A humanitarian disaster at home, a diplomatic crisis abroad

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari flies into Britain today facing problems on two fronts, reports Omar Waraich
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The Independent Online

Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari arrives in London today as his nation grapples with the impact of the worst floods in 80 years – and against the backdrop of a bitter row over terrorism with his host David Cameron.

The Prime Minister's remarks in India last week, accusing Pakistan of exporting terror and of "looking both ways" on Islamist militancy, have sparked a furore that has yet to fade.

Even as Pakistan struggled to contain a humanitarian disaster affecting 2.5 million people, its foreign minister summoned Britain's envoy to Pakistan to deliver an official rebuff to Mr Cameron's allegations.

The Prime Minister, whose effigy has been burning on the streets of Karachi in recent days, has insisted he will not back down from his remarks.

"Pakistan is already... taking action against extremism. The meeting on Friday is going to be a good opportunity to discuss further what action is being taken," a spokeswoman said.

But already the terrorists that Mr Cameron claims Pakistan should be doing more to tackle, are stepping in to fill the floods relief vacuum in a bid to win hearts and minds in areas that are pivotal to combating the Taliban insurgency. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa, blamed for the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, organised major relief efforts during last year's refugee crisis and the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Yesterday at least one group affiliated to Jamaat-ud-Dawa said they had set up 13 relief and medical camps in stricken areas of the north western provinces and were sending ambulances to rescue injured people.

For Mr Zardari's domestic opponents, the UK visit is rich with opportunity. En route to flooded areas, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif denounced Mr Zardari's visit while casting himself as a leader aware of his priorities.

The twin crises – a natural disaster of vast proportions exacerbated by years of economic neglect and mismanagement and a confrontation with Britain – have focused fury on Mr Zardari's weak and unpopular government. A shambolic and faltering rescue effort is being offered as proof of a civilian government failing its people.

At the same time, Mr Cameron's accusations have provoked the opposition and broad sections of the public to demand a tougher stance to salve national pride.

Members of the ISI (the Pakistani intelligence agency), who were supposed to travel to Britain with Mr Zardari, have pulled out in protest. The President must now balance the demands of maintaining a crucial alliance with Britain – burnishing Pakistan's reputation abroad and somehow responding to his suffering countrymen at home.

Video: Rescue effort continues in Pakistan

Gallingly for the Pakistani president, there is little he can do to ease either crisis. With entire villages across the North West washed away and hundreds of thousands of families left wading through muddy waters, Pakistan still lacks the infrastructure and the competent institutions to cope with a disaster on this scale.

It took days to dispatch the military's small fleet of helicopters. Despite forecasts of heavy summer rains, no early flood warning systems were installed. Mirroring this impotence, the civilian government remains politically under-equipped to meet Mr Cameron's demands that it do more to rein in the militants aligned to its military establishment.

Weighed down by the daily miseries of a sagging economy, 18 hours a day power cuts and the constant risk of terrorist attacks, few citizens are willing to accept the latest tragedy as the will of Allah. Blame is being cast on the mustachioed leader, accused of consorting with a western leader who seems to privilege a relationship with arch-rival India.

While Washington's recent approach has revealed a sensitivity that Pakistani analysts say eludes Mr Cameron, his remarks are not at odds with what western officials have long suspected in private. In its bid to counter Indian influence in the region, they say, Pakistan's powerful army has quietly nurtured ties with militant proxies with no prospect of civilian interference or oversight.

The army's enduring clout was underscored when the politically powerful General Ashfaq Kayani secured an unprecedented second-term as army chief. Whatever Washington's concerns about the Pakistani army's duplicity, it had little choice but to welcome the move and marshal a further $2.5bn in military aid this year.

The unpopular and flagging war effort in Afghanistan may now depend on Pakistan's support and General Kayani is offering to lure the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.