Pakistan’s worst flooding in almost a century may well be remembered as much for the magnitude of the disaster as for the fact that it constituted a major setback for the government and its Western and Muslim allies in their competition with militant Islamists for hearts and minds. The floods are joining a long list of disasters in a host of Islamic countries in which militant Islamists garnered popularity by quickly and effectively responding with relief and emergency aid in stark contrast to a government that was slow to react and unable to quickly provide services to victims.
Effective Islamist aid operations strengthen the militants’ contention that governments perceived as corrupt, authoritarian and heavily dependent on foreign aid cannot be trusted to serve the people. In the case of the Pakistani floods, that message is reinforced by mounting criticism of President Asif Ali Zardari for visiting France and Britain during the floods rather than staying at home to coordinate relief efforts, which he says are the responsibility of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. The message is compounded by the fact that militant Islamist charities, some designated by the United Nations or the United States as terrorist organizations, provided shelter, food, clothing and medical aid to thousands displaced and made homeless by the floods days before government and foreign aid started to arrive in areas where the government is competing with militants for control. If past disasters in Pakistan itself as well as in countries like Egypt, Lebanon, Indonesia and Bangladesh are any yardstick, the political capital up for grabs will likely be secured by the militants who for the umpteenth time have proven to be able to deliver where governments failed.
The lesson learnt from these disasters is that economic competition with militant Islamists is as important a component in the struggle to defeat faith-inspired political violence as is military strength and law enforcement. If anything, the study of the world’s most sustainable and lethal, faith-based terrorist groups, including Palestine’ s Hamas, Lebanon’s Hizbollah, Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taibe and the Taliban in Afghanistan, shows that economic competition may hold the key to substantially weakening, if not defeating these groups. Falah-e-Insaniyat, the charity arm of Lashkar-e-Taibe, widely suspected of being responsible for the Mumbai attacks in 2008, has emerged as the one of the most effective providers of relief in flood-ravaged areas of Pakistan. What makes these groups so effective is the fact that they trace their origins to being faith-based service providers. Only at a later stage, and sometimes only reluctantly, did they bolt a military apparatus onto their civil activity. They successfully win hearts and minds by effectively responding to natural and man-made disasters in areas where governments like that of President Zardari have effectively ceded responsibility for the provision of basic social services, including security, education and healthcare. “With a few exceptions, lasting insurgency endings are shaped not by military action but by social, economic, and political change…The government may defeat the insurgent military cadre, but, with few exceptions, insurgencies do not end until case-specific root causes are addressed: The kind of grassroots support necessary to build and sustain an insurgency is fed on social, economic, and political discontent…,” concludes a recently published Rand Corporation study on how insurgencies end.
The problem for Western governments and their allies is translating the realization that they need to compete economically and not only militarily with militants is translating theory into practice. As is evident with the Pakistani floods, the cost benefit analysis of that realization and the organizational implications it has for the military has yet to sink in. Adapting the organization of armed forces so that they can effectively incorporate economic competition in their strategy is a slow process that contrasts starkly with the speed in which militants like Lashkar-e-Taibe are able to demonstrate institutional flexibility. Western military officials and UN and other aid workers grapple in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, with the fact that the military is structured as a fighting machine rather than a development agency and aid organizations are not geared to defending themselves – a combination of skills and ability inherent to successful militant groups.