake situation.

Only, given the peculiar political geography of the affected areas, the number of players trying to maximise the benefit they can derive out of the political opportunity afforded by the earthquake are more than normal.

At stake is not only the peace process between India and Pakistan but also the political future of the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir and with it, of the Pervez Musharraf regime and its core constituency, the Pakistan army.

The difference between India and Pakistan

Currently, there is political gamesmanship between India and Pakistan on relief and rehabilitation in the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir. Then there is the political tussle inside Pakistan in which opposition political parties are criticising the rather tardy relief and rescue operations mounted by the quasi-military regime in the country.

There are the jihadis, who are not only using the opportunity to expand their support base in a region dotted with their terror training camps, but have also taken their terror activity into a higher gear inside Jammu and Kashmir to demonstrate that their terror capability remains pretty much in tact.

And finally, there is the politics within the state of Jammu and Kashmir between the pro-India, pro-Pakistan and pro-independence elements to burnish their image. A competition of sorts is also underway between the armies of India and Pakistan to steal a march over the other in earning goodwill of the people of the state.

Unlike the Indian army which has come out smelling of roses because of its prompt response to the calamity, General Musharraf and his army have drawn a lot of flak for their rather tardy efforts in the first few days. Already comparisons are being drawn with the super-cyclone that ravaged East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1970.

Then, as now, a military government was in power in Pakistan. East Pakistan of those days and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir of today face a degree of political unrest but with the crucial difference that while in the former there was political movement against the federation of Pakistan, in the latter, politics is in a state of flux following the parallel pursuit of peace process and jihad in Jammu and Kashmir.

Then, as now, the delayed and inadequate relief, rescue and rehabilitation operations and general insensitivity of the military top-brass created seething resentment against the army. In the case of East Pakistan the resentment against the Pakistan army boiled over, culminating in the creation of Bangladesh.

How the people of PoK and NWFP react to the army's failure to act promptly in providing relief and rescue, remains to be seen. But one thing is clear, the image of the Pakistan army, already quite low among the people of Pakistan, has taken a big hit after the earthquake.

Of late, the criticism in the media has been toned down because of "press advisories" that the regime has issued to newspapers and television channels, but the damage has been done. And unless things now change for the better on the ground, no amount of propaganda will restore the credibility of the government.

The opposition parties have been quick to seize on this failure and have been scathingly critical of the military regime. For the moment however the opposition has decided to not take to the streets in protest against the ham-handed handling of relief operations by the army. Doing so would probably open the opposition to the charge of playing politics with a monumental tragedy.

So the opposition has adopted a twin line of attack: concentrating on criticising the government in the media and at other forums and carrying out relief operations of their own. In this, the Jamaat Islami and other jihadi groups like the Jamatud Dawa (parent organisation of the terrorist organisation, Lashkar-e-Tayiba) and the Hizbul Mujahideen have been at the forefront of providing succour to the hapless people and have won all-round acclaim for being far more efficient than the official machinery.

'Opening LoC will harm Pakistan'

Compared to the Pakistan army which despite its heavy concentration throughout PoK took nearly four days to get its act together and even then failed to function in an efficient manner, the jihadi and other right-wing radical groups were at ground zero in double-quick time.

What is more, while the insensitive and callous attitude of the military regime -- the Peshawar Corps Commander saying that not more than a 1000 people have died, the education minister who is a former chief of ISI saying that it is not the responsibility of the army to provide relief in natural disasters, another minister saying that airdrops of relief packages could not be made because of the fear that they may cause casualties on the ground and that it took a cabinet decision to parachute relief supplies to affected areas -- has added insult to injury.

On the other hand, the jihadi and radical groups have been engaged in selfless service without any of the condescending attitude of the regime. Not only have the Islamists provided relief, they have even restored law and order in the affected areas, replacing both the collapsed civil administration as well as the military in these areas.

The net affect of all this has been that it has raised the stock of the Islamists around the country and further compromised the ability of the Musharraf regime to rein in the jihadi groups, the ramifications of which will be serious for the peace process with India.

Jihadis to adopt quake orphans

Having failed to act promptly enough on the relief and rescue front, the quasi-military regime in Pakistan now faces the daunting task of rehabilitating the affected people. While the initial delayed response will always be held against the Pakistan army, the regime can regain a degree of legitimacy and respectability by ensuring speedy rehabilitation.

But the sheer scale of the disaster -- over 75,000 people dead, entire towns and villages destroyed and nearly 2.5 million people rendered homeless -- puts it beyond both the resources as well as ability of the Pakistani government to handle this Herculean task on its own.

Initial estimates put the cost of rehabilitation at over US$ 5 billion over the next five years. While a small amount of aid can be expected from the international community, much of the resources will have to be garnered from within the country. Donations by citizens will help up to a point, but ultimately the government will have to garner resources by increasing revenue and cutting expenditure.

Unless properly handled, collecting resources by either excessive taxation or diverting resources from the development stream could send the economy in a tailspin. The only real option is to postpone some big ticket defence purchases like the 80 odd F-16 fighter aircraft and affecting other cuts in the defence budget.

Already, a number of commentators have asked the government to prove its commitment to the Kashmiris, in whose name Pakistan has been holding hostage its relations with India. Warning bells have been sounded that unless the government can show to the Kashmiris how much it cares, and do this by putting its money where its mouth is, Pakistan's 'beloved Kashmir cause' would be damaged beyond repair.

Of tents, politics and greed

This realisation is slowly sinking into the heads of the top-brass, and this is the reason why the Pakistani government has somewhat clumsily made the proposal of throwing open the LoC so that Kashmiris on the Indian side could participate in the relief and rehabilitation efforts inside PoK.

Any Indian participation in the relief and rehabilitation effort (whether this is in the form of providing the desperately needed helicopter support or through opening up routes along the LoC for relief supplies and people who wish to lend a hand to their relatives in putting their lives back on track) will not go a long way in increasing Pakistan's capacity in assisting the affected people.

More importantly, it holds the potential for changing the entire complexion of the Kashmir problem between India and Pakistan. If General Musharraf is indeed serious about the solution to Kashmir lying in "making the border irrelevant," then something good could come out of this disaster.

But a caveat is in order here. Even as the two states cooperate in rehabilitating the affected people in Jammu and Kashmir, the non-state actors -- namely the jihadi organisations -- could play spoilers and derail the reconciliation process between the two states.

The fact that the Indian army's image has soared among the Kashmiris and the army is no longer perceived as an occupying force but as a friend, has lent an urgency to the terrorist activities in the Indian state.

As a result, we are likely to witness heightened terrorist activity in the state designed to disrupt the relief and rehabilitation work being carried out by the armed forces as also to send a message that even a calamity as momentous as the earthquake will not make the jihadis back off from their jihad.

Complicating matters will be the soaring image of the Islamists inside Pakistan, which will make it difficult for the Pakistani regime to crackdown on them. Many mullahs are carrying out the propaganda that the earthquake is a punishment from heaven for deviating from the Islamic path and for the U-turn on Kashmir by the Musharraf regime.

With schools destroyed, madarssas beckon

So even as the Indian government opens up the LoC and allows movement of Kashmiris to and from PoK, heightened terrorist activity will force India to demand a crackdown on the jihadi infrastructure inside Pakistan and PoK. This will confront Pakistan with a Hobson's choice: if it fails to respond adequately, then all bets are off on the peace process; if it responds positively, then it would have to face a jihadi fallout inside the country.

But in the latter case we could witness a paradigm shift in Indo-Pak relations and consequently a possible solution to the Kashmir problem.


Sushant Sareen