Flood tides

"Last spring, according to a Pew Research Center poll, eighty-four per cent of Pakistanis were dissatisfied with the way things were going in their country. Inflation, terrorist bombings, and American drone strikes were among the causes of their discontent. Three-quarters disapproved of the job being done by the country’s President, Asif Ali Zardari. Then came ...

ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

"Last spring, according to a Pew Research Center poll, eighty-four per cent of Pakistanis were dissatisfied with the way things were going in their country. Inflation, terrorist bombings, and American drone strikes were among the causes of their discontent. Three-quarters disapproved of the job being done by the country’s President, Asif Ali Zardari.

Then came the summer’s monsoon rains, which engorged the Indus River water system, causing floods that by last week had killed almost two thousand people, left seven million homeless, and ruined 1.4 million acres of cropland. As the disaster unfolded, President Zardari decided to travel to Paris and London, in order, he explained to reporters, to raise relief funds and repair some misunderstandings about Pakistan’s vigilance against terrorism. The criticism he came under while abroad only “gives me a reassurance that I’m so wanted,” Zardari said.

Pakistan has, from its birth, in 1947, possessed many of the ingredients of a modestly successful country, but its political leaders have repeatedly sabotaged its potential. Some of the failure can be traced to the long-running conflict between civilian politicians and the Army. President Zardari, in addition to his considerable personal failings, has been constrained by the role of the military in national life. The Army ruled the country for most of its sixty-three years, often abetted by the United States.

"Last spring, according to a Pew Research Center poll, eighty-four per cent of Pakistanis were dissatisfied with the way things were going in their country. Inflation, terrorist bombings, and American drone strikes were among the causes of their discontent. Three-quarters disapproved of the job being done by the country’s President, Asif Ali Zardari.

Then came the summer’s monsoon rains, which engorged the Indus River water system, causing floods that by last week had killed almost two thousand people, left seven million homeless, and ruined 1.4 million acres of cropland. As the disaster unfolded, President Zardari decided to travel to Paris and London, in order, he explained to reporters, to raise relief funds and repair some misunderstandings about Pakistan’s vigilance against terrorism. The criticism he came under while abroad only “gives me a reassurance that I’m so wanted,” Zardari said.

Pakistan has, from its birth, in 1947, possessed many of the ingredients of a modestly successful country, but its political leaders have repeatedly sabotaged its potential. Some of the failure can be traced to the long-running conflict between civilian politicians and the Army. President Zardari, in addition to his considerable personal failings, has been constrained by the role of the military in national life. The Army ruled the country for most of its sixty-three years, often abetted by the United States.

The Obama Administration has declared that it intends to transform its relationship with Pakistan into a durable strategic partnership between two civilian-led democracies. The crisis provoked by this summer’s floods suggests how far there is to go. Among other challenges, the American and Pakistani people seem to hold increasingly negative views of one another. Since 2001, the United States has provided about eighteen billion dollars in military and economic aid to Pakistan, and yet sixty per cent of Pakistanis think of the United States as an enemy. The United States has waged war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in notional alliance with the Pakistani government, but most Pakistanis believe that these campaigns are in fact aimed at them.

To read the rest of this article, visit The New Yorker, where this was originally published.

Steve Coll is the president of the New America Foundation.

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