Pakistan is suffering its greatest human tragedy since Partition. The floodwaters of the Indus are an incredible 20 miles wide, sweeping away entire towns, villages and farms. Over 20 million people have been displaced, far more than the nine million displaced by Partition in 1947. The immediate death count of 1,500 will soon increase hugely through disease and deprivation. Rehabilitation could cost $100 billion.
Some Indians might be perverse enough to rejoice that an enemy has been hit by a natural disaster — an act of God, as it were — and will be crippled economically for years. But most Indians will surely want to help their neighbours. In these traumatic times, we need to think of Pakistanis as humans in distress, not foes.
Even those who cannot think beyond realpolitik should see that the floods are potentially a strategic disaster for India too. Flood damage will create a fertile breeding ground for Islamist militancy. Islamist NGOs with links to terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed are at the very forefront of flood relief efforts and hence are gaining popularity. Meanwhile, the civil administration is seen as corrupt and ineffective. President Asif Zardari has further ruined his low reputation by going on foreign junkets.
The Pakistani army has in the last year battled some, though by no means all, militant groups in Swat and FATA (federally administered tribal areas). But much of the infrastructure built to reach the remote tribal areas has been destroyed by the floods. Besides, the Pakistani army is redirecting its efforts in the region, from combating militants to combating flood damage. The militants are re-occupying the resultant political vacuum.
The ISI recently came out with a study suggesting that Islamist militants had become a greater threat to the country than India. Flood damage can only deepen that perception. True, the army wants to back the Afghan Taliban even while battling the Pakistani Taliban, and this results in muddled thinking and sabotage of peace initiatives. The resolution of these contradictions is not in sight.
One day, the Pakistani army and the ISI will have no choice but to confront the reality that Islamist militants are Frankensteins that threaten their own creator. The ISI’s assessment should bring that day somewhat closer.
In the light of both human and strategic considerations, how can India help Pakistan? Individual contributions from Indian citizens must be encouraged, and red tape thwarting contributions in cash and kind must be cut. But the Indian government should not offer more than a modest amount of food and financial aid. Pakistan requires billions of dollars for relief and rehabilitation, so anything India offers will be a drop in the ocean.
Besides, recipients are rarely grateful for alms: they resent being supplicants, and suspect the motives of the donors. The US saved India from mass starvation after the twin droughts of 1965 and 1966 by giving record food aid. But this won the US very few friends and stoked resentment from many who felt India’s independence was being compromised. The US will once again be the chief donor to Pakistan, but will gain virtually no popularity or gratitude.
If food and financial aid will not help much, how can India best help Pakistan? The best way will be for the Indian Army to unilaterally withdraw from the border in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat. This will pose no military risk whatsoever: flood-stricken Pakistan cannot possibly embark on military adventures against India. But the withdrawal of Indian troops will mean that the Pakistan army loses all excuses to avoid diverting manpower and financial resources from the border to flood relief and rehabilitation. This will cost India nothing, yet will release very large resources within Pakistan. Its impact on the Pakistani psyche will be significant. Even analysts who distrust Pakistan agree widely that India has no alternative to diplomatic engagement: cutting off ties will not win any minds and hearts there. Unilateral withdrawal will itself be a form of engagement, and will encourage other forms.
The wrong strategy will be to try to negotiate a mutual withdrawal of troops. Withdrawal must be unilateral and immediate. Defence hawks will express dismay that India is so soft on an enemy that encourages terrorism. But unilateral withdrawal will be a flood relief measure, not a military surrender. In the bargain, it will oblige Pakistan to withdraw its own troops and redeploy them for flood relief: its public opinion will be outraged otherwise.
Dr Manmohan Singh, you say we must be proactive in the peace process with Pakistan. The tragic floods there have given you an opportunity to be proactive in a way that will not come again. Go for it.