by Tariq Ali
As if everyday life in Pakistan weren’t dispiriting enough, last month the swift and turbulent Indus burst its banks and swathes of the country disappeared under water. Divine punishment, the poor said, but they were the ones who suffered. Allah rarely targets the rich. As the floods came and the country panicked, its president fled the bunker and went on a tour of inspection to France and Britain.
The floodwaters have now receded in many parts of the country, leaving 20 million people homeless. The province of Sindh, however, is still under threat and 800,000 people are marooned without food. Aid agencies estimate the bail-out costs for the country at between seven and ten billion dollars, but only $800 million has been pledged by foreign donors, in total contrast to the support given after the devastating earthquake of 2005. The rebuilt towns and villages are proof that not all the money was stolen that time. But despite this, little help has been forthcoming from abroad, the result of a combination of Islamophobia and distrust of the Zardari government on financial matters.
Did the rulers of Pakistan treat the worst natural disaster to hit their country as an emergency, and pull out all the stops without thinking of themselves or drooling at the prospects of foreign aid pouring in? Like hell they did. For the whole of August the plutocracy floundered hopelessly as the catastrophe grew. The army did its best, but was hindered by the war on terror. As nearly a million people came under threat from the floodwater in Jacobabad, the local authorities were informed that the nearby Shahbaz airbase could not be used for rescue operations. In response to a parliamentary question from the opposition, the health secretary, Khushnood Lashari, explained: ‘Health relief operations are not possible in the flood-affected areas of Jacobabad because the airbase is controlled by the United States.’ It was not necessary to add that those on the base were busy arming and dispatching drones to hit villages in northern Pakistan. In Swat, closer to the AfPak war zones, a detachment of marines was made available to airlift tribal elders to safety, in an attempt presumably to win hearts and minds. Some hope.