ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The humanitarian and economic disaster caused by the worst floods in Pakistan's history could spark political unrest that could destabilize the government, dealing a major blow to the Obama administration's efforts to fight violent Islamic extremism.
The government's shambling response to floods that have affected a third of the country has some analysts saying that President Asif Ali Zardari could be forced from office, possibly by the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half its 63-year history.
Other experts caution that the state itself could collapse, as hunger and destitution trigger explosions of popular anger that was already seething over massive unemployment, high fuel prices, widespread power outages, corruption, and a bloody insurgency by extremists allied with al Qaida.
"The powers that be, that is the military and bureaucratic establishment, are mulling the formation of a national government, with or without the PPP (Zardari's ruling Pakistan Peoples Party)," said Najam Sethi, the editor of the weekly Friday Times. "I know this is definitely being discussed.
Never miss a local story.
"There is a perception in the army that you need good governance to get out of the economic crisis and there is no good governance," he said.
The Obama administration stepped up emergency aid this week to $76 million, anxious to counter the influence of Islamic extremist groups that are feeding and housing victims through charitable front organizations in areas the government hasn't reached.
Some U.S. officials worry that those groups could exploit the crisis to recruit new members and bolster their fight to impose hard-line Islamic rule on nuclear-armed Pakistan.
"I think the mid- to long-term radicalization threat accelerates because of the mass migration and the frustration that is coming from this," said Thomas Lynch, a research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington.
Pakistan is battling militant groups led by the Pakistani Taliban, whose strongholds on the country's northwestern fringe also provide bases to al Qaida, the Afghan Taliban and allied extremists fighting NATO and Afghan troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
The Pentagon announced Friday that a three-ship taskforce carrying 2,000 Marines, Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, transport helicopters and relief supplies is sailing for Pakistan. It will replace the U.S.S. Peleliu, an amphibious assault vessel steaming off the port of Karachi that's lent 19 helicopters and 1,000 Marines to the aid operations.
U.S. officials, who requested anonymity so they could speak more freely, downplayed the threat of near-term political upheaval, and they dismissed the danger of a coup, saying that the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, wants the military out of politics.
"The military is perfectly happy to let the civilian government screw up," one U.S. official said. "The military does not want to take over because they get blamed for all the deficiencies in government."
The potential for serious turmoil, these U.S. officials said, will grow after the floods subside. Then the government must grapple with the task of rebuilding roads, bridges and other infrastructure and caring for millions of impoverished, mostly rural people who've lost their homes, crops and livestock.
"The Pakistani military quickly mobilized to support relief efforts in areas affected by the floods, and . . . seems to be handling things effectively," a second U.S. official said. "The popular ire so far seems directed at the (government). As with any natural disaster, the reconstruction phase can be a challenge, and that's when Pakistan's civilian agencies will need to step up to the plate. That'll be the real test."
The floods have affected 14 million people, of whom at least 1,600 have died and some 3 million have been left homeless. However, the impact will be felt throughout the impoverished country of 180 million.
The World Bank said Friday that an estimated $1 billion worth of crops have been wiped out, raising the specter of food shortages. Damage to irrigation canals, the bank added, will reduce crop yields once the floodwaters are gone.
The situation worsened Friday as authorities ordered the evacuation of Jacobabad, a city of 1.4 million people in southern Sindh province, and forecasters warned that fresh monsoon rains in the mountainous northwest would send a new wave of flooding south down the central Indus River valley over the weekend.
The PPP-led government came to power in 2008 elections that ended the last bout of military rule, which lasted eight years under Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
An economic slide that began just as the Musharraf era was ending has significantly worsened and the current administration is surviving on an International Monetary Fund bailout. It says that the floods could halve economic growth and force it to divert funds from development programs to relief efforts.
Zardari, who went on with a high-rolling official visit to France and Britain while his country grappled with its worst-ever natural disaster, is the focus of much of the anger over the government's inability to cope. He assumed control of the PPP after the assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007.
Only the courts could legally dismiss him and the government. However, the PPP rules through a minority government, and behind-the-scenes military pressure on its coalition partners could bring it down, forcing new elections, Sethi said.
Another outright coup is considered unlikely, but few people rule it out entirely.
"If the military takes over now, I can assure you that it will be the end of Pakistan, an end which will be punctuated by a very bloody civil war," said Asad Sayeed, a political analyst. "Pakistan is a very divided country right now."
Pakistan has lurched from crisis to crisis. Its most painful episode was the break-up of the country in 1971, when then-East Pakistan seceded and became Bangladesh.
The bloody uprising in East Pakistan received a final push from Islamabad's poor response to a 1970 cyclone that killed an estimated 500,000 people. While there is no equivalent secessionist movement in what's left of Pakistan, some experts worry that the floods could boost popular support for hardline Islamists.
"Within months of Cyclone Bhola, an ideology — Bengali nationalism — feeding off economic deprivation and post-disaster hopelessness took half the country away," columnist Moazzam Hussain reminded readers on Friday in Dawn, the main English-language daily. "This time, a renegade religious ideology — feeding off the consequences of the present disaster — is drooling to take away the remainder."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY