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For Pakistani Flood Victims, Is Worst Yet to Come?

August 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the need for aid in Pakistan worsens, new questions are being raised on whether the government can handle a crisis of this magnitude. Gwen Ifill talks to Shuja Nawaz, director of the Southeast Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, and Moeed Yusuf, the director of the Pakistan program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

GWEN IFILL: As the humanitarian crisis worsens, new questions are also being raised about whether the government of Pakistan is equipped to handle both this and ongoing regional security concerns. For more on that, we turn to Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, and Moeed Yusuf, director of the Pakistan program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Mr. Nawaz, as we hear about whose happening on the ground here and the magnitude of it, to what degree is there beginning to be worry that this is contributing to preexisting instability, not only in the government, but in Pakistan at large?

SHUJA NAWAZ, director of South Asia Center, The Atlantic Council: I think the worst is yet to come, even in terms of the flood, because the big wave has not yet reached Sindh.

And, clearly, this is such a vast area that’s been affected, as your reporter indicated, that, even with the government doing a lot, it has not been seen as having done a lot. The government faces a huge mountain of negative perceptions, of being inept and being corrupt. And it needs to show the people in a very transparent manner that it is actually doing something with what it has. And the aid is still not coming. A lot of it is pledged. It hasn’t hit the ground yet.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Yusuf, is Pakistan’s government as perceived, as being a weak civilian government, incapable of running itself, let alone dealing with disaster?

MOEED YUSUF, United States Institute of Peace: Well, I think the perception is true, to a large extent, but I think perceptions are greater than reality in this case.

I think there is a lot being done. The problem is — I have just come back from Pakistan after two weeks — the damage is colossal. And I would argue that even a developed country would have really found it hard to cope with this kind of challenge. So, I mean, given the inefficiencies and given the weakness in the system, you would expect this. Now, on the front lines is really the Pakistani army that is going out, that is better equipped to deal with these kind of situations. And they have always traditionally been very, very active in relief. So, I saw much more of them than of the civilian government and the civilian authorities out there.

GWEN IFILL: But, prior to this, the Pakistani army, Mr. Nawaz, was very much involved in the counterinsurgency that was supposed to be under way, especially in the Swat Valley, and that the United States had special interest in. Now that’s being replaced by relief work. Does one preclude the other?

SHUJA NAWAZ: Over time, it will have an effect.

For the time being, the army is saying that it will carry on its counterinsurgency efforts in the Northwest frontier, in FATA, the border region with Afghanistan, in particular.

But, clearly, with the infrastructure destroyed, with communications damaged, their own lines of communication will be affected and their ability to supply and to rotate those troops will be hindered.

GWEN IFILL: And our ability to rely on them and help with the war in Afghanistan is also compromised?

SHUJA NAWAZ: Over time, yes, it will be. And this is going to be a long-term situation in Pakistan. This is not something that will have a quick fix. There will be the three R’s, relief, reconstruction, rehabilitation. All three have to take place. And the economic effects of this are going to be around for many years to come.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Yusuf, there have been many questions raised about the degree to which the Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, or Islamic charities tied to groups like al-Qaida, extremist groups, have basically beat the government to the punch here, and, therefore, have strengthened their role, to the detriment, I guess, of the anti-terror effort that the U.S. and Pakistan have been working on.

MOEED YUSUF: Look, I mean, these people will always prey on miseries of the average citizen. And any time there is state failure, those who are most organized will come forward. You saw this in the earthquake in 2005. You would see this again. I mean, Islamic charities in Pakistan have traditionally been very much better organized than the government. Now, all of them are not associated with militant organizations. Some of them, unfortunately, are.

And, there, you have a vacuum which may be filled, and you can find more recruits out of the helplessness that people are facing at this point. So, that’s always a worry, quite frankly. And, in Pakistan, the discourse always becomes one of despondence very, very quickly. And you may get, you know, some people going in the other direction out of this.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s the question. Alienation, how much of a risk is it that this response, or the government’s perceived lack of response, and the degree to which other groups are responding increase alienation among people who were alienated in the first place?

SHUJA NAWAZ: I think, first, on the militant groups and their social services arms, these are the Punjabi militant groups. This is not the Taliban at work. And they are a small minority among the Islamic charities that are operating in Pakistan. So, we should put it in perspective.

But you’re right. The possibility of civil unrest and protests growing of the kind that your reporter also talked about exists, particularly if — and we expect this tragedy to linger for quite a while — and if the supplies do not reach people, if their homes are not rebuilt, if the infrastructure isn’t there, then there’s a huge danger.

One other thing I do want to mention, I think there’s always a temptation on the part of government that, when you’re getting aid, you postpone some of the other tougher economic decisions that you need to make to restructure the economy. Now, this government is actually in the process of trying to restructure its economy. And with those structural adjustments looming, particularly in the conversations with the IMF, it’s very critical that they not postpone those if aid starts coming in.

GWEN IFILL: We heard Saima Mohsin talk about the — comparing this to other disasters. Just — let’s just compare it to the 2008 earthquake. We know it’s much bigger, but how would you gauge the response? How would you compare it?

MOEED YUSUF: You know, quite frankly, I’m a bit struck by the lack of sort of enthusiasm in the international community when it really comes to going out and helping Pakistan this time around. There could be a number of factors. You know, there’s a financial meltdown that’s taken place. There’s a perception problem Pakistan suffers from — its government, at least — in terms of its image, of the corruption, the inefficiencies there. There could be an issue of the WikiLeaks stories coming out, and people already — I was at someplace this morning where there was a lot of resentment towards Pakistan for having not supported the U.S. well enough, and, thus, you know, difficulty for people to sort of go out and help Pakistan.

There could be a number of factors. But the fact of the matter is, this is the best opportunity the U.S. and the international community could have if you really want to turn the tide of anti-U.S. perception in that country. This is the chance to go out, put a big number to aid, and present to the Pakistani people that the U.S. and other international actors are coming in and doing what is required in this hour of need.

GWEN IFILL: Do you believe — do you agree with that, Mr. Nawaz?

SHUJA NAWAZ: I think it — it is a good opportunity, but it’s not just for the United States. I think it’s very important that the Europeans and — and Pakistan’s neighbors in the Muslim world also contribute. But, to date, they really haven’t. I mean, we know that the Saudi Arabia now has surpassed the U.S. as the leading aid-giver for this particular flood relief. But China has only given a few million. Iran has given $800,000. The UAE has not given anything. There is an NGO from the UAE working in Pakistan. So, there needs to be much broader effort.

GWEN IFILL: I have to ask you both about President Zardari, who was kind of missing in action, not in the country at the time that this happened, has made brief visits to the flood region, and is now, I suppose, out of the country again. I read today he was in Russia. How is he perceived in this, especially by the international community?

MOEED YUSUF: You know, it’s interesting. I was seeing this firsthand. And I have not seen the average Pakistani citizen on the street more bitter than I did on this occasion when President Zardari’s pictures, you know, in his chateau in France were sort of floating around on the media.

There was tremendous resentment. There has been some damage control. The prime minister has been out very often. The chief minister of Punjab Sindh, they have been out. But, frankly, I think the bitterness is going to be there, because the damage is so — so much. Just the scale of is so huge, that people are not going to accept the fact that the government is not doing anything and everything that they can.

GWEN IFILL: President Zardari’s role?

SHUJA NAWAZ: I think the president has an opportunity to try and redeem himself.

And the government needs to show people exactly what it is doing and what it is capable of doing. If they lose this opportunity, they won’t get another one.

GWEN IFILL: Shuja Nawaz and Moeed Yusuf, thank you both very much.

MOEED YUSUF: Pleasure.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you.