Out of the rubble, an opportunity

Posted in Other | 13-Oct-05 | Author: Ian Bremmer| Source: International Herald Tribune

Pakistani volunteers carry a body dug out from the rubble of a collapsed market in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan controlled Kashmir.
NEW YORK After the quake I

By any measure, the magnitude-7.6 earthquake that shook the Asian subcontinent last weekend left behind death and devastation on a horrifying scale. But such natural disasters do more than destroy lives and property. They sometimes offer important opportunities for political progress on seemingly intractable international disputes. They may also rattle poorly constructed political structures and reveal their underlying vulnerabilities. Both these dynamics are now at play in Pakistan.

When a devastating earthquake struck Turkey in August 1999, the country's bitter rival, Greece, offered badly needed relief workers and supplies. When another quake shook Greece three weeks later, Turkey responded in kind. Even the most cynical observer must acknowledge that the two quakes ultimately helped lift Greek-Turkish relations to a higher point than at any time in recent history - and the benefits have lasted.

When the Pacific tsunami devastated coastal Indonesia last December, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono seized the opportunity offered by a catastrophic disaster to forge an agreement with rebel groups in the badly shaken Aceh province. The accord ended 30 years of violence.

Greece, Turkey and Indonesia have something very basic in common: They are democracies. Their leaders govern with the consent of their people. President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan enjoys no such popular legitimacy. He is an army general with executive power in a state ruled by the military, whose "mandate" depends on an implied understanding with the Pakistani people.

Under the terms of this deal, Musharraf must provide domestic stability and economic growth, free from the corruption endemic in many of Pakistan's previous civilian-led democratic governments. In return, the citizenry must not directly challenge military rule.

In the aftermath of the worst earthquake to hit the area in more than 100 years, Pakistan's military knows that if it does not now meet Pakistanis' urgent needs, the people may well decide that the military has failed to fulfill the terms of the deal. There are plenty of disaffected groups within the country - democracy advocates, religious radicals and ordinary citizens who simply want good governance - who might seize the initiative offered by the military's inability to provide relief to call for a fundamental renegotiation of the contract, even its termination.

The jury - the Pakistani people - is still out on the military's response to the quake. But for the moment, the scale of the disaster is beyond the Pakistani military's ability to manage. At least 23,000 Pakistanis are feared dead, and more than three million people homeless. In some areas, locals are recovering bodies from the rubble with their bare hands. Relief trucks have been attacked and looted. In more remote regions, many have fled the devastation on foot because there are no relief supplies at all.

Despite the absence of representative governance, Pakistan has remained a reasonably stable country. Few believe a popular uprising will threaten Musharraf's survival any time soon. But as the scale of the disaster becomes clear and the Pakistani people have time to catch their breath and assess their government's performance, the military may find itself under greater public pressure than at any time since Musharraf seized power six years ago.

Pakistan's security forces may soon confront large-scale street demonstrations. Local politicians, anxious to deflect blame, may begin to point fingers toward Islamabad. How the military handles these potential challenges would matter enormously.

Then there's the opportunity. The hardest-hit region is Kashmir, a divided territory claimed by both Pakistan and India. Over the last 15 years, more than 65,000 people have died in fighting across the Line of Control that separates the Pakistani- and Indian-administered areas of the Himalayan region.

Despite ongoing tensions there, Indian-Pakistani relations are stronger today than at any time since the violent partition of the two countries in 1947. Yet the military government in Islamabad has so far been reluctant to seize the opportunity for even warmer relations offered by Indian offers of aid for earthquake victims on the Pakistani side of the divide.

The earthquake killed Indians as well, particularly in India's Jammu and Kashmir state. More than 1,300 are believed dead. Still, India has offered Pakistan everything from tents and mattresses to army helicopters. While Pakistan has accepted some of the aid, its military government is loath to accept anything from India they fear is substantial enough to undermine Pakistan's dignity and inflame nationalists and religious radicals.

In short, Pakistan has refused to accept desperately needed helicopters from India, citing political "sensitivities," even as huge numbers of Pakistanis in remote areas of the country wait for help and rescuers race the clock to provide it. America, grateful for Musharraf's support in its campaign against terrorism, has stepped into the breach with eight U.S. helicopters. But the Pakistani military is missing the chance to welcome cooperation across one of the world's most dangerous frontiers.

Of course, the Pakistani military knows that, if it allows Indian troops to cross the Line of Control to provide relief, there is a risk they might provide the bulk of their supplies to Indians living inside Pakistani-controlled territory. If so, Musharraf would face sharp criticism from across his country - and even from within the Pakistani military itself. Still, given the scale of the devastation and Islamabad's inability to cope with it, the risk might be worth taking.

Natural disasters often strike some of the most chronically underdeveloped parts of the world, and coastal Indonesia and northern Pakistan certainly fit the description. These areas sometimes benefit from the international aid that follows such catastrophes, and the development that appears where none existed before.

Indonesia may soon enjoy such benefits. Perhaps Pakistan will too. But there are other opportunities that rarely come along - those offered by cooperation between enemies in the face of human tragedy. In Pakistan, that opportunity may be slipping away.

(Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.)