James M. Dorsey | 11 Aug 2010
World Politics Review
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 in the government's efforts -- backed by its Western and Muslim allies -- to defeat Islamist militants allied with al-Qaida and the Taliban.
There is a long list of natural and man-made disasters in Islamic countries in which militant Islamists have garnered popularity by quickly and effectively responding with relief and emergency aid, in stark contrast to governments that were slow to react and unable to provide services to victims. By launching immediate and effective aid operations, the militants bolster their contention that governments perceived as corrupt, authoritarian and heavily dependent on foreign aid cannot be trusted to serve the people. Past disasters in Pakistan itself as well as in countries like Egypt, Lebanon, Indonesia and Bangladesh demonstrate that such crises provide an opportunity for militants to build political capital.
This history is repeating itself with the Pakistani floods. In areas where the Pakistani government is competing with militants for control, militant Islamist charities, some associated with groups designated by the United Nations or the United States as terrorist organizations, provided aid to thousands displaced and made homeless by the floods days before government and foreign aid started to arrive. Meanwhile, rather than staying at home to coordinate relief efforts, already unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari visited France and Britain during the floods.
Charities like Falah-e-Insaniyat (Foundation for the Welfare of Humanity), the charity arm of Lashkar-e-Taibe, widely suspected of being responsible for the Mumbai attacks in 2008, have for the second time in five years emerged as the most effective providers of relief in disaster-stricken areas of Pakistan. The charities' performance emulates their success in the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir where their immediate and efficient relief efforts served as a recruitment tool for their militant backers. The 2005 experience did not translate into votes for religious parties in Pakistan's 2008 elections, but the Islamists' latest success with the floods and widespread criticism of the government threatens to undermine popular support for the U.S.-backed government's military campaign against al-Qaida and homegrown Taliban militants in the northwest of the country.
The lesson to be learned from the floods and past 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. An examination of the world's most sustainable and lethal faith-based terrorist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taibe, Palestine' s Hamas, Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Taliban in Afghanistan, shows that economic competition may hold the key to substantially weakening, if not defeating these groups.
These groups are effective at providing such aid because they trace their origins to being faith-based service providers. Eli Berman, a former member of the Israeli military's elite Golani brigade who is now a University of California economist, calls such groups "economic clubs." Only at a later stage of their development, and sometimes only reluctantly, did they bolt a military apparatus onto their civil activity.
"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 from theory into practice the realization that they need to compete economically, not only militarily with militants. As is evident with the Pakistani floods, the cost-benefit analysis of that realization and the organizational implications it has for U.S. and other Western militaries 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 U.N. 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.
Yet, the sooner the United States and its allies like Pakistan are able to adapt to a comprehensive counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategy that involves economic competition, the sooner they will likely produce sustainable rather than immediate but perishable results and the more prepared they will be when disaster strikes next. "Concentrating on capturing or killing every last terrorist (or buying off some warlord to do so) can probably only succeed in the short run, since the underlying conditions of weak governance and/or weak service provision will likely continue to generate new terrorist clubs," Berman argues. "The challenge is then to find a way to sustainably stabilize allied governments in countries currently generating terrorism, not by merely improving their coercive capability but by also enhancing the ability of local government to provide basic services that replace those provided by clubs."