Government's earthquake aid failure fuels calls for holy war

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AS DAWN broke across the barren heights of the Margalla mountains on Wednesday morning, an Indian Air Force Ilyushin-76 transporter cut through the cloud and landed in Islamabad.

In the Pakistani capital there wasn't even the remotest sense of ceremony to mark the historic occasion.

Earlier, the huge craft, carrying 25 tonnes of relief material from New Delhi, including blankets, tents, plastic sheeting, mattresses and medicine, had been forced to circle for more than an hour as aircraft from 30 different countries jostled for space below.

Nationalists in the Indian capital whispered of conspiracy theories. In reality, the backlog of aircraft on the ground told a more compelling story - that Pakistan's response to the biggest natural disaster in its history was hindered by a lack of planning and a military unable to deal with a natural disaster on such an epic scale.

Western charities were complaining of vital aid being kept in warehouses and military hangers awaiting clearance. There were many more examples of delay, such as one regarding a 72-man team of Spanish rescuers and their sniffer dogs being kept waiting in quarantine for 48 hours.

Most crucially, the military was forced to admit its fleet of helicopters was in disrepair and there was nowhere near the amount of aircraft needed to deliver aid to remote areas cut off by landslides.

"The government effort has been non-existent," claimed Imran Khan on Pakistani television that same morning, the cricketer turned opposition politician who had just toured the hard-hit town of Balakot, close to Kashmir.

He also accused the Pakistani president of failing to implement a coherent strategy.

"There is no direction to the effort. Ordinary citizens are stuffing their cars and coming here, but the government is nowhere," he said.

Within hours of Khan's tirade, President Pervez Musharraf retorted, appearing in a live televised address.

Candidly acknowledging his government had been slow to respond to the disaster he predictably told his critics that "no country" could be prepared for such a catastrophe and in a barbed criticism of the US pointed to President Bush's apparent failure to tackle the New Orleans floods with sufficient urgency.

He said: "The easiest thing is to blame someone. I am very sorry for the delay, but there was no other way. I am deeply saddened that some people had to wait for days before aid reached them. This tragedy was much bigger than the capacity and capability of the government as a whole."

Such honesty took some political commentators in Pakistan by surprise - for the first time since he took power in a 1999 coup against an elected civilian government, Musharraf had admitted the unthinkable - that his administration was not entirely in control of matters of state and, more tellingly, that the military hierarchy who had created and backed his bid for the presidency had failed.

Since he swept to power, Musharraf has repeatedly referred to the army as Pakistan's most competent and incorruptible institution.

"The government now effectively is the army and Musharraf and when you see both bumbling, or not doing well anywhere, then it's a blot on the entire government and it's a blot on Musharraf," said Ayaz Amir, a columnist for the English-language newspaper Dawn.

"What they like to say about it is that it is the only functioning institution in the state and when all else fails, it's the army that holds everything together. The one institution which failed above all is the army."

The army's disorganised response to the disaster, some analysts said, could now provide an opening for hard-line Islamic political parties and their associated social welfare groups, which have quickly and prominently swung into action.

One such group is Jamaat-e-Islami, which is ideologically linked to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood as well as Hamas, the Palestinian militant group.

Jamaat-e-Islami has a charitable arm, the Al-Khidmat Foundation, which operates numerous social welfare programmes and has rushed to respond to the earthquake by organising relief convoys, appealing for donations and providing medical help.

As a result of the Pakistani government's failure to get aid to the most remote areas, Kashmiris living in towns such as Bagh have turned for help to the comparatively well-organised Islamic militant groups, officially banned by Musharraf.

In the mosques of Kashmir they are now talking of a new jihad. Pakistan-based Islamic militants, who spent the past decade fighting Indian rule in the region, have announced a "holy war" to help victims of the earthquake.

The United Jihad Council, a loose alliance of a dozen pro-Pakistan militant organisations, this week also announced a temporary truce in the areas hit by the quake but it also warned it wouldn't allow Indian troops to carry out relief work in their territory.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa, formerly the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was blacklisted as a "terrorist organisation" by the US, was also among the first groups to offer aid in Bagh. Musharraf outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2002 following pressure from the US.

Analysts claim Musharraf's external battle, to be seen to be tackling fundamentalism, will now be overshadowed by his domestic battle, to placate Muslim hardliners within his own military and government who are angry at his apparent failure to lead his country in its time of need.

"The militants are taking matters into their own hands and winning over members of the public on the ground," said political analyst Hasan Rizvi, "Their popularity will soar in these regions as a result and the government will appear directionless. It is a very dangerous situation."

According to Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institute, a US think-tank that focuses on the region, Musharraf now faces a deeply uncertain future.

He said: "Pakistan is unstable as a government and a society. This is often the case with one-man rule, and especially one-man rule in which serious people - al-Qaeda and its allies inside Pakistan - are trying to kill him.

"There were serious attempts on Musharraf's life within the last year or so, one of which came very close to succeeding.

"Add to that the thousands of madrassas inside Pakistan and the hundreds of thousands of potential jihadis, as well as Taliban sympathisers who travel back and forth across the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. These people are all his enemies and now the public are angry at his response to a major disaster."