Floods in Pakistan — why read Van Creveld?

The country is devastated by some of the worst floods since its independence

Dr Muhammad Ali Ehsan August 28, 2022
The writer is associated with International Relations Department of DHA Suffa University, Karachi. He tweets @Dr M Ali Ehsan

Bhola Cyclone was a devastating tropical cyclone that struck present-day Bangladesh on 11 Nov 1970. Some say that it remains the world’s deadliest cyclone as it caused the death of some 500,000 people. Almost a year later Dacca fell and a new nation by the name of Bangladesh came into existence. The more one reads about the fall of Dacca the more one is reminded that it was a political problem and seeking a military solution to it was a huge mistake. The devastation that the Bhola Cyclone caused and West Pakistan’s response to this natural calamity had a huge impact on the minds of the local population and in the elections that took place just a month later, the opposition Awami League gained a landslide victory in the province. The attempts of postponing the elections in some of the constituencies had further damaging effects as the people who had survived were worse than dead and seeing the government’s handling of the relief operations and the bitterness, they felt they further voted in huge numbers for the opposition Awami League.

The dye was already cast. The situation quickly developed into the Bangladesh Liberation War and what followed up is history. There are two great lessons that we can draw from this unfortunate episode. One, politics must deliver and when politicians fail and act like Nero playing the fiddle while the city burns, they will be subjected to people’s wrath. Two, no patriotic Pakistani can take away from the Pakistan Army its die-hard commitment to stand up and defend Pakistan’s frontiers but interfering in politics or governing the country is not the job of the military. Had General Yahya Khan not imposed the second martial law in Pakistan and become the Chief Martial Law Administrator, the whole problem of East Pakistan would have been on the plate of the politicians and the military would never have been blamed for manufacturing a military solution to a political problem.

Fast forward to today’s Pakistan. The country is devastated by some of the worst floods since its independence. The whole province of Sindh seems to have drowned and other provinces are not featuring better. The government is nowhere to be seen. It is the job of political analysts and opinion makers to make predictions and my flood-deduced prediction is that people this time will not let the politicians go unpunished. Sindh has suffered because there has been no pre-planning, and no efforts to deal with this calamity that people endure every year. There has been an absolute failure on the part of all central and provincial governments, and politicians in this country have absolutely failed to put in place any mechanism to deal with such emergencies.

During the course of the 20th century, the world has been moving from nation-state conflict to ideological conflict and finally to cultural conflict. But 21st century is leading us toward environmental conflict. We must understand the environment for what it is — the biggest national security issue of the 21st century. Floods, diseases, surging populations, deforestation, water scarcity and air pollution cannot be left as issues that would get resolved on their own. Our political priorities are so bad professing in universities I find hardly any students in my classes having any faith in the system that runs this country. The big question is not of political incompetence as its history goes back a long time, the real problem is the unwillingness of politicians to admit their failure and step aside. It is in this context that I hope that the revenge of the poor takes an electoral shape and the big pillars of the politics in this country finally crumble and fall down.

Robert D Kaplan, an American author of over a dozen books, writes in his famous article, ‘The Coming Anarchy’ that whenever he asked the Pentagon officials about the nature of the war in the 21st century, the answer he frequently got: ‘Read Van Creveld’. Labeled as the most original thinker on war after Carl Von Clausewitz, Creveld warns in his book, The Transformation of War, that the vast state military machines like Pentagon’s are dinosaurs about to go extinct, and something far more terrible awaits us.

Explaining the terrible, Creveld writes that the period of nation-states and therefore of state conflict is now ending. He explains that the ‘national defense’ in the future will become a local concept. As local calamities and crimes grow and the state power fades and the ability of the state and the criminal justice system to protect their system diminishes, the revenge of the poor and the resultant urban crime, according to Creveld, will develop into a low-intensity conflict along with racial, religious, social and political lines. The future will be of communal survival caused by environmental scarcity, writes Creveld. There will be environmental-driven wars, fought by the environmental-driven regimes described as ‘hard regimes’. Future wars will be of communal survival caused by environmental scarcity.

Creveld may find many countries in Africa as a case study for his concept but even if we don’t admit it, we have already become a case study of what Creveld calls the transformation of public anger and resentment into low-intensity conflict or communal wars — all in the absence of able governance and true justice system. People in this country, their children, their life stock and their entire lives are being washed away by the flood waters and the focus of our politicians are still on how to retain or grab power. Islamabad and not the flooded exterior is the focus of their attention. Pakistan is in a dire strait, both nature and politics in this country are coming back with a vengeance. Attaching unrealistic expectations with the governments in Pakistan will no more be a public forte. So, from where to find hope and hold its hand?

Intellectualism is the pursuit of the big ideas of scholars and philosophers. Such pursuit is based on not only our passionate readiness to learn the given philosophical content but also to demonstrate our enthusiasm and willingness to reason and debate about that content. Our universities are our great hope where such debates occur and from where we produce generation after generation minds — some of them brilliant — to become part of a vibrant society seeking change. A generation, believing that power lies in the barrel of a gun, has ended up failing Pakistan and making it what it has become. It is now up to the next generation to reboot their belief that not in the barrel of a gun but the power lies with the will of the people — such belief can set our hope anew.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 28th, 2022.

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