Pakistan’s flood underscores a basic paradox in humanitarian operations, writes William Dowell.  The single organization that has the most helicopters and logistics capacity  to provide immediate relief is the US military, yet because the of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, any aid from the US government is likely to be problematic, especially in areas that were pre-flood hotbeds of Islamic fundamentalism.

Geneva — While the international community ponders its options, a chunk of Pakistan territory roughly matching the size of Italy is now underwater and largely inaccessible. Although the floods are gradually receding in the north, the mass of water is moving towards the south where the population is denser. Instead of diminishing, the crisis may actually increase in intensity.  The irony for the US is that while almost any action it takes in Pakistan is likely to be regarded with suspicion, a  failure to deal with the crisis could seriously affect the US as well as the world’s strategic interests throughout the region.

The flooding has been so dramatic that even the UN headquarters here in Geneva is uncertain about exactly how many people really are in desperate need of help.  The Pakistan government estimates that more than 20 million people have been affected. The UN says anywhere from six million to eight million are in serious need of immediate assistance and an estimated 900,000 homes have been completely destroyed.  The World Health Organization in Geneva reported Friday that more than 400,000 Pakistanis are suffering from acute diarrhea from being forced to drink polluted water, and another 120,000 are suffering from respiratory diseases. At least four million people are now without shelter.   Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, speaking at the UN last week, described the current situation as a “tsunami in slow motion,” with consequences that are likely to accumulate and grow larger with time.

Emilia Casella, a spokesperson, for the World Food Programme in Geneva, lists increasing airlift capacity as a top priority.  “We can reach some of these areas one day, and then the next we can’t” she says.

The WFP’s goal is to provide food for six million people, but so far has only been able to reach 1.2 million.  It has been reduced to relying on 15 helicopters that can carry around three metric tons each. Ten of the helicopters are on loan from the Pakistani army. WFP has received authorization to bring five more civilian helicopters into the country, and it would like to have more, but whether it could actually use them is academic.  “The point is that we don’t even have funding for the five new helicopters that we have,” says Casella.  She adds that WFP would not hesitate to fly food in on any kind of transport including the US military, but that depends on political decisions beyond the control of the WFP.  Thomas Schwarz, a communications officer for CARE International who has been working in the stricken area, agrees that at this point, people don’t care who provides the assistance. “When you are on the ground,” Schwarz told me in a phone interview from Pakistan, “you don’t care who is providing assistance, you just take it.”

Despite urgent calls from the UN and the crash meeting of the UN Security Council on Thursday, the rest of the world has been unusually slow to realize just how desperate the situation in Pakistan really is.  Melanie Brooks, who coordinates communications for CARE’s emergency group based in Geneva, says that CARE’s current funding for the crisis at CARE is hovering at around 15% of the amount that is actually needed.  “We have had two massive disasters in one year,”  Brooks explains.  “People extended themselves to help out in Haiti, and then this happened. It is hard to remember when you had two crises of this magnitude at the same time.”  Brooks adds that it is hard for most people to understand the implications of the crisis when all they see is news photos of people wading through water.  When the flood first began, she says, even humanitarian organizations mistook it for standard seasonal flooding. “It took us a few days to realize what was really happening.”

If nothing is done to help the victims of the flood, the political fallout could turn out to be far reaching.  The problem is not just the flood, but the economic chaos that is going to follow the loss of farm land and any means of earning a living for the people most affected. The Food and Agricultural Organization reports that some 200,000 farm animals died as a result.  “You might be able to take a chicken in the boat with you,” commented an aid worker,  “but the cows, donkeys and oxen had to be left behind.”

Endemic corruption may make donors hesitant about forking over cash, but it is now likely to have an even more explosive impact on Pakistan’s political future. The UN’s High Commission for Refugees is concerned that speculators may try to make a grab for temporarily abandoned by 1.7 million Afghan refugees, some of whom have been living in camps along Pakistan’s border for more nearly 30 years.   Even ordinary Pakistanis are likely to end up fighting for the right to return to the land that is currently underwater.  The struggle for survival will put unprecedented pressures on an already struggling regime, and that can have unpleasant consequences.

A scary scenario is that if the chaos gets out of control, the army may be tempted to seize power again, and considering that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, the consequences could be serious.

It was the Pakistan army’s intelligence service, the ISI, which originally helped to put the Taliban into power in Afghanistan.  The ISI’s original support for the Taliban was intended to give it an extra card to play in Afghanistan. The Pakistan army has traditionally seen its real enemy as India, and allies on its border counted more than western concerns about Islamic extremism. Factions in the army have continued to have ambivalent feelings about both the US war in Afghanistan and the attempts to crack down on the radicals in the border areas.

In the days immediately following the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center,  was confronted with George W. Bush’s simplistic Manichean vision of the world at war.  Like the Texas gunslinger he aspired to be, Bush announced that countries were either with us or against us.  Not signing up for the “Global War on Terror,” often referred to as GWOT,  meant meant a quick assignment to the US enemies list.  Pakistan made the pragmatic choice, but not everyone was convinced.  It is even less so now that the US and the international community are showing signs of fatigue with what looks increasingly like an impossible to win war in Afghanistan.

“If you put yourself in Pakistan’s position, cooperating with the US doesn’t make any sense,” says Emily Pantalone, a Tufts University student, who has been  researching a book on the conflict in Afghanistan.  Pakistan knows that the US will eventually withdraw from Afghanistan, and that Karzai is unlikely to hold onto power without US support.  If the Taliban takes over Afghanistan, it is going to be against Pakistan’s interest to have alienated the prospective leaders just across its border, especially since a homegrown Taliban insurgency has been making its presence felt in Pakistan’s northwest frontier provinces.

At the moment,  Pakistan’s civilian government is the best source of leverage that Washington has in Pakistan, and it is not in anyone’s interests to see that government replaced by a military wild card. The US has stepped up its humanitarian aid commitment from $90 million to $150 million. Even with that boost, however, it seems doubtful that international aid agencies have either the manpower, the funding or the logistical resources to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.  Both the US and to a lesser extent much of Europe have been more interested in putting the lion’s share of their investment into military operations, which always seem more immediately pressing than humanitarian considerations.

Pakistan’s current crisis, however, may be only the first event in a growing trend to emergencies that are likely to impact on the region’s long term stability, and the turmoil that results may not be limited to only South Asia. Randolph Kent, who heads the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King’s College, London, notes that the interaction between technology and increasing population means that an event in one region is likely to have an impact on others.

“We are creating a series of crisis-drivers that impact on each other,” Kent warns. “In certain areas of the Hindu Kush region, the sheer volume of water in some of these dams could literally trigger earthquakes.”

Kent recommends taking a strategic long-term approach to regional vulnerability that extends beyond national borders.  “How governments react to humanitarian crises,” he warns,  “is at the “core of the very survival of governments.”  If we want these governments to survive—in short, if we want to stave off anarchy—we may want to rethink our priorities and redirect the billions of dollars that are now being spent.  Instead of wasting seemingly endless amounts of cash on manufacturing predator drones and other space-age hardware in the hopes of ending conflict, we might want to think about putting more of our resources into alleviating some of the humanitarian pressures that are the root cause of these  conflicts that we find so difficult to solve.