View a slide show of Pakistan's great flood.
This week, Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, boarded a private Gulfstream jet along with his family and his hundreds-large entourage to visit the European countries included on the president's grand tour. Yesterday, Zardari -- who was married to my aunt, the late Benazir Bhutto, before her 2007 murder -- landed in London. As soon as the plane touched down, the president and his Very Important coterie were chauffeured in a dozen luxury vehicles to a five-star hotel where the president will be staying in a £7,000 ($11,160) per night Royal Suite.
His welcome, however, was less than royal. On the drive to the hotel, protesters held placards reading "Zardari King of Thieves," "Zardari 100% Pure Corruption," and "GO Zardari GO." While Zardari was schmoozing with his cronies in luxe London hotels, Pakistan was reeling from the deadliest floods to hit the country in 80 years. In short, it looks like Zardari's Katrina.
More than 3 million people in the northwestern region of Pakistan have now been affected by the floods. Parts of the north are facing terminal food shortages even as they are inaccessible to relief workers. The U.N. World Food Program says that 1.8 million will urgently need something to eat in coming weeks. The death toll has risen steadily in recent days to more than 1,400 people. About another million have lost their homes.
The news is also unlikely to get any better: Officials now say that the waters are expected to hit Punjab and Sindh provinces, Pakistan's food-producing regions. New flood warnings are still being issued, and the country is bracing for further monsoon downpours.
Zardari takes a lot of overseas trips -- so many that one local TV pundit estimated somewhat anecdotally last year that Richard Holbrooke, U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy to the "AfPak" region, had spent more time in Pakistan than Zardari had recently. But the timing of this particular visit has angered not only his subjects but also his hosts. Two prominent Asian Britons refused to meet the visiting head of state. Khalid Mahmood, a member of Parliament, vigorously condemned Zardari's decision to visit London. "A lot of people are dying," he told the press. "He should be [in Pakistan] to try to support the people, not swanning around in the UK and France." Lord Ahmed, a labor MP, continued that Zardari had a responsibility to be "looking after people, not [be] over here."
Yet the protests seem to have fallen on deaf ears -- which really shouldn't surprise anyone who has watched the Zardari government in action. The floods are just the latest, most tragic example of how inept the Pakistani state truly is. The inundation was predictable; Pakistan suffers monsoon rains every year at exactly the same time. But in a country -- and with a president -- so endemically corrupt, dealing with the entirely preventable, whether terrorism or natural disasters, has become impossible. There is simply no will, and more importantly no money, to spend on the Pakistani people. The country's coffers are constantly being diverted to more pressing programs -- or pockets, for that matter. Before he came to office, Zardari was facing corruption charges in Switzerland, Spain, and Britain. (As president, he withdrew Pakistan's cooperation with the latter two countries' courts; his presidential immunity prevented a Swiss case from reopening.)