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Flood lends Pak army clout

The powerful military has taken the lead in providing relief — dwarfing the civilian government — and in doing so has greatly enhanced its prestige and influence.

world Updated: Sep 06, 2010 02:52 IST

The message in black Urdu lettering on a white sack of supplies for flood relief says it all: "In tough times, the Pakistan Army is with you".

The powerful military has taken the lead in providing relief — dwarfing the civilian government — and in doing so has greatly enhanced its prestige and influence.

And while nobody expects it to take over, the renewed clout of the army is perhaps the biggest political change brought by the floods, one likely to define its relationship with, and leverage over, the civilian government for years to come.

"The military has in fact expanded its interests through the distribution of relief aid," said defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. "There is nothing today which does not fall within the military's purview."

The army, which became deeply unpopular in the final years of former president Pervez Musharraf, had already clawed back considerable influence over foreign and security policy.

But in the flood relief it has become very visible as the only national institution with the manpower, the organisational skills and equipment to help some 20 million affected by the floods.

At a boys' college turned warehouse in Multan, the main city in south Punjab, soldiers work around the clock to assemble packages of emergency relief. With leave cancelled and rations donated to the cause, the sense of pride is palpable.

The commander in charge of the area has been on the go since the floods hit a month before, says Major Farooq Feroze, the officer in charge of public relations in Multan.

"He is supervising each and every movement," he says. "He keeps us all alert. He himself is sleepless."

That is in stark contrast to the sluggish response of the civilian government, and the departure of President Asif Ali Zardari on a visit to France and Britain when the floods began.