As Pakistan’s situation sours, it is melancholy to observe the Obama administration’s response. The river flooding that has submerged a fifth of Pakistan’s territory is a catastrophe that warrants concerted, heroic international action. Few nations anywhere could deal effectively with domestic disaster on such a scale. The official death toll of less than 2,000 to date is misleading about the scope of the problem: the economic toll is devastating, with 17 million acres of crops and farmland lost and millions of farm animals dead or diseased. At least 20 million of Pakistan’s 170 million people have been displaced by the flooding. Now farmers are concerned that they won’t be able to plant next year’s crops, a setback that would mean two full years of near-zero agricultural production for the nation.
Pakistan’s serious ongoing problems have only worsened with the historic floods. Confidence in the feckless Zardari government has plummeted to a new low; in a high-level meeting with President Zardari on Monday, the Pakistani military demanded that some of his ministers be dismissed, an action widely interpreted as the veiled threat of a coup. Pervez Musharraf, a semi-retired coup leader himself, then clarified the significance of the threat in statements made to the media.
One of the Pakistani military’s greatest concerns is the breach of national sovereignty represented by NATO’s cross-border attacks on terrorist strongholds in the country’s northwestern region. The coup warning to Zardari was given as drone strikes on Waziristan ramped up over the past week. Today, Pakistan’s military has closed off NATO’s main supply line into Afghanistan, a move that will affect NATO operations very quickly if it can’t be reversed.
Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt from Tuesday’s sympathetic New York Times account of the Obama approach to the boiling pot in Pakistan:
In his most recent visit to Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke … said the international community could not be expected to provide all the billions of dollars needed to repair the flood damage, a warning interpreted here as a rebuke of the civilian government and its mismanagement.
This helpful communication is bolstered by news of a key Obama policy thrust, one that can only be introduced with the time-honored “wait for it”:
In particular, Washington wants the government to raise taxes on the wealthy landed and commercial class, a shortcoming that has become especially galling as Pakistan’s dependence on foreign donors rises.
To summarize: what Obama’s doing about Pakistan is attacking its territory, lecturing its leadership on the limits of international liability for its problems, and urging it to raise taxes on the rich. The State Department points out that U.S. military helicopters are delivering aid to Pakistan; but so are other organizations, public and private. The American aid effort isn’t standing out for either scope or effectiveness. Indeed, Pakistan’s situation is so dire that it demands much more than the delivery of food and plastic sheeting. It demands what only a stronger America could provide: material partnership for promoting economic and political recovery.
Pakistan is NATO’s logistic hub for Afghanistan; without its willing support, NATO would be wholly dependent on supply routes governed by Russia. The country is a hideout for terrorists, al-Qaeda, and Taliban alike. It is also, of course, nuclear-armed. Putting greater effort into Pakistan is neither overly “interventionist” nor irrelevant to our security — and we Americans would feel ourselves much better able to do it if we were not in debt-and-government-shock from Obama’s domestic political assault. Handling Pakistan as an “economy of effort” theater is a recipe for failure, but that’s how the Obama administration has approached it. The 2010 flooding, with its dreadful economic and human toll, is basically serving to accelerate the inevitable.