Throughout it all, the government has behaved as if clueless. The president chose to go to the UK during the onslaught of the slow motion catastrophe. Other senior officials have acted as if "let them eat cake" was the government motto. The ponderous, notoriously inefficient bureaucracies have responded to the demands of the crisis with the alacrity of a tranquilized snail. At all levels, the government wallahs have demonstrated a capacity for being out of touch with the realities faced by the hordes of dispossessed. Simultaneously, the legions of wallahs have exhibited they lack even the pretense of being in control of the situation.
Before the floods Pakistan was staggering along the ragged edge of failing as a state. Having shown a continuous unwillingness or inability to handle the Frankenstein monster created by the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the civilian government of President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani appeared to be heading down the tubes of a Taliban takeover. The lurching progress of the several highly touted but substantially inconclusive "offensives" undertaken by the Army did nothing to restore confidence in the longevity of the government.
Then came the floods.
Pakistan is no stranger to floods. The Indus river and its tributaries had been tamed only in small part by ambitious flood control projects underwritten in large measure by American money and engineering talent decades ago. Much of the progress made possible by these earlier excursions in civil engineering have been offset in recent years by deforestation along the upper reaches of the Indus watershed.
Pakistani and foreign observers alike prognosticated that the deforestation coupled with changes in population patterns and agriculture along with an apparent indifference on the part of both civilian and military governments to the risks assured that someday in the not distant future the granddaddy of all floods would make "Surf's Up!" the word of the day for the millions living along and dependent upon the Indus.
Despite the knowledge, the experience, and the warnings, the government of Pakistan was totally unready when the inevitable happened. If any segment of the government at any level had any plans for dealing with a monster flood as the monsoon rains fell, they must have borne the same relationship to reality as did the emergency plans of BP for handling an oil spill.
As the water heavy clouds of the monsoon parked themselves over the high country of Pakistan, the government made no preparations for the drearily predictable consequences of a lot of rain falling on deforested steep mountain sides plentifully provided with drainage channels--all of which ended at the Indus River. No emergency supplies were prepositioned. No first responders were given warning orders. No precautionary evacuations were ordered. There was a whole lot of nothing done on the part of the civilian government.
As the catastrophe unfolded with the horrid slowness of a Greek tragedy, the Islamabad government limited its first response (and its second response, third response and so on ad infinitum) to the default demand for foreign origin money. Rather than making even the slightest effort to take charge and move out on the disaster's consequences, the elected leadership of Pakistan simply shouted, "Send us money! Send us supplies! Send us helicopters! Send us! Send us!"
The outside world, the world of "infidels," did respond. Money was sent. Emergency supplies of all sorts were sent. Military assets such as helicopters, medical units, water purification plants were deployed. The US, the UK, other Western countries responded quickly, effectively, and generously.
Not only Western governments but Western based NGOs came in force. Whether official or non-governmental these outside agencies saved lives, housed the shelterless, provided food, water, medical assistance. Prodigies were undertaken so broken lives could start the process of recovery.
Even Pakistan's Official Main Enemy, India, sent money. Of course, the Pakistani government could not directly receive the tainted Indian rupees, instead requiring the foul five million dollars be furnished via the cleansing hands of the UN.
Pakistani Taliban and other groups favoring violent political Islam also responded to the demands of the emergency quickly, effectively, and generously. When not threatening Western aid groups or killing "infidel" aid workers, the Mighty Men of the Koran did provide food, shelter, medical attention along with propaganda materials to the refugees.
One indigenous entity stood out in the chaos of flood and refugees. The Pakistani army demonstrated that it, unlike the government, was not only willing but both ready and able to provide direct, real assistance to the displaced and dispossessed. The men and machines of the Pakistani Army and Air Force have shown a genuine capacity in rescue and relief work which was lacking in combat operations against Taliban.
The Army has increased its luster, its perceived legitimacy, in the estimate of Pakistani civilians generally, not simply those in the disaster zone. As the government's star has fallen, that of the military has risen.
It is not surprising that the first major call for the Army to take back its governing role has come in recent days. Altaf Hussain, the head of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), has called upon Pakistan's "patriotic generals" to oust the "corrupt politicians." The MQM is not some sort of minor league outfit and Altaf Hussain is not a fringe orator.
He may be in exile at the moment but the government depends upon the twenty-five parliamentarians who are members of MQM to stay in power. This means MQM can choose to force a vote of no-confidence. At this point the government would fall and political chaos might ensue. Not a pretty thought.
Considering that the Army has run Pakistan for more than half of its sixty-three years of independent existence, the call for the "patriotic generals" to take on the task one more time must be taken seriously. The civilian government has given even its most ardent supporters reason for pause.
In large measure the characterization of the civilian politicians as "corrupt" is well supported by the record over its term in power. Corruption, inefficiency, duplicity, arrogance, are all justifiable accusations. The paralysis exhibited by the Zardari/Gilani government has shredded whatever credibility it may have possessed. The lack of effective response by the government has erased any functional legitimacy it may have held only a month ago.
In Pakistan a civilian government has no particular existential legitimacy. The absence of a strong history of civilian government precludes existential legitimacy. This means that the civilian government to survive can depend only on functional legitimacy--the perceived capacity and will of the government to address effectively the needs and fears of its citizens.
At the moment the civilian government has no perceived functional legitimacy in the estimate of the vast majority of Pakistanis. This reality opens a couple of unpleasant (from the US perspective at least) doors.
One of these leads directly to another military coup. The US is opposed to this. In Pakistan as in the world generally, the US supports civilian democratic rule as the best alternative. Current US declaratory policy is to reject any support for a military junta in Islamabad. There is reason to believe the Army is not in a hurry to leave the barracks and return to the presidential palace only two years after relinquishing power to elected civilians.
Then, there is the second door. That door opens on a very unpleasant, highly unstable scene of political chaos. Neither MQM nor any other party has a good chance of gaining a majority in any somewhat fair election. A party with a plurality would still have to form a coalition in order to govern. This task would not be simple and straightforward. Pakistan is not the UK. Neither is it Australia. In those countries the formation of a coalition might be difficult but it is certainly not impossible.
In Pakistan the word "impossible" comes to mind quickly. The basis for this conclusion is easy to find. In Pakistan today the electoral process like that of the Fourth French Republic leads rapidly to unstable coalitions of improvised nature forcing unlikely bedmates to make quick deals and easy promises. The result is a series of broken promises, dead on arrival deals and collapsed coalitions.
The political dynamic of revolving door governments would benefit only Taliban and similar advocates of political Islam. The deals and counter-deals, promises made lightly and broken easily, a parade of minority governments, would destabilize Pakistan, ruin American policy ambitions in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and highly probably bring Taliban to power.
Faced with chaos it is improbable in the extreme that the Obama administration would continue its blind faith in the virtues of civilian government and "democratic" elections. It is even more improbable that the Pakistani military would stay true to its recently discovered faith in civilian supremacy.
Given the second door, the first does not look so unattractive. Perhaps the least-worst world is one where the Pakistani Army shrugs its collective shoulders and takes over one more time and the US accepts the accomplished feat. Now or in the very near future would be the least-worst time for the armed forces of Pakistan and the "progressives" of Washington to take a firm grip on the realities since the best time to ride the wave is when the tide is rising.
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