Leading article: A wretched situation made worse

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The Independent Online

This newspaper's interview today with the Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari, reveals a leader at bay. Mr Zardari angrily denies that it was remiss of him to have left the country in the wake of the disastrous floods which have inundated more than a fifth of Pakistan's land mass and affected some 20 million people. He also asserts that the emergency is giving succour to domestic extremists.

It is worth addressing those points in detail. The question of whether Mr Zardari neglected his responsibilities when he travelled to London earlier this month is moot. It is questionable how much the President could have done in practical terms by returning home more quickly. Arguably, he did a more useful job raising awareness of the disaster abroad. Yet, whatever the truth, the episode certainly did the President no favours in the eyes of many Pakistanis.

As for the boost to extremism from the disaster, President Zardari is, sadly, correct. Fundamentalist Islamist charities, some with links to militant groups, have stepped in to the gap left by the inadequacies of the state in response to the disaster, delivering aid to those who have lost their livelihoods much more effectively than the central authorities.

The Pakistani state, particularly the intelligence services, must bear much of the responsibility for the existing reach of these groups. David Cameron was right when he said that some elements within the Pakistani state "look both ways" when it comes to extremism. Official corruption has also contributed to the state's ineffectual response. A state-sponsored fund-raising drive in the country raised little, mainly because of fears that the money would be misappropriated. Lingering questions over Mr Zardari's own record when it comes to corruption have not helped matters.

In addition to this, the slow and meagre flow of international aid thus far has made an already wretched situation worse. The beneficiaries of the aid from local charities have made the affected communities more receptive to the extremist message (just as Hamas's provision of social services to suffering Palestinians boosted that group's popularity in Gaza). And the inadequate response of Islamabad has confirmed the view of many Pakistanis that the central state has little to offer them.

The reluctance of many foreign governments to provide emergency financial support to Mr Zardari's government has not only helped to destabilise this country, it has been a missed opportunity. Prior to the floods, surveys suggested that some 70 per cent of Pakistanis viewed the US unfavourably. But where US troops have joined the relief effort in the north-west of the country, the local population has expressed positive attitudes to America. A stronger aid effort could have been a huge boost to relations between Pakistan and the West.

Pledges of emergency help from international governments have now, belatedly, reached $800m (£500bn). And the International Monetary Fund is considering giving Pakistan some leeway on the repayments for its $10bn loan taken out two years ago. This is all welcome. The immediate priority must be to get food, water and shelter to the displaced victims and to prevent the spread of disease. Then there is the need to rebuild homes and roads, replace swamped energy infrastructure and replant crops.

But in the longer term, the outside world needs to overhaul its approach to Pakistan. Bilateral aid from the US and Europe needs to be directed towards building up Pakistan's civil society, rather than channelled, as much of it is at present, to the county's over-mighty military. Western governments need to start treating Pakistan not only as a security problem, but a nation in urgent need of development. These devastating floods have revealed the country to be both.