UPI International Editor
Washington (UPI) Oct 17, 2005
Unless the West acts very fast, areas of rural Pakistan affected by last Saturday's devastating earthquake will turn into breeding grounds for Islamist recruiters looking to sign up jihadis from among the hundreds of thousands of victims.
This crisis should be treated with the same sense of urgency as the war on terrorism. Because that is precisely what it is. This is the real mother of all battles for the hearts, minds and souls of the region's youth. They can be future citizens of Pakistan, or future jihadis. Their future is in our hands.
The Oct. 8, magnitude 7.6 quake killed about 25,000 people -- though the numbers are expected to rise, maybe even double, once all victims are recovered, and information from remote villages and towns start trickling into Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
Those are catastrophic numbers by any standard; it would be the equivalent of almost 50,000 people dying in the United States. Yet, as horrendous as those deaths may be, it is the survivors, the ones left behind, who stand to suffer the most. Most vulnerable are the women and children who are now homeless, stranded in the street, with nowhere to go and no one to care for them.
But just as worrisome, if not more so, at least from a strategic point of view, are the tens of thousands of young men who overnight find themselves alone, homeless, jobless, penniless and ripe for the recruiter from any of the militant politicized Islamist organization, of which there is no shortage in Pakistan.
The exact number of people left destitute by the devastation is not yet knows, but international relief agencies and Pakistani government officials say the final number could easily top 2 million. Some reports predict it could be as high as 4 million. The earthquake has destroyed more than 80 percent of structures in parts of northern Pakistan and strong aftershocks threaten buildings already damaged by the initial quake.
Assuming that the lower of the estimates is correct, and assuming that among the 2 million, there is only a small percentage -- just 1 percent -- of males aged between 15 and 45, you still end up with 20,000 possible recruits. Again, assuming that only 1 percent of those potential 1 percent recruits responds favorably and joins the mujahedin or any of the radical Islamist groups, that is still 200 possible future jihadis.
Closer to reality, the numbers could well be in the tens of thousands, if not more. As a reminder, it took only 19 men to carry out the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In view of the scale of the catastrophe that hit Pakistan, the real problem now is how to provide the survivors assistance. And who is going to provide that assistance. It is important that international relief organizations reach those in need before the Islamists do. If it means deploying NATO or U.S. forces toward that end, then it should be considered. But time should not be wasted as you can be assured the recruiters are already there, among the people, offering whatever help they can.
The U.N. coordinator, Undersecretary General for Emergency Relief Jan Egeland, who was touring the area around Muzaffarabad described the situation on the ground as "desperate."
It will get far worse unless massive amounts of aid start to arrive without further delay. Many cities and villages in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and the North-West Frontier Province, the most affected areas, have been wiped out. NWFP abuts Afghanistan and is the area where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding. He could soon be offering many more people refuge in his cave. His fighters are believed to frequently trek back and forth across the Pakistan-Afghan frontier.
As rescue teams from around the world rushed in to assist victims caught in the foothills of the Himalayas, where temperature at night drop to below zero, so too have some mujahedin who are familiar with the terrain and were already on the ground.
Radio France International, citing its correspondent in the quake-affected areas, reported that in one particular village, witnesses saw mujahedin arrive with blankets, food and medicine for the survivors. Some reports mentioned Kashmiri fighters making their way through the rubble to save victims trapped under demolished homes and schools. These fighters know their way around the craggy hills of Kashmir.
But as international humanitarian aid continued arriving, planeloads of medicine, tents, blankets and food, Pakistani officials complained that at times the aid was slow to arrive.
Approximately 50 helicopters are being used to ferry the wounded, but officials say it is far from enough. There is urgent need for more choppers, as there is for shelter, particularly winterized tents, since it has already started to snow in some regions.
"With wintry conditions arriving in the higher elevations, children are facing a potentially deadly combination of cold, malnutrition and disease," said UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman in New York. "Most housing has been destroyed in the hardest hit areas, so the survival of thousands of young children is now at stake. Shelter, nutrition, and health care for children must be a priority."
Indeed, it must be a priority. But so must be getting to those young people not only assistance, blankets, water and tents, but also a comprehensive program to keep them involved and away from the recruiters. A sort of Pakistani Peace Corps should be created and financed by Uncle Sam.
This is part and parcel of the war on terrorism -- it should be treated as such. In the long run, it will prove to have been a relatively low price to pay for the dividends reaped.
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