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Can Pakistan's government stay afloat? Add to ...

The massive flooding in Pakistan has not only created a tide of human misery but a political torrent that could yet sweep away the pro-Western government and deal a blow to the country's battle against Taliban militants.

The secular political parties that run the national government and the provincial administration in the crucial northwest are the focus for popular anger for the inept response to the crisis, with 20 million people affected, of whom eight million are in urgent need of shelter, food and water.

Conversely, the military, with its rescue work, has come out of the crisis better than the politicians, tipping the always delicate civil-military balance in Pakistan back in favour of the armed forces, which have ruled Pakistan for most of its history. Democracy was re-established just over two years ago.

Flooding has devastated a large swath of territory, about one-fifth of the country's land mass, but its impact will be felt across the country and beyond. The waters wiped out Pakistan's agricultural heartland and, with the diversion of military resources to cope with the crisis - about 60,000 troops are involved in the effort - new anti-Taliban operations in the northwest are almost certainly off the agenda for now.

Pakistan's help is considered crucial to stabilizing Afghanistan. The leadership of the Afghan insurgency and the top command of al-Qaeda are both believed to be based in Pakistan. The country is also fighting a bloody domestic campaign against its own Taliban militants.

Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country of 180 million people, housing tens of thousands of trained jihadists. It was already struggling to cope with an economy near collapse, a raging insurgency and an uncertain political dispensation. If the country is further destabilized, the impact will be felt across the globe.

"The shifting of the army's focus toward disaster management gives the Taliban and al-Qaeda elements space and time to try to expand their activities in Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan," said Stratfor, the geopolitical consultancy based in the United States, in a recent report. "The deterioration of social and economic circumstances creates the perfect atmosphere for jihadists to realize their goals of undermining the state."

NATO-led international forces across the border had been pressing Pakistan to launch a military offensive in North Waziristan, part of the country's tribal area, which is used by the fearsome Haqqani group of Afghan insurgents as a refuge. It had been hoped by NATO that such a push on the Pakistani side of the border could accompany the Kandahar operation, now under way.

"There was a lot of hope in the U.S. military that there will be movement in North Waziristan, come September or October," said Simbal Khan, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Islamabad funded by the government. "Now the Pakistan army has a very good excuse."

One of the areas hardest hit by flooding is the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), which is also the region on the front line of the battle against the Pakistani Taliban.

The provincial government's information minister, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, who lost his son recently to a Taliban assassin, warned last week: "Resurgence of militancy in the region can pose a serious threat to the country, if the KP government does not get immediate help from the federal government and the international community."

The floods swept away crops in Pakistan's breadbasket, following the course of the Indus River. That means that food prices will increase across the country and the loss of a large portion of the cotton crop will hurt Pakistan's top export, textiles.

According to a conservative estimate from Pakistan's Federal Flood Commission, more than 1.6 million hectares of agricultural land were inundated. The government has suggested that the floods could halve the projected 4.5-per-cent economic growth for this year, though that still seems optimistic.

Under a worst-case scenario, this economic ruin and lack of government assistance could lead to social unrest, perhaps even a breakdown in state authority in some areas. That could tip the military to again seize political power, though probably behind a civilian team that would front any new regime.

The most painful episode in Pakistan's tumultuous 63-year history was the breakaway of the eastern wing of the country in 1971, to form Bangladesh. That crisis was hugely exacerbated by the horrific cyclone of 1970, sparking a popular backlash against the government of West Pakistan for its callous response. Some are seeing parallels with the current natural disaster.

While the government has bristled at the gloomier predictions, President Asif Zardari, whose absence at the beginning of the flooding crisis spurred the impression that the government is detached from the crisis, has said that the Taliban "would exploit this situation."

"I am sending an S.O.S. on that. All such catastrophes give strength to those forces which do not want a state structure," Mr. Zardari said at the end of last week.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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