Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Pakistan: a state perilously close to the edge

New Europe - October 17th 2010

The floods that devastated swathes of Pakistan two months ago were an unexpected calamity the country could ill afford. Already beset by a weak central government, hamstrung by a feeble economy and with terrorists operating largely unfettered on its soil, Pakistan now has the overwhelming task of helping the estimated 20 million people who lost their homes and livelihoods in the flooding.

The European Parliament has offered its deepest sympathies to those affected by this tragedy and has called for the EU to intensify humanitarian aid efforts. Even a wealthy western democracy would struggle to cope on its own with a catastrophe of this magnitude. But for Pakistan, the flooding has not surprisingly proved too much for its government to handle. Indeed, the fact that the army very quickly took responsibility for the immediate aid effort tells us all we need to know about where power in Pakistan really lies.

Certainly the restoration of full democratic civilian government under President Asif Ali Zardari has proved to be largely an illusion. President Zardari's own actions as the flood waters were rising have compounded the impression of a listless, irresolute government. As the flooding swept away whole villages and tore the soil from mountainsides, Zardari was on a diplomatic tour of Europe. His widely criticised absence during the crisis gave the army an opportunity to fill the power vacuum – not that it needed much convincing to assume its duty in the country’s hour of need. The military has traditionally had a pivotal political role in the running of the Islamic republic ever since its foundation.

The criticism that Zardari has faced from within Pakistan came to a head over the floods but he had been under fire for some time. Pakistan's economy is in desperate difficulty, and in part the country's economic ills can be blamed on widespread institutionalised corruption.

Zardari's own efforts to combat corruption in his government have been compromised by widespread allegations of his own alleged malfeasance when his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister of Pakistan.

In the meantime, Pakistan's Supreme Court has controversially decided to reopen stalled corruption cases against Zardari. Opponents of Bhutto at the time she was in office accused him of receiving commissions on government contracts. He will undoubtedly be further distracted by these cases, and in such circumstances it is easy to see how the army might once more be tempted to extinguish yet another ineffectual civilian government. However, the army is not the only winner from the current government's weakness. Extremist jihadi groups are thriving in Pakistan and are posing a grave security threat. Taliban terrorists, with links to their insurgent Afghan kinsmen, have substantial control in parts of North-West Frontier Province and the tribal areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. The flooding has regrettably given various militant groups another opportunity to gain more influence and power in Pakistan.

The government's inability to provide even the most basic assistance to most of those affected by the flooding has allowed extremists in part to take the place of the government by offering food, shelter and essential social services. This Islamic dawah model is built on the success in Gaza of Hamas, which managed to supplant its secular but deeply corrupt rival Fatah by portraying itself as the incorruptible champion of the downtrodden.

The EU's long-term humanitarian assistance in the wake of the flooding is well underway and achieving results. Some EU member states were criticised for responding slowly to requests for financial assistance from Pakistan. However, on past evidence it is hardly surprising that some governments in the West, already facing probable years of planned budget austerity at national level, were sensitive to aid being misappropriated and therefore reluctant to contribute more generously to Pakistan. International donors gave generously after an earthquake in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir in 2005 but up to €400m has allegedly been diverted away from Pakistan's disaster relief authority into the pockets of corrupt officials, including military officers and politicians.

The government's response to the floods has done little to assuage the concerns that many donors have with regard to Pakistan. Accusations have been made that two regions of Pakistan where separatist sentiment is strong – Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan – have been neglected by the government's own aid effort, despite both regions being severely hit by the flooding. Reports have also indicated that some Islamic charities operating in the affected zones have allegedly openly discriminated against Christians and other religious minorities.

The EU has a moral duty to help the people of Pakistan who find themselves desperate and destitute following this disaster. The EU has already rightly taken steps to ease access by lowering tariffs to European markets for Pakistani products. The EU's humanitarian aid agency is also committed to Pakistan for the longer term.

But Pakistan's government, already under huge pressure before the floods, is now weaker than ever before. The government's inability to deal adequately with the current emergency reflects a longstanding and woefully inadequate allocation of resources towards the development of a proper civil defence system.

Instead, large chunks of the national budget were skewed towards ‘big-ticket’ military items aimed at deterring Pakistan’s traditional enemy, India. In such circumstances it is perhaps surprising, though heartening, that India has come to the rescue of its distressed neighbour with the loan of emergency rescue equipment and relief supplies, even though the two nuclear-armed countries' armies remain on high alert over Kashmir.

The longer-term political implications of the flooding are, in their own way, just as serious as the harm caused by the water itself. The well-documented relationship between the Pakistani military intelligence ISI, Kashmiri jihadi terrorist groups, and the Afghan Taliban – which has successfully spread its obscurantist ideology from Afghanistan into Pakistan – suggests that even a robust and well-performing civilian government would be fundamentally undermined from the start in addressing the country’s perilous security situation. Mercifully, the flood waters may slowly be receding, but fears about Pakistan's future are rising all the time.

Dr Charles Tannock MEP is ECR Co-ordinator on the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.