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Pakistani Flooding Impacts Fight Against Militants

  • Sean Maroney

As Pakistan tries to cope with the worst flooding in its history, the country has seen several major suicide bomb attacks in the past few days against minority Shi'ites. The two major attacks, one in Lahore and the other in Quetta, killed more than 100 people and wounded hundreds of others.

Pakistani authorities are on high alert across the country as new sectarian violence threatens to strain the government as it addresses the country's flood crisis.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters Saturday in Islamabad that militants want to fan the flames of sectarianism in an effort to destabilize the government, especially after a series of military offensives targeted their strongholds in northwestern Pakistan.

He also noted that Punjabi militant groups, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and others, such as al-Qaida and the Tehrik-e-Taliban, are one and the same.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban, Pakistan's homegrown Taliban movement, claimed responsibility for this month's two biggest bomb attacks, one in Lahore and the other in Quetta. The violence ended a lull in attacks since massive flooding began in late July.

The government has faced widespread criticism by opposition groups and flood victims for its response to the disaster that so far has affected about 20 million people across the country.

Analyst Ishtiaq Ahmad with Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University says he believes the militants are striking at long-held sectarian prejudices to antagonize and destabilize the government as it struggles to deal with the massive flood disaster.

"This is a God given opportunity for them to really exploit whatever fissures are existing in Pakistani society revolving around particularly sectarian differences of the past over three decades," said Ahmad.

He is quick to note that sectarian violence predates all other types of terrorism in Pakistan, making it an effective and easy tool for present day extremists to exploit.

Since the flooding began, the Pakistani military has used its resources to help distribute aid and reach those affected.

Speaking to American soldiers while visiting southern Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he expects the flooding to affect the Pakistani military's ongoing efforts against militants.

He said the current situation could delay any new offensives against militants who use safe havens in Pakistan's tribal regions, such as North Waziristan, to strike against coalition and Afghan forces.

"Unfortunately, the flooding in Pakistan is probably going to delay any operations by the Pakistani army in North Waziristan for some period of time," said Gates. "But I think the solution here is ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], Afghan and Pakistani cooperation to take care of these targets."

The former security chief for Pakistan's tribal areas, retired Brigadier-General Mahmood Shah, says he agrees that the military will most likely hold on unilaterally expanding its operations against militants.

He says the militants based in northwestern Pakistan probably escaped the worst of the flooding by seeking refuge in the isolated, high mountain areas. Meanwhile, he says the flooding greatly affected the military's mobility and forced it to reassign helicopters from surveillance on the militants to flood rescue and relief efforts.

He says the military must revert back to concentrating on fighting militancy.

"The army must not get mired deeply into what they are doing in terms of [the] collection of things for the flood relief and rehabilitation process, which must be I think taken on by the civilian administration," said Shaw.

The spokesman for the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Pakistan, Maurizio Giuliano, says aid agencies are working hard with the government to help victims across the country.

He also says they are paying close attention to the increase in violence.

"There are security concerns and precautions. However so far, our operations have not been hampered by any specific incident," said Guiliano.

The flooding has devastated millions of families all over the country, including areas known as militant strongholds.

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