- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2005

Unless the West acts very fast, areas of rural Pakistan affected by the devastating earthquake will turn into breeding grounds for Islamist recruiters looking to sign up jihadis from among the hundreds of thousands of victims.

This crisis should be treated with the same urgency as the war on terrorism, because that is precisely what it is. This is the real mother of all battles for the hearts, minds and souls of the region’s youth. They can be future citizens of Pakistan, or future jihadis. Their future is in our hands.

The Oct. 8, magnitude 7.6 quake killed about 25,000 people — though the numbers are expected to rise, maybe even double, once all victims are recovered, and information from remote villages and towns start trickling into Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

Those are catastrophic numbers by any standard; it would be the equivalent of almost 50,000 people dying in the United States. Yet, as horrendous as that is, it is the survivors, the ones left behind, who stand to suffer the most. Most vulnerable are the now homeless women and children, stranded in the street, with nowhere to go and no one to care for them.

But just as worrisome, if not more so, at least from a strategic viewpoint, are the tens of thousands of young men who overnight find themselves alone, homeless, jobless, penniless and ripe for the recruiter from any of the militant politicized Islamist organizations, of which there is no shortage in Pakistan.

Exactly how many people the devastation left destitute is not yet known, but international relief agencies and Pakistani officials say the final number could easily top 2 million. Some reports predict as many as 4 million.

The earthquake destroyed more than 80 percent of structures in parts of northern Pakistan and strong aftershocks threaten buildings already damaged by the initial quake.

Assuming the lower estimates are correct, and assuming among the 2 million there is only a small percentage — just 1 percent — of males ages 15-45, you still end up with 20,000 possible recruits. Again, assuming only 1 percent of those potential recruits respond favorably and joins the mujahedin or any of the radical Islamist groups, that is still 200 possible future jihadis. More realistically, the numbers could be in the tens of thousands, if not more.

As a reminder, it took only 19 men to carry out the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In view of the scale of the earthquake catastrophe in Pakistan, the real problem is how to aid the survivors and will provide that assistance. It is important international relief organizations reach those in need before the Islamists do. If it means deploying NATO or U.S. forces toward that end, then it should be considered. But time should not be wasted as you can be sure the recruiters are already there, among the people, offering whatever help they can.

U.N. coordinator Undersecretary General for Emergency Relief Jan Egeland, who was touring the area around Muzaffarabad described the situation on the ground as “desperate.”

It will get far worse unless massive aid starts arriving without further delay. Many cities and villages have been wiped out in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and the North-West Frontier Province, the most affected areas. NWFP abuts Afghanistan and is where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding. He could soon offer many more people refuge in his cave. His fighters are believed to frequently trek back and forth across the Pakistan-Afghan frontier.

As rescue teams from around the world rushed in to assist victims caught in the foothills of the Himalayas, where night temperatures drop below zero, so too have some mujahedin familiar with the terrain and already on the ground.

Radio France International, citing its correspondent in the quake-affected areas, reported witnesses in one village, saw mujahedin arrive with blankets, food and medicine for survivors. Some reports mentioned Kashmiri fighters making their way through the rubble to save victims trapped under demolished homes and schools. These fighters know their way around the craggy hills of Kashmir.

But as international humanitarian aid continued arriving — planeloads of medicine, tents, blankets and food — Pakistani officials at times complained the aid was coming too slowly.

About 50 helicopters are used to ferry the wounded, but officials say many more are needed. Also urgently needed is shelter, particularly winterized tents, since snow already has begun falling in some regions.

“With wintry conditions arriving in the higher elevations, children are facing a potentially deadly combination of cold, malnutrition and disease,” said UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman in New York. “Most housing has been destroyed in the hardest-hit areas, so the survival of thousands of young children is now at stake. Shelter, nutrition and health care for children must be a priority.”

Indeed, it must. But so must be not only assistance, blankets, water and tents, but also getting to those young people a comprehensive program to keep them involved and away from jihadist recruiters. A sort of Pakistani Peace Corps should be created and financed by Uncle Sam.

This is part and parcel of the war on terrorism — it should be treated as such. In the long run, it will prove to have been a relatively low price for the dividends reaped.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.


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