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Saving Pakistan

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-06-13

Three million people have been displaced by a huge military operation to oust the Taliban from north-western Pakistan. The government needs to take the lead in bringing them assistance quickly, says analyst Samina Ahmed.

When President Barack Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan announced an additional $200 million in US assistance for internally displaced persons from Swat, it surely gave some a bit of a political respite for Pakistan's young civilian government. Faced with three million new domestic refugees as a result of its military action to oust the Taliban from Malakand District, Islamabad could only welcome Richard Holbrooke's pledge.

Unfortunately, however, it will not mean immediate support for those most in need right now. The wheels of politics, diplomacy and legislation — the money still has to be approved by the US Congress — turn slowly.

Other major international organisations trying to cope with the crisis are also finding it difficult to address the huge needs quickly.

The United Nations called for $280 million in food aid for displaced people in the north-west but so far has received less than half that amount, and its full $543 million humanitarian plan is only 22% funded.

At current rates, stocks of drugs will not last the month.

The international community's inability to respond quickly enough has created a relief vacuum — which radical organisations are already filling.

As they did in the aftermath of Pakistan's 2005 earthquake, religious extremist groups opposed the military campaign and are exploiting relief efforts to advance their agenda.

Communities displaced by a badly planned war may be especially vulnerable to jihadist indoctrination.

In short, the government could win today's battle for territory but lose the longer-term battle for the hearts and minds of its own citizens.

Of course, a significant part of the problem is that the army's current operation is simply coming too late.

Rather than resolutely confronting the Taliban earlier, both military and civilian governments chose a worst-of-all-worlds policy, alternating the use of haphazard force with short-sighted appeasement deals with militants. This only strengthened the Taliban, making today's fight many times more difficult than it would have been a few years ago.

The army's use of heavy force, its failure to address the full cost to civilians and its refusal to allow effective humanitarian access to conflict zones have already been counter-productive.

Another danger is that the military will exploit any success on the battlefield and in its own relief efforts to try to dominate reconstruction to win public support and bolster its standing in the country.

Despite Pakistan's transition to civilian rule in February 2008, the military continues to dominate key institutions, and it will take some time to tame its ambitions fully.

If Pakistan is going to emerge from this crisis a more stable country and a stronger democracy, all assistance efforts — relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction — have to be civilian-led. They must be responsive to the needs of local people and empower their communities. Beating radical Islamist groups and the army in the aid game is a key to winning this war.

Thankfully, there is still broad public and political support for moving against the Taliban. In the ideal scenario, communities displaced by Taliban rule and armed conflict would become powerful constituencies for peace after being properly rehabilitated and returned to home areas where the rule of law is enforced and economic activity renewed.

Donor nations need to do more than just fulfil their funding pledges. They also have to support democratic civilian rule in reconstruction efforts by engaging local community-based groups, non-governmental organisations and the elected federal government rather than the military, and by insisting on independent oversight mechanisms.

Three million displaced people is a crisis, of course. But if assistance is implemented quickly and managed efficiently with the elected government in the lead, the crisis also presents an opportunity to reinforce moderate secular voices in Pakistan. Islamabad and its international partners cannot afford to miss this chance.

Date created : 2009-06-10