Militants in Pakistan have a limited track record of providing aid to refugees in times of crisis. Amid the country’s most recent human tragedy, its flood disaster, militant groups or affiliates are allegedly offering social services and relief in affected areas, generating concern that aid will translate into long-term support for these organizations. But while no substantial evidence exists to suggest that militants will seize control in Pakistan, fear inside Washington among experts and policymakers suggest that terrorists’ might seize the country’s tribal areas-a concern that would turn back the clock on U.S.-Pakistani counter-terrorism efforts.
Pakistani President Asif Zardari’s government has increasingly framed the disaster within the context of the Islamist militant threat in Pakistan, pointing the finger at al Qaeda and its affiliates-including legitimate religious charities-for preventing the government to provide adequate assistance to victims of the flood disaster. But according to a former senior U.S. intelligence officer, “blaming al-Qaeda will not mask the corruption, inefficiency, and ineptitude, and nepotism that have characterized the Zardari regime. Unfortunately, it’s taken such a tragedy to highlight Zardari’s feeble leadership.”
Of course, this is not the first time Pakistan has withstood a natural disaster or the United States has come forward to help Pakistanis. Recall the October 2005 earthquake in the idyllic Kashmir Valley. Shortly after the crisis, the United States military in Afghanistan provided aerial support to the Pakistan Army. According to a former U.S. Army aviator who served in Afghanistan during the relief effort, “We planned the mission within 48 hours and had helicopters crossing the Durand line within five days of the earthquake. It was a decision that required a lot of coordination and had to be balanced with all the other critical missions in Afghanistan.” I visited Kashmir before and after the earthquake, and there are visible signs of progress there. A hospital funded by the Pakistani Navy is now being built; and an organization founded by American Todd Shea, SHINE/Pakistan, continues to service the medical needs of the entire population, including nearby villages and communities living along the Line of Control-where both Pakistani and Indian forces engage in tit-for-tat low-conventional warfare.
Yet there are disturbing signs that the government has not fulfilled its promise in Kashmir, raising questions about its ability to cope with the current disaster. Refugee camps are swelling. People live without proper sanitation, shelter, and water. For many Kashmiris in Muzaffarabad, the capital city, the perception is that the Pakistani government has failed to deliver. Now five years later, the refugee community feels invisible. The leader of the refugee camp said to me, “The government has forgotten we exist.”
The Kashmir earthquake was an isolated event, but the floods are a human tragedy that affects the entire country of Pakistan. And there remains the ongoing question of the reach of militant groups inside the refugee camps; The debate on this subject is uneven and reflects a wide range of voices in Washington on the threat terrorists pose to Islamabad’s ability to salvage a country under water. According to a Pakistani-American and a former member of the Sindh-based political party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), “It’s a mistake to think that the Pakistani people are interested in joining terrorist groups; what is important is every day survival.”
A respected Pakistani scholar, Shuja Nawaz , supports the argument that militants will have minimal success in spreading their influence, even while attacks against government officials increase. “The militants are in a restricted area and will not be able to benefit greatly unless the government machinery fails to deliver. Talking about this to scare the West into giving more aid may create a backlash of its own. The critical issue is governance at the provincial and federal level,” he said.
In the short-term, extremists may find it difficult to compete with American or international aid agencies. Hassan Abbas, a scholar and the creator of the blog Watandost argues against terrorists’ ability to influence the flood victims. “At the moment the victims are just looking for food, medicine and a temporary roof. They are not in a state of mind to be ideologically influenced. The Pakistani people in general are increasingly skeptical about militant groups, so it will not be easy for religious hardliners to win over the people.”
The former CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Bob Grenier, understands the threat from militant groups all too well. During his service in Pakistan, he worked closely with Pakistani officials and intelligence agencies. Grenier claims, “I don’t see a realistic danger of orphans being kidnapped from camps to be trained in terror camps [as has been suggested by President Zardari]. I don’t see the situation posing a great opportunity for radical organizations such as [the banned] Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD) to gain mass appeal at the expense of the government and of the Army for their response to the crisis. I suspect that radical Islamic organizations are themselves overwhelmed by the scope of the calamity.”
Being able to deliver and develop affected areas will be key to Pakistan’s success in rebuilding itself. Failure to do so could make the country vulnerable to a longer-term threat-a new generation of militants motivated by grievances with the government. According to Grenier, “There is a longer-term concern that the creation of orphans and the destitution of families will increase the already huge number of young boys for whom the only option is a madrassa education, thus increasing the pool of young, narrowly-educated young men for whom violent jihad is a prime attraction.”
If Pakistan is to recreate itself, then there is nothing more important than for the state to prove that it is able and willing to improve its social services capacity. Or Pakistan might be fighting a new generation of refugee boys-cum-militants a decade later.
Farhana Qazi is a Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and an internationally recognized public speaker on conflicts in the Islamic world. She is the author of Secrets of the Kashmir Valley (Pharos, 2016). She is the recipient of the 21st Century Leader Award, presented by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) for her service to the U.S. government. This article was originally published by Foreign Policy magazine on Aug. 27, 2010.