In-depth: When disaster strikes: the response to the South Asian earthquake
PAKISTAN: The role of the military in the Pakistan earthquake
In the initial days the Pakistan military were the only force able to deploy men and resources to the affected areas
NAIROBI, 5 June 2006 (IRIN) - Mohamed Naim Omar is a schoolteacher in Kanog village in the Mansehra district in northern Pakistan. He recalls the Saturday morning last year when the quake hit. “I was on the road on my way to my school when the earth started to shake. There was a vibrating sound followed by big bangs like an explosion. It was like doomsday and I felt like the world was opening up and we would all be buried. Of course I was very, very frightened. Clouds of dust surrounded me and the sky was dark. It was impossible to stand - we were lying on our faces. Mothers were terrified for their children and everyone was looking for ways to save themselves.”
‘Now I am president of a graveyard’
At 8.52 a.m. on 8 October 2005, an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale - the most devastating to hit the region in a century - destroyed towns and villages in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), leaving more than three million people homeless. “Now I am president of a graveyard,” said the president of Muzaffarabad on national television on 9 October 2005.
Balakot, a town of 30,000 people in NWFP was almost entirely destroyed with more than 10,000 dead. “To give you an example of the kind of casualties, there was one school with 350 students killed in it. Another one where 49 children died… it was like a mass grave where people found dismembered hands and feet and unrecognisable faces,” recalled Iftikhar Ahmed, a medical student in Balakot, just after the quake.
Later that month the official a death toll was initially reported to be over 73,000 with more than 70,000 injured. By November, that figure had risen to 88,000 deaths and over 100,000 injured, according to some reports. More than 10,000 students and school children, and over 1,500 teachers, were immediately killed with over 12,000 schools or colleges damaged or destroyed. Over half a million homes were destroyed along with many hundreds of kilometres of roads and dozens of bridges.
Commenting on his feeling that morning, Major General Farooq, chief of the Federal Relief Commission (FRC) – charged with the masterminding the relief effort - said, “..it was a very bleak day because there was too much destruction and, hour by hour, during the day, the situation and the scale of the disaster started to become clearer. Suddenly I was put in charge of the whole relief response; then named the Federal Relief Commission.”
The military imperative in Pakistan
The scale of the disaster was massive covering over 30,000 square kilometres in the most rugged mountainous terrain – the Himalayas. Despite warnings in recent years of potential seismic activity, Pakistan was ill prepared for a disaster of this magnitude. Like many countries, particularly developing countries, Pakistan had no mechanism for disaster preparedness and no government department dedicated to handle the disaster relief.
Farooq was candid about Pakistan’s deficiencies. “There was no disaster management authority in Pakistan. Even myself I was doing another job working under the prime minister. We didn’t have an organisation… if we had an existing organisation I think the response would have been of even a better quality. I am talking in relative terms.”
For the military-led government of Pervez Musharraf, who assumed power in October 1999 in a bloodless military coup, the army was the only obvious option to lead and organise the huge response required to meet the needs of the quake’s aftermath. Unlike the civil authorities, and particularly the police force, the army of Pakistan widely enjoys a positive reputation for service to the people, for discipline and for honesty.
It is clear that senior staff in the military may have profited illegally during the Afghan wars when billions of dollars and military hardware were being channelled through Pakistan to the mujhadeen; indeed, they may still control certain aspects of contracted services. However, as an army, its relationship with its own people is unusually good. The Pakistani army is also recognised internationally as a professional and well-ordered force, participating as it does in numerous United Nations Peacekeeping missions globally. In recent years it has been operational in UN missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and Haiti.
During the earthquake relief operations they appear to have confirmed this reputation and have been almost universally and repeatedly praised for their work by victims of the quake, international donors, aid officials from the NGOs and the UN, as well as other military contingents working in Pakistan. .
Photo: Edward Parsons/IRIN
|The scale of the disaster was massive covering over 30,000 square kilometres in the most rugged mountainous terrain - the Himalayas. Despite warnings in recent years of potential seismic activity, Pakistan was ill prepared for a disaster of this magnitude
"We are so proud of the army. God made them a medium to help us in our hour of trial. They performed well,” said one villager echoing the sentiment often heard from those in the affected areas. “The army were great. They stood by us and even though they are poor like us they helped a lot,” said another.
An international staff member of World Vision wrote during the relief effort, “Often I hear of the dismay from the civil population when rumours spread that the army will pull out in the near future. The people complain of the inevitable corruption, inefficiency, bias in distribution and lawlessness that will result from the government departments who will take over the army’s operations.”
According to Farooq of the FRC, “The only machine that could have enacted this gigantic task was the military and it was working through the FRC; it was not working independently. Even in Katrina [in the US in 2005] the national guard and the regular military were called in to help.”
A critical report from the International Crisis Group (ICG) in March 2006, “Pakistan: Political Impact of the Earthquake”, claims that the military machine that led the national and international relief work deliberately bypassed and disempowered civil structures and civil administration in the quake-affected areas.
The reality appears to be that the local authorities were too damaged, traumatised and in some cases dead, to provide effective leadership during the aftermath. “Because of the destruction, about 50 to 60 percent of their government was devastated. Government employees dead, or with dead relatives, meant that just after the event the local government was paralysed,” explained Rear Admiral LeFever, who commanded the US military contingent in the relief effort. “This meant the Pakistani military stepped into place and rapidly deployed into the affected areas…even though they lost lots of their own soldiers that Saturday morning as well. They reassured the people and were out amongst their own people very early on. Their response was excellent.”
Irrespective of the role, or desirability, of the military in Pakistani politics, on 8 October 2005, there was no other force capable of mobilising immediate and wide-scale assistance. For most of those seeking to respond to the disaster – a multifarious collection of national and international agencies, international governments, the general public and the international media - that was all that mattered.
Military – civilian cooperation and action
“The army moved fast…By the evening of 8 October, army helicopters were hovering over every hospital in Islamabad and Rawalpindi… within three or four days 50,000 troops reached their locations. This is no mean achievement by any army of the world.” claimed President Prevez Musharraf in December 2006. Musharraff continues to enjoy international praise for his government’s response to the earthquake in international fora.
Fifty-thousand troops were deployed into the affected area as the FRC was established, and fast-moving strategies were developed in the first few hours of the disaster. They immediately restored order in affected areas, prevented looting, cleared landslide-affected roads, replaced bridges and re-established communications in the difficult mountainous conditions. While helicopters started to evacuate the thousands of injured, ground troops helped villagers search for those trapped, and began household surveys to establish the extent of the damage and to assess the levels of need. They evacuated over 80,000 people from the affected areas.
Captain Dilawar of the Baloch Regiment told IRIN, “We moved out two hours after the earthquake – the engineers were clearing away the landslides…we are doing surveys and our men are carrying food relief on their own backs…. Even the soldiers are giving money from their salaries. Men on leave came back demanding to be part of the relief.”
Saying the relief effort is dominated by the military may be misleading. Farooq stresses that the FRC is a civilian organisation with some serving officers, but most senior managers are civilian. The operational wing of the FRC has direct command and control of military resources. The president gave Farooq unprecedented access to different instruments of the government as well as the army in the relief operations.
“The FRC has two wings,” he explained. “One was the military wing which was responsible for the execution of the relief – in other words, the blue collar workers. Then I had the civilian wing full of civil servants who acted as the go-betweens with the line-ministries, the international organisations, the foreign agencies and the NGOs. So they were coordinating at strategic level with these elements. It was the military wing that was executing the relief and rescue activities because the military formations were moved directly to the affected areas.”
Photo: Edward Parsons/IRIN
|Fifty-thousand troops were deployed. They immediately restored order in affected areas, prevented looting, cleared landslide-affected roads, replaced bridges and re-established communications in the difficult mountainous conditions
One of the main factors cited as the mark of success in Pakistan is the speed and consistency of delivery of essential supplies to such a widely dispersed group of displaced people; and, more importantly, the avoidance of the much-feared second wave of deaths that everyone felt the Himalayan winter would cause. The Pakistani army immediately opened up the long-closed regions of Kashmir to foreigners and worked closely with other military contingents.
The international NGOs and the plethora of local agencies were not alone in developing partnerships with the Pakistani military as they responded to the quake. In the days and weeks following 8 October, hundreds of military personnel and resources poured in from a wide variety of countries. The US had an early presence with more than 2,000 people involved in the relief effort, along with dozens of helicopters, field hospitals and thousands of tons of relief supplies and equipment. Assistance from Australia, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, and Afghanistan - in terms of airlift capacity - added to those of the United Nations, NATO and various private helicopters brought in by international NGOs, such as MSF and Oxfam. Nevertheless, of the 140 planes and helicopters used in the airlifting operations, about 45 per cent were Pakistani.
NATO created an air bridge from Turkey and Germany to bring in relief goods, while military personnel from the UK, Luxembourg, France, Portugal, Germany, Slovenia, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, and Holland, worked in Pakistan under the leadership of the Spanish. In total, over 1,000 NATO engineers and supporting staff, as well as 200 medical personnel, worked in Pakistan during the crisis.
Resistance to the military
With the controversy between humanitarians and the military alive and kicking in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the reputation Pakistan has as a military regime, the international community was uncomfortable about working closely with the Pakistani and international military. Some organisations have clear mandates to keep their operations separate from activities of the military under all circumstances, while others were forced to overcome their apprehensions. “None of the NGOs here were willing to work with the military. But after a week they started coming to us,” said Dilawar.
Photo: Edward Parsons/IRIN
|Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, Pakistani troops unload supplies from a US Chinook helicopter in one of the worst hit areas. The Pakistani army worked closely with military personnel from dozens of countries during the relief phase
Jan Vandemoortele, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Pakistan, and head of the UN Development Programme there, felt the same initial resistance. “Of course there was a problem linking with the military… Fortunately most partners in the humanitarian communities also took a very pragmatic stand saying: ‘No, we have not worked with the military before, and we do not normally work with the military, but in this case we will.’ And the army were just as much committed emotionally, individually as any of the other relief workers.”
Detractors of the military-led regime are unhappy that the ability of the Pakistani military to play a dominant and positive role in the disaster relief work has received an improved international image. Not surprisingly, Musharraf is exploiting this goodwill received over the last eight months - the successful cooperation between international donors, politicians, celebrities, foreign armies, and numerous international NGOs.
For thinktanks like the ICG, the relationships have been too cosy. The ICG believes that the international community needs to wake up to the realities of the non-democratic rule in Pakistan, and the political impact of the earthquake - which they claim will lead to deepening extremism, as well as a more entrenched military regime enjoying international support.
The ICG also criticise the Pakistani military for poor and slow performance in response to the disaster which, they claim in their March report, led to increased deaths. They stand virtually alone in this accusation, against a wide range of observers, aid workers and military who found their response to be prompt and efficient. Combined with the other assisting military contingents, the UN and the many international and national agencies the disaster response in Pakistan represented for many a coming of age in terms of military-civilian cooperation and coordination in a emergency programme.
Coming hard on the heels of the international response to the impact of the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean less than a year earlier, many experts also claimed that lessons learnt from their experience there helped make Pakistan a success.
After the chaos of the early days of the disaster response, and the regularising of the relationships between the military and the hundreds of non-military actors, what was achieved by the joint action is generally regarded as remarkable. Seasoned aid workers and emergency experts have said that considering the scale of the disaster, the potential for disorganisation, and more disaster during the winter months, this response experience will be regarded as probably the best so far.
On the eve of handing over the reigns to the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority, the head of the FRC told IRIN, “We have managed it successfully - such a big disaster relief - with the help of all stakeholders… which is not just the army and the government of Pakistan, but also [with the] help of the international agencies.”
Abu Diek, the head the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - the UN coordinating body in Pakistan - was surprised by the results of the recent months of joint action and successful relief intervention, “Cooperation between [the] UN and [the] military has been exceptionally unprecedented. The UN has to rewrite its books about civil/military cooperation.”
Aid agencies, donors, the UN, and the Pakistan government all recognise that more difficult times lie ahead, as Pakistan tries to deal with the massive task of recovery, and where the relationship between the affected people and their government may be severely stretched. They also recognise that the main success of the relief effort was little more than to provide basic needs to the earthquake-displaced, and save them from more death by disease or cold. The real work of population return, infrastructure recovery and sustainable growth are the new challenges, not to be faced by the Pakistani military but by the re-established civilian authorities.