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Originally published August 13, 2010 at 7:42 PM | Page modified August 13, 2010 at 8:38 PM

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Pakistan flood disaster may destabilize nation

The humanitarian and economic disaster caused by the worst floods in Pakistan's history could spark political unrest that could destabilize the government, dealing a major blow to the Obama administration's efforts to fight violent Islamic extremism.

McClatchy Newspapers

ISLAMABAD — The humanitarian and economic disaster caused by the worst floods in Pakistan's history could spark political unrest that could destabilize the government, dealing a major blow to the Obama administration's efforts to fight violent Islamic extremism.

The government's shambling response to floods that have affected one-third of the country has some analysts saying President Asif Ali Zardari could be forced from office, possibly by the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half its 63-year history.

Other experts caution the nation could collapse, as hunger and destitution trigger unrest in a populace already seething over massive unemployment, high fuel prices, widespread power outages, corruption and a bloody insurgency by extremists allied with al-Qaida.

"The powers that be, that is the military and bureaucratic establishment, are mulling the formation of a national government, with or without the PPP (Zardari's ruling Pakistan Peoples Party)," said Najam Sethi, editor of the weekly Friday Times.

"There is a perception in the army that you need good governance to get out of the economic crisis and there is no good governance," he said.

The Obama administration stepped up emergency aid this week to $76 million, anxious to counter the influence of Islamic extremist groups that are feeding and housing victims through charitable front organizations in areas the government hasn't reached.

Some U.S. officials worry those groups could exploit the crisis to recruit new members and bolster their fight to impose hard-line Islamic rule on nuclear-armed Pakistan.

"I think the mid- to long-term radicalization threat accelerates because of the mass migration and the frustration that is coming from this," said Thomas Lynch, a research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

Pakistan is battling militant groups led by the Pakistani Taliban, whose strongholds on the country's northwestern fringe also provide bases to al-Qaida, the Afghan Taliban and allied extremists fighting NATO and Afghan troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

The Pentagon said Friday that a three-ship task force carrying 2,000 Marines, Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, transport helicopters and relief supplies is sailing for Pakistan. It will replace the USS Peleliu, an amphibious assault vessel steaming off the port of Karachi that has lent 19 helicopters and 1,000 Marines to the aid operations.

U.S. officials, who requested anonymity, downplayed the threat of near-term political upheaval, and they dismissed the danger of a coup, saying that the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, wants the military out of politics.

"The military is perfectly happy to let the civilian government screw up," one U.S. official said. "The military does not want to take over because they get blamed for all the deficiencies in government."

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The potential for serious turmoil, these U.S. officials said, will grow after the floods subside. Then the government must deal with the task of rebuilding roads, bridges and other infrastructure and caring for millions of impoverished, mostly rural people who've lost their homes, crops and livestock.

The floods have affected 14 million people, of whom at least 1,600 have died and some 3 million have been left homeless. However, the impact will be felt throughout the impoverished country of 180 million.

The World Bank said Friday that an estimated $1 billion worth of crops have been wiped out, raising the specter of food shortages. Damage to irrigation canals, the bank added, will reduce crop yields once the floodwaters are gone.

The situation worsened Friday as authorities ordered the evacuation of Jacobabad, a city of 1.4 million people in southern Sindh province, and forecasters warned that fresh monsoon rains in the mountainous northwest would send a new wave of flooding south down the central Indus River valley over the weekend.

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