The 2010 Flood in Pakistan & The 1970 Cyclone in Pakistan – Similar Disasters, Similar Consequences?

Every one with a TV set has seen the horrific floods that swept Pakistan.  Huge areas have been flooded, towns have been submerged and people have been rendered homeless. It is utterly tragic to behold. No one can predict what the consequences of this disaster will be in the months to come. But if you think history can provide a hint, read on.

While watching the TV footage, we were reminded of another disaster that hit an area of Pakistan about 40 years ago.  In November 1970, a monster cyclone hit what was then called East Pakistan. According to Wikipedia, the 1970 Bhola Cyclone is the deadliest tropical cyclone on record and is one of the deadliest disasters in recent history.

Today the floods in Pakistan have displaced millions of people but so far there have been few casualties, as far as know.  In contrast, between 300,000 and 500,000 people died in what was East Pakistan in the 1970 cyclone. Over 3.6 million people were directly affected by the cyclone, and the total damage from the storm was estimated at $86.4 million in 1970 dollars or  about  $450 million in 2006 dollars, according to Wikipedia.

As now, the reaction of the Pakistani Government was pathetic in 1970. According to Wikipedia, political leaders in East Pakistan were deeply critical of the West Pakistani government’s initial response to the disaster. A statement released by eleven political leaders in East Pakistan ten days after the cyclone hit charged the government with “gross neglect, callous indifference and utter indifference”, according to Wikipedia.

That seems to be the reaction of people in the flood-affected areas today. The current Pakistani regime, headed for all practical purposes by General Kayani, has been widely criticized for not coming to the rescue of the affected people. 

The 1970 Cyclone affected East Pakistan, an area populated by Bengalis, a separate and racially distinct ethnic group than the Panjabi-Pakistanis that control the regime. The scale of the disaster, the pathetic response of the Panjabi-dominated Government led to widespread discontent in East Pakistan. The Awami league, the political party led by the popular Bengali leader Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, swept the polls after the Cyclone. Bitterness against the Panjabi-dominated regime in West Pakistan converted this electoral win into a broad resistance movement. 

In less than a year after the cyclone, East Pakistan split up from West Pakistan and proclaimed its independence as Bangladesh.

    

Like the 1970 Cyclone, the 2010 Floods have spared the wealthy Panjabi areas of today’s Pakistan. Compare the maps above. It is easy to see that the areas severely affected (in red) by the 2010 Flood are predominantly in Pashtunistan, the area populated by the Pashtuns and claimed by Afghanistan as South Afghanistan. The larger portions of the flooded areas (in dark yellow) are also in Pashtunistan.

But the region near the predominantly Panjabi capital of Islamabad is relatively untouched. So are the rich core areas of Panjab along the border with India.

It will be months if not years before the people of Pashtunistan or Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (as it is now called by Pakistan) recover from the flood disaster.These Pashtuns are being helped by American forces from across Afghanistan. There is no flood in Afghanistan and the Pashtuns of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa can see that their brethren across the partitioned border are doing well under the American protectorate. (Afghanistan was partitioned between Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa & today’s Afghanistan by the British).

This is eerily similar to the 1970 East Pakistan situation. East Pakistan was created by the partition of the Indian State of Bengal between West Pakistan which remained in India and East Bengal which became East Pakistan. In the aftermath of the 1970 Cyclone, the people in East Bengal could see that their brethren across the partition were doing much better than them. In contrast to Indian Bengal, the West Pakistani-Panjabi government was neglecting the East Bengali people. This bitterness was a key to their determination to split off from the predominantly Panjabi-regime in West pakistan.

Today, the Pashtun people of Khyber-Paktunkhwa or Pashtunistan are already rebeling against the rule of the Panjabi-Pakistani regime in Islamabad. The party that won the 2008 election, the Awami National Party – a secular Pashtun Nationalist Party, is trying to win autonomy through peaceful dialogue with the Panjabi-Pakistani Army. The Pashtun Taleban are trying to wage their war through a violent insurgency. The Taleban are winning their battle. Today, they have freedom of movement across the partitioned border to Afghanistan and back to South Afghanistan or Pashtunistan.

The ordinary moderate Pashtun still seems opposed to the ways of the Taleban. But we wonder whether their plight in the aftermath of the 2010 Flood would change their mind. Will they look across to American protected Afghanistan and realize that they would be better off in Afghanistan than under the Panjabi-Pakistani rule. If they do, how will they implement that realization? 

Will they join the Pashtun Taleban, the only organization that is helping them today? Will they force the Awami National Party to begin a struggle like the 1970 Awami League in Bangladesh did? How will the Panjabi-Pakistani Army react to such demands?

In 1970, the Nixon-Kissinger team ignored the demands of the Bangladeshi people and created conditions for a violent conflict that ultimately created the Pakistan attack on India in 1971 and the liberation of Bangla Desh.

In 2010, the struggle is not on the border with India but on the other side with the border with Afghanistan with American forces in command. This has created a complicated problem for the Obama Administration. Either the Obama Administration will side with the Panjabi-Pakistani Army as Nixon-Kissinger did in 1970 or it will have to get the Pashtuns reunited into a united Afghanistan. The first is the easier choice but may lead to the long-term failure of the Af-Pak mission. The second is the difficult choice, perhaps the impossible choice in today’s political environment, even though it might be the key to long-term success. 

Regardless of what the Obama Administration decides, the Af-Pak problem just got much more complicated than a month or so ago and so did the calculations of a withdrawal of US troops in June 2011.


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