The magnitude of the flooding in Pakistan is astounding, and it is difficult to predict the effect it will have on Pakistan’s political future. International efforts are mobilizing, and it is in this context that India has offered $5 million in aid, a small sum considering the scale of the catastrophe. Predictably, Pakistan did not immediately accept the offer. This raises the question of whether a major external shock like this can have a positive effect on stalled diplomatic efforts in South Asia. The floods could provide an opportunity for the two nations to cooperate and to see one another in less zero sum terms. This kind of thing has happened before: relations between Greece and Turkey eased in the wake of major earthquakes in each country in 1999, when the two rivals provided assistance to one another.
There are reasons, however, to expect that neither country will seize cooperative opportunities created by the floods.
- The major organs of the Pakistani state, such as the army, appear to have been mostly unaffected by the floods. The power balance on the subcontinent will therefore remain the same in the short term, and the groups with an interest in maintaining the status quo remain in charge. If the flooding pushes the Pakistani state towards failure, that is obviously another matter, but such failure would manifest in the medium or long term.
- Although the flooding will damage the credibility of the Pakistani army and government among the population, Indian assistance could be even more damaging. The Pakistan Army justifies its power partially in terms of the Indian threat, and a friendly India would diminish that justification.
- Indian foreign policy has long attempted to weaken the Pakistani state. India may, therefore, have an interest in sitting back and allowing its rival to suffer. As Ahmed Rashid writes on the New York Review of Books Web site:
For its part, India has failed to respond to the crisis, and relations between the two countries remain locked in bitter animosity, especially as India blames this summer’s uprising in Indian Kashmir on Pakistan.
As Rashid points out, the floods “herald a potential regional catastrophe,” which is in India’s interest to avoid. India should take the initiative and provide aid resources to Pakistan in such a way that Pakistan is allowed to save face. If Rashid is right, even just stabilizing the diplomatic situation would be a good outcome from India’s perspective. Joint efforts to deal with flooding could also encourage cooperation in the management of water resources, which are a persistent source of tension.
Is there anything that the U.S. can do to push this dynamic in a positive direction? U.S. assistance to flood victims has been anemic, but it could encourage its partners in the region, including India, to act. Given the poisonous state of diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan, U.S. diplomatic engagement could make India more comfortable in offering aid, and Pakistan more comfortable in accepting it. In a world where America’s hard power influence is receding, it will increasingly play the role of convener. Hopefully it can fill that role and help the victims of this horrible tragedy.
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