Pakistan’s worst floods in 80 years are increasing worries in Washington that the disaster will undermine the South Asian nation’s political stability and jeopardize U.S. gains across the border in Afghanistan.
“If Pakistan were to face a serious threat internally, either because of natural disasters or as was the case a year ago because of an onslaught by the [Pakistani Taliban] in Swat and its northwest, it would make it almost impossible to succeed in Afghanistan,” said Vali Nasr, a senior adviser to Richard C. Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The flood has had the greatest impact on local governance.
“The kinds of things we are trying to build in Afghanistan, the floods have been washing away in Pakistan,” Mr. Nasr said at a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday.
He said the Obama administration is anxious about the long-term impact on institutions, governance and stability in Pakistan.
The floods have affected more than a fifth of Pakistan, covering an area roughly the size of Italy and displacing close to 20 million people.
While the death toll has been relatively low — around 1,500 people have died — health and humanitarian workers are worried about the consequences of an epidemic of waterborne diseases.
Pakistan has lost a sizable share of its export crops; its food supply has been hit and infrastructure, including bridges, canals and roads, has been washed away.
Vital operations against militants entrenched along the border with Afghanistan have also been affected.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said progress in Afghanistan has already been slow this year.
“There was certainly a hope that 2010 would show a clear shift of momentum across Afghanistan,” he said.
Pakistan’s military is now expected to put on hold planned operations in North Waziristan as it is preoccupied with providing flood relief.
“Some of the offensive operations which may have been planned are likely to be delayed,” said Jehangir Karamat, a former chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Pakistani military has diverted close to 70,000 troops to disaster areas.
Mr. Karamat said the Pakistani military’s “limited aviation assets,” which were being used against militants, have also been deployed to help flood victims.
Charities, especially those affiliated with the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), have sought to exploit the situation and earn the good will of the local population by providing aid.
Pakistan’s commitment to rooting out such militant groups is viewed with skepticism in some quarters of the Obama administration.
Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, said U.S. policymakers could ask whether Pakistan is doing everything it could be reasonably asked to do to cut ties with militant groups.
“There is a disagreement to the answer to that question within the U.S. government,” Mr. Coll said.
Mr. Karamat defended Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency’s ties to the Taliban.
“The ISI has been in contact with the Taliban ever since the Taliban was created. That doesn’t mean the ISI is supporting the Taliban against the U.S.,” he said, adding, “It may be actually helping the U.S. resolve some issues with the Taliban … as we go into reconciliation, this factor is going to be more and more important.”
The process of reconciliation, which is based on the central premise of giving Taliban leaders a place in the Afghan government in exchange for them renouncing violence and respecting the Afghan Constitution, has made little headway.