Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Musharraf's Katrina:
Musharraf seized power in a coup, six years ago, and at the time he described the Army as the “last institution of stability left in Pakistan”—the only body disciplined enough to fix the country’s ills. Since then, he has expanded the military’s influence in national life, yet, when the earthquake hit, the Army appeared neither efficient nor consumed by any sense of urgency. The Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, a coalition of opposition parties, demanded an official investigation into what its spokesman called “the failure of the Army high command.” The United Nations warned that thousands of earthquake survivors could die from exposure if relief did not reach them before winter, yet, ten days after the earthquake struck, Musharraf’s government signed a billion-dollar contract for Swedish military surveillance aircraft, a bewildering priority. The Friday Times, one of Pakistan’s leading newspapers, suggested in a front-page editorial that Musharraf’s insistence on heavy defense spending might explain the slow pace of donations to the U.N. for earthquake relief: “If you were a Westerner asked to provide humanitarian financial assistance to a country led by a military government obsessed with the regional ‘military balance,’ what would you think?” A week later, Musharraf announced that he would postpone buying American-made F-16 fighter jets, at least until the financial pressures of earthquake relief had eased.

At a news conference, he dismissed criticism of his government’s performance as irresponsible harping by media skeptics and discredited politicians. “Panic and alarm in the face of a calamity are signs of weakness and defeat—let’s come out of that,” he said. He vowed to “prove the cynics wrong” by rallying the troops and attracting support from Western military allies. Adding to his difficulties was the fact that many of the hardest-hit villages were in Kashmir, whose land and people are at the center of Pakistan’s most emotional national cause—the fifty-eight-year conflict with India over its political destiny. He said that the Army was moving into Kashmir, and that aid would reach the region’s stranded victims by winter. The Army’s sluggish reaction may be explained, in part, by its own heavy losses in the area where the quake hit. According to an Army spokesman, four hundred and fifty officers and soldiers died on the first day, and seven hundred and eleven were injured. To judge by the damage I saw in Army camps in Kashmir, the actual toll may be higher; scores of Army wives and children also perished as cantonments and schools collapsed.

And sometimes disaster relief creates strange bedfellows:
Musharraf has said that as long as the jihadi groups concentrate on peaceful social work, he is prepared to tolerate them; at the same time, he says that he intends to keep a close watch on them. The earthquake-relief effort in Muzaffarabad has made plain Musharraf’s dilemma, and has drawn together the two sides of his ungainly balancing act: his coöperation with the United States in fighting terrorism and his attempt to appease, or at least manage, Pakistani groups that the United States has identified as terrorists. Less than a mile from the main Jamaat ud-Dawa camp in the Azad Kashmir capital, the U.S. Army has erected a field hospital. American Humvees on break from chasing remnant Al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan were sharing Muzaffarabad’s streets with ambulances from the Al Rashid Trust, a Pakistani charity whose funds were blocked by the Bush Administration in 2001 because of accusations that it aided Al Qaeda. Musharraf’s political position has been perilous ever since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, when he supported the United States; members of one group that Musharraf has singled out, Jaish e-Mohammed, attempted to assassinate him in December, 2003. The success of jihadi groups in providing earthquake relief have only strengthened their claims to legitimacy in Pakistan.

At Musharraf’s invitation, soldiers and relief workers from European and NATO countries have also come to Azad Kashmir. Two months earlier, the region was a closed security zone, to which foreigners typically could not travel without an escort and a special permit. Now small crowds of local men gathered to watch with apparent admiration as female European soldiers shopped in their food stalls. Pakistan has unsuccessfully sought to turn the conflict into an international matter, with the United States and European powers directly involved, and helping to push for a settlement; at least temporarily, the outside world, thanks to the earthquake, has finally come to Kashmir.


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