Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Pakistan floods 'could aid Taliban'

US troops drop food relief for flood-hit people in Kalam, Pakistan
A Pakistani villager carries his mother out of heavy flooding in Pakistan

The floods ravaging Pakistan are generating fears that Taliban insurgents could regroup amid the chaos. The country's already struggling economy is expected to weaken, increasing the poverty that is a factor in the militancy.

One of the hardest hit regions is the north-west, the heartland of the Pakistan Taliban and other insurgent groups. Over the last two years, the army has carried out several offensives against militants there. The US has welcomed the efforts and launched drone strikes of its own because of the threat the insurgents pose to Western troops across the border in Afghanistan.

Now, thousands of those Pakistani soldiers have been tasked with flood relief and will likely be crucial in rebuilding bridges and roads once the worst floods in Pakistan's history have receded.

"It's too much on the plate for the army," said Ayesha Siddiqa, a military analyst.

Chief army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas said 60,000 troops nationwide have been engaged in flood-relief, including many in places insurgents have been active. He said the military could handle the floods and the fighting concurrently.

The insurgents have kept up attacks during the two-week flooding crisis, which has left 1,500 people dead and affected nearly 14 million people.

A suicide bomber killed the head of a US-backed paramilitary police force, while gunmen wounded the sister of one of the north-west's top political leaders. On Tuesday, the Pakistani Taliban said the flooding was God's punishment to Pakistanis for accepting secular leaders and urged Pakistanis to boycott foreign aid.

The UN and US are urging the international community to step up assistance to Pakistan, which needs hundreds of millions in immediate emergency aid and billions of dollars to rebuild. In a new appeal, the United Nations asked for $459 million to provide emergency relief, including food, clean water, shelter and medical care, over the next 90 days.

The US added $16.25 million on Wednesday to its $55 million commitment of Pakistan aid. It also has sent six military helicopters to help the Pakistani army ferry aid and people in the Swat Valley, a scenic stretch of north-west overrun by the Taliban until the Pakistani army pushed them out in 2009. More U.S. helicopters may be on the way.

White House spokesman Bill Burton said keeping the Taliban off-balance was part of the goal. "The concern is that every single day you've got people who are intent on creating havoc in order to disrupt a democracy," he said. "And so, right now we're of course worried about the floods, we're worried about the insurgents, and we're dealing with those issues as appropriate."

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