Saturday, August 21, 2010

Flood for thought: Is Rs 5 per head a fair price for peace with Pak

Forcing one's mind away from the
human misery, it seems Mother Nature may have done to Pakistan what the combined might of Washington, London, New Delhi, and indeed the rest of the international community, hasn't been able to — force it to consider home-grown extremism, and not India, as the primary threat to its security and survival. It may also have washed away Pakistan's notion of strategic depth in Afghanistan and parity with India. Or has it?

There are plenty of doubters. Some Pakistanis are not convinced about the need for signaling a policy reversal. The Pakistani intelligence agency, ISI, which recently made public an internal assessment to the effect that India had receded as the country's primary threat, appears to be a divided house. Already, hardline elements allied with the ISI have begun a vicious campaign that "evil" India is responsible for the floods by unleashing massive amounts of water from dams in Jammu and Kashmir and Afghanistan — as if they could store enough to flood a fifth of Pakistan. There are sceptics in India and the international community too, who feel that the strategic backpedalling is a tactical ploy, a mere fallback position to tide over the crisis; to be resumed when things return to normal.

Mutual suspicion in the two countries is so deep that the website that is promoting the theory that India is responsible for the floods went a step further to allege that New Delhi would ratchet up tensions during the Commonwealth Games to punish Pakistan — as if Mother Nature hadn't done enough damage to the unfortunate country. The Indian reading of this was that the Pakistani intelligence establishment was already making an alibi for planned attacks during CW Games.

Amid this mistrust in the time of cholera, what was striking was the international community's reluctance to open its purse strings. Reasons cited for this range from donor weariness or compassion fatigue to economic crises across the world. But the primary reason advanced by experts, including UN officials, was Pakistan's image deficit. The country is seen as a terrorists' haven, a basket case ruled by kleptocrats and military hardliners who use extremism as ploy to extract foreign aid without really meaning to address the issue — because it is so lucrative. Billions have gone into the financial black hole that is Pakistan over the decades, but the country has spiralled downwards. One of the most damaging stories in the early days of the flood was a report in the British daily that alleged that Pakistan had diverted aid given for its 2005 earthquake for other purposes.

A casual look at Pakistan's ruling elite and their lifestyle is enough for donors — countries and individuals — to hold back their contributions. The oil-rich sheikhs who bankrolled Pakistan in the past, held back too (the House of Saud in particular is said to despise Zardari), as did the Europeans, before bowing to international opprobrium and the sight of human misery. But while Islamabad demanded billions, not millions in aid, including a $53 billion debt write-off, there was not a word about personal contributions from two of Pakistan's most famous billionaires — Asif Ali Zardari and the brothers Sharief. Even Angelina Jolie, a trifling millionaire, ponied up $100,000.

Three weeks into the calamity, it's evident that international response to Pakistan's plight is driven as much by reports or human misery as trepidation about extremists gaining ground — a dread that Islamabad is now openly exploiting. US policy on Pakistan has long been guided by fear. Very early into his term, President Obama openly suggested that Washington had to pay off Pakistan to keep terrorists away from US shores. Most pundits believe that is the cheaper option than going into the snake pit, as they found out in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Should New Delhi pursue a similar policy? Consider this. If India were to offer Pakistan $100 million in aid (more than what any other country has and an offer that would be harder to refuse than $5 million), it would still amount to less than five rupees per head. But why should India offer such a large sum when millions in India are starving? Well one way of looking at it is continued attrition through terrorism may be costing India more and an outright war to stop this could run into billions — so why not try a $100 million olive branch at a time when humanitarian concern also call for it? The catch though, as the US has found on this slippery slope, is that the beast may never be sated.


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