Earthquake in Pakistan: Destruction, Suffering and the US Militarization of "Relief"

by Li Onesto

Revolution #019, October 23, 2005, posted at

Pakistan, October 8, Saturday morning. People were already up and working and schoolchildren were at their desks when a devastating earthquake struck, followed by more than 100 aftershocks. Officials estimate that 25,000 have been killed. But rescue operations have not even reached many areas hit by the quake and many bodies are still buried beneath piles of concrete, steel and wood. The death toll is expected to surpass 40,000. The earthquake’s epicentre was near Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which suffered extensive damage, with most of its buildings destroyed. And whole communities have been flattened in the region touching Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan.

The destruction is immense. Four million people have been affected, tens of thousands have been injured, and as many as 2.5 million have been left homeless.

Some people were rescued after being trapped for several days underneath piles of collapsed concrete. A number of countries sent professional search-and-rescue teams, and a French group found five children at one school. But these teams only stayed a couple of days and only went to the more accessible areas.

In such devastation every hour counts. People trapped under rubble can be saved and the seriously wounded need immediate hospital care. But for several days, there was no help for tens of thousands.

People were forced to dig with their bare hands to find survivors. Villagers carried the wounded for hours across rugged terrain, trying to find medical help. In Balakot, a northern town of 30,000, dozens came from surrounding areas to help lift the debris, pull out bodies, and help the wounded. But there was a limit to what they could do without heavy lifting equipment and medical supplies.

People have lost their homes and loved ones and there is no food or shelter. Desperate crowds have descended on military trucks, trying to get food, tents and medicine. Five days after the quake, rescuers had not yet reached hundreds of villages and, according to Pakistani officials, only 3,110 people had been evacuated by helicopter.

The Politics of U.S. Aid

The day after the earthquake, the U.S. contributed $1 million to the Red Cross and $100,000 in aid to Pakistan (see BBC table of international aid offered to Pakistan). Later the U.S. pledged $50 million, the use of eight helicopters, two portable hospitals, and some engineers with earthmoving equipment.

The U.S. has been known to promise aid and then never deliver. John Samuel, Asia director of ActionAid International, told a news conference earlier this year the U.S. aid promised after the Asian tsunami is a classic example of "phantom aid." And Emira Woods, at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., points out that the U.S. government places conditions on foreign aid that require most relief and development assistance materials and services to be purchased from U.S. companies and agencies.

Even if the U.S. actually delivered on its promise to Pakistan -- it would still be only a quarter of what the U.S. spends every day for the war in Iraq. And as trapped and wounded died in Pakistan, just over the border, there was a fleet of U.S. helicopters being used to "hunt down terrorists."

International Aid to Pakistan

EU: $3.6m
Australia: $380,000
UK: $177,000 and 60-strong team
US: $100,000
China: 49 rescuers, dogs, 17 tons of equipment
Japan: 50 rescue workers
Russia: 30 rescuers, sniffer dogs, special equipment
Germany: $60,000

Source: BBC News Website


Pakistan is a poor and underdeveloped country, and much of the area hit by the quake is remote and impoverished. Many wounded and dying have no medical care even in normal times and survivors now face little or no shelter against the cold weather setting in. All this, and the outbreaks of disease, will add to the death toll. And while billions of dollars and huge resources, including massive transport and medical capabilities, are being used to occupy and kill people in Iraq, in the critical days after the earthquake, thousands of people were left to die.

Unlike after the recent Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Bush didn’t wait for days before saying something about the earthquake in Pakistan. But this didn’t have anything to do with saving lives. It had everything to do with U.S. strategic interests in Pakistan.

Pakistan has a 1,400-mile border with Afghanistan and after September 11 it became crucial to the U.S. "war on terror." Bush offered $3 billion in aid and Pakistan’s president Pervez Musharraf cravenly submitted to U.S. requests for military and logistical support in the invasion of Afghanistan. Musharraf has since been a key U.S. flunky in a country where reactionary Islamic fundamentalism is very powerful, including within Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus.

The area hit by the earthquake is an extremely unstable region. For over 50 years, India and Pakistan have fought over the contested territory of Kashmir. And the so-called "Line of Control" separating India-controlled and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir is one of the most militarized areas in the world. Musharraf, who has survived several assassination attempts, has been holding together a government with many competing centers of power -- and the U.S. fears the earthquake could further destabilize things and lead to Musharraf’s downfall.

The New York Times reported that one reason for the quick offer of U.S. aid to Pakistan was "the desire to bolster General Musharraf when his help is badly needed in finding Osama bin Laden and repressing Islamic radicals." ( New York Times, "Showing Speed and Loyalty, Bush Mobilizes Aid to Pakistan," 10-10-05)

The Militarizationof U.S. "Relief"

After Hurricane Katrina, we saw how the U.S. treated the people -- how instead of helping survivors, police and national guardsmen shoved guns in people’s faces.

This is no accident. The insertion of military forces as the major force in disaster relief is a military doctrine being articulated and fought for by high-level policy makers in the Bush regime.

Remember what Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force, said in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? He said:

"This place is going to look like Little Somalia. We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control."

Reactionary pro-imperialist military analyst Robert D. Kaplan put it straight out in a New York Times op ed piece a couple days after the earthquake ("Next: A War Against Nature," 10-12-05). He said:

"The rest of the world and even quite a few Americans are uncomfortable with the globe-trotting United States military. But in future years they will see much more of it. The causes will be more related to the natural environment than to terrorism… When such disasters occur, security systems break down and lawlessness erupts. The first effect of the earthquake in the Pakistani town of Muzaffarabad was widespread looting--just as in New Orleans. Relief aid is undermined unless those who would help the victims can monopolize the use of force. That requires troops.

"Because of our military’s ability to move quickly into new territory and establish security perimeters, it is emerging as the world’s most effective emergency relief organization… The distinctions between war and relief, between domestic and foreign deployments, are breaking down."

First of all, Kaplan is lying – widespread looting did not characterized the situation in New Orleans or the earthquake-hit areas in Pakistan. In both cases, the masses of people showed tremendous courage in helping each other as they faced a horrible situation with no government help in sight.

Then Kaplan redefines disaster relief aid. For the U.S., it’s not about rescuing people, bringing in food, water and medical supplies or providing transportation and shelter for the wounded and homeless. It’s about establishing U.S. military control and using this situation to further the aims of U.S. imperialism. In this same op ed piece Kaplan talks about undertaking relief work "to win goodwill and, informally, to pick up intelligence on America’s terrorist enemies."

Robert Kaplan is not just anyone. He’s well connected to the Bush regime and the Pentagon. He is the author of 10 books on international affairs and travel. When George W. Bush was governor of Texas he claimed Kaplan was at the top of his reading list, and Kaplan’s books were also on President Bill Clinton’s bookshelf. Kaplan has been a consultant to the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Regiment, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Marines. He has lectured at military war colleges, the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, and the U.S. State Department.

And how did Robert Kaplan spend his summer? In a recent speech to the Carnegie Council, he explained that he was embedded with a ranger battalion in Nepal. A genuine liberation struggle is going on in Nepal and a Maoist people’s war now controls most of the countryside. The U.S. has provided the reactionary Nepalese regime with millions of dollars, thousands of weapons and military training. Like Pakistan, Nepal sits on the Himalayan fault line. And as in Pakistan, a devastating earthquake would provide the U.S. with new opportunities to break down, as Kaplan says, the " distinctions between war and relief and between domestic and foreign deployments."

"After observing a map in which the Pentagon had divided the world into five areas of command, Mr. Kaplan concluded that even though some may wish to deny the very existence of America’s imperialistic policies, wasn’t this map proof that the Pentagon had appropriated the entire planet, leaving no point of the earth surface unaccounted for?"

From an introduction to a speech by Robert D. Kaplan, consultant to the U.S. military, 10 days before the earthquake in Pakistan (see