IN terms of sheer devastation, it may well emerge that Pakistan has suffered more damage during this single flood than in any war that we have fought. Whether we look at the amount of land inundated or the millions of people displaced, or if we try and calculate the growing economic cost — already said to be in the billions of dollars — and the hunger and disease that comes in the wake of super floods, it becomes clear that this is a catastrophe like no other.
It is only in terms of the absolute casualty count, which is nonetheless upwards of a thousand and growing, that the comparison fails. As is common in conflicts, it is those who are already most vulnerable that suffer the greatest, and this is exacerbated by the fact that this war is one that will not be contained to a single front or a defined border. This is not a localised battle but an existential conflict that will be fought everywhere, all at once, and in perpetuity. With that in mind, lets extend the metaphor and ask what army we are planning to fight this war with.
How do armies win wars? At the most basic level it involves a chain of command, clearly defined objectives and a logistic chain that allows critical supplies and material to get to where they are needed, before they are needed. Critical to this is organisational structure which, in the case of most armies, starts with the unit or section. Three sections combine as a platoon and a company is made up of three platoons and so on until we reach the division level. Of course, it does no good to have an excellent organisational structure if the various components do not coordinate and work together like parts of a well-oiled machine.
The governmental body tasked with dealing with such disasters is the appropriately titled National Disaster Management Authority which is mandated to “[lay] down the policies, plans and guidelines for disaster management”. It does not and cannot work in isolation, of course, and so the NDMA must work in tandem with the provincial disaster management authorities which, in turn, must delegate ground responsibilities to the district disaster management authorities, that are meant to be present and functioning in each district of Pakistan. The DDMAs have an impressive mandate, tasked as they are with preparing district response plans while identifying vulnerable areas, adhering to NDMA and PDMA guidelines and also laying down guidelines of their own.
Wargaming is crucial to victory.
As far as structure goes, it’s not bad at all, and works perfectly … on paper. In reality, however, the lack of coordination is painfully evident, and we know that effective coordination becomes all the more important when you have a paucity of resources, as we undoubtedly do.
Pakistan’s response to the floods, once the magnitude of the crisis became evident, was also uncoordinated: not only were we caught by surprise by the massive amount of rainfall we received (which is understandable), we were clearly not able to effectively deploy resources in a timely fashion, and the spectacle of people going hungry in relief camps is evidence enough of that. It’s not that there weren’t enough supplies of food and water to go around; the problem is that those supplies didn’t get to those who needed them in time. And time is crucial: it does no good for a battalion to receive crucial ammunition after the battle is over; it also does no good for a division that desperately needs spare parts to receive food rations instead.
And here is where not just coordination, but wargaming takes on a crucial role, because as the Prussian field marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke said: “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main force.” Any plan must take into account not only contingencies and worst-case scenarios but also be practised enough that those on the ground and in control rooms have a chance to train and adjust on the fly. This is a point that Churchill agreed on, saying: “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” The only possible way forward then, is to practise and, equally crucially, ensure that your logistic chains and the people who man them are able to deal with multiple eventualities.
Critically, our managers have also failed to fully capitalise on the one resource we can count on: organisations like Alkhidmat, the Edhi Foundation and many others, big and small, who always rise to the occasion. Talk to any of these groups and you’ll hear the same story repeated: no organised coordination between relief groups or between the groups and the government, with the result that an area that may no longer need tents is still getting supplied with tents while too many others remain shelter-less. We may not have the resources we need, but tragically, we are not even properly using the resources we have.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2022