ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s army is playing the leading role in rescue efforts after the worst floods in decades, but it will not divert forces from the battle against Islamist militants, military officials said on Friday.
The floods, the country’s most severe natural disaster, began two weeks ago and have killed more than 1,600 people, forced 2 million from their homes and disrupting the lives of about 14 million people, or 8 percent of the population.
The army has deployed about 60,000 troops for rescue and relief operations out of a force of about 550,000 soldiers.
Soldiers in helicopters and boats have plucked numerous survivors from the water that has inundated the Indus river basin. Army engineers are rebuilding broken bridges and washed-out roads while other units have set up relief camps.
But there has been worry, especially in the United States, that the Pakistani military would have to withdraw some of its 140,000 soldiers fighting militants in ethnic Pashtun lands in the northwest, along the Afghan border, to help with the floods.
The United States needs concerted Pakistani action on its side of the Afghan border as it struggles to suppress a raging Afghan Taliban insurgency supported from militant strongholds in Pakistan’s wild northwest.
But the military played down that worry.
“The involvement of our troops in relief activities will have no impact on our fight against militants,” said military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas.
“We were mindful of this factor when we carried out deployment for relief activities and I don’t think there will be any need to withdraw troops from the western border,” he said.
The mountainous northwestern has been largely spared the worst of the floods and most troops involved in relief work were from units in the flood areas, said a senior security official.
“We have not withdrawn any troops from the western border and we hope we will not need to do so,” said the official, who declined to be identified.
“There has been an impact on our training activities as most troops involved in relief efforts were undergoing training, but our activities, operations as well as deployment along the border with Afghanistan have not been affected at all,” he said.
Even before the floods, the Pakistani military said it had no immediate plans for any major new offensive in the northwest.
Despite U.S. pressure to root out all militant enclaves in the rugged northwestern border lands, the military has said it must first consolidate the gains it has already made.
If the floods worsened, and more soldiers were needed to help, the military was more likely to pull units off the eastern border with old rival India, security analysts said.
Tension between the nuclear-armed rivals has eased in recent months after a sharp deterioration that followed a November 2008 attack on the Indian city of Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants.
There is still a worry that militants will take advantage of anger with the government over its perceived sluggish response to the floods to step-up recruitment.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday expressed concern that militants would seek to expand their influence by aiding flood victims as the government struggled to reach them.
Charity groups linked to militant factions have been quick to step in to help, as they did in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in 2005 centered in Pakistani Kashmir.
While the charities deny any political agenda and have not been seen doing any overt recruitment, analysts say they can influence public opinion and win over hungry, angry survivors.
“They will take full advantage and they may try to spread their tentacles and try to participate in social and welfare work as they did in the Kashmir earthquake,” said retired army general-turned-security analyst Talat Masood.
“The government has to continue to expand their welfare in order to neutralize their affect.”
Editing by Robert Birsel and Miral Fahmy