|At least 20 million people have been affected by the floods [AFP]
How can we process the idea of 20 million people left homeless and six million facing immanent starvation, with little or no locally produced food available for at least the next two years? How do you quantify feeding and housing 20,000,000 people - the seven zeros make the sheer scope of the disaster far more tangible than the word "million"?
More broadly, how do you help the sixth most populous country in the world - with 170 million people - recover from a flood that literally submerged one-third of the nation under water, while, in a cruel twist of fate, leaving many without fresh drinking water?
For most of the last decade, the US and its allies have been fighting a so-called 'war on terror' in the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But today a new 'war on terror' must begin - one that demands a commitment of attention, resources, and expertise far exceeding that devoted to the now outdated war. Failing to do this will result in a rise in extremism on a potentially unparalleled scale.
Imagine the terror felt by 20 million people living without homes, water, medicine or food. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has seen plenty of major disasters, but after flying across the flood-hit country he declared, visibly shaken, that he has "never seen a disaster as bad".
Even as he spoke, survivors were so desperately grabbing at any relief supplies, ripping at each others' clothes and causing such a level of chaos that in some places aid distribution has had to be stopped.
This terror is not going to numb the Pakistani people into apathy or a stupor. If an unprecedented relief effort on a scale that at least equals the amount of resources devoted to the other 'war on terror' is not mounted soon, an unfathomable level of anger and desperation will develop, with consequences that are impossible to predict.
'Militant' organisations are already on the ground handing out food and supplies, while the Pakistani government, as usual, stumbles - its hugely expensive army ill-equipped or trained to take on such a massive rescue operation.
All the wrong numbers
|More than six million people are facing immanent starvation [AFP]
And yet, let us consider the numbers that are being discussed by the UN secretary-general, the US government and the international community more broadly.
The UN has asked for an initial $460mn to provide relief. So far, only 20 per cent has been pledged. The money is less and the commitment slower than that pledged to Haiti after its horrific earthquake in January.
At the time of writing, the US has committed about $76mn but that number will surely rise significantly.
But consider this number: The US is currently spending at least $12bn each month prosecuting the war in Afghanistan and the broader 'war on terror'. That is 25-times the amount the UN has asked for to aid the 20 million displaced Pakistanis.
Looking more closely, the Congressional Research Service estimates that the US spends $1mn per soldier per year in the AfPak theatre. That is upwards of $300mn per day.
Every day, then, the US is spending three-and-a-half times more in AfPak than its present aid commitment to the flood-affected.
The Obama administration is allocating slightly over one half of one per cent of the US' monthly war bill - or about $3.80 per affected person - to alleviate the sheer terror being experienced by tens of millions of people, who live in precisely the home base of the US' avowed enemy.
Imagine what will happen when the cholera, which is already being detected, and other diseases, really kick in among the millions of displaced people. Imagine the terror if children start dying by the thousands. And then the winter arrives.
Please excuse the indelicateness of the following question, but who the hell is advising Barack Obama? Not that he or any other person with an average IQ should need advice on what to do in this situation.
The US is spending $12bn a month to get rid of a few thousand people who hate it in a region that has been deemed of such strategic importance that it will continue to spend that money despite the disastrous shape of the US economy and the limited evidence to suggest its strategy is actually working.
A disaster of biblical proportions has just afflicted the primary target population in this war and the UN has requested the equivalent of pocket change to help get the relief rolling in and save untold lives.
And what does the Obama administration pledge? A bit over 17 per cent of the needed funds.
Why is the US president not just writing a cheque to cover the whole amount if others are dragging the bill? After all, who has anywhere close to the vested interest the US has in how Pakistan turns out?
Is this really the time to be counting pennies? Not a single assessment of the war in Afghanistan can demonstrate that the more than $100bn spent on it has made the situation better.
So why should Obama suddenly be fiscally prudent when six million children are at risk of deadly water-borne diseases and tens of thousands of women are due to give birth in the coming weeks (up to 25,000 of the newborns are not expected to survive if the current situation continues)?
War against poverty
|The US has 19 helicopters helping the relief effort [AFP]
Think of the good will it would generate if Obama stood up and declared: "If we can spend $12bn per month to fight a few thousand of your fellow country - and tribes - men, surely we can spend $1bn to keep tens of millions of Pakistanis alive, housed and healthy."
If the US has pledged itself, according to top counterterrorism official John Brennan, to a "multigenerational" campaign against al-Qaeda, would it not be wise to also pledge a multigenerational campaign against poverty, inequality, authoritarianism and corruption?
Does the Obama administration not understand which war is likelier to produce the desired results?
Besides the paltry sums being pledged (and if Haiti is any guide, only a small percentage of that money will actually ever be handed over), both American and Pakistani officials have pledged that the war on the Taliban in Pakistan, including in areas hard-hit by the floods, will continue.
Over the weekend US missiles killed 12 people. Meanwhile, 19 American helicopters are currently involved in the rescue efforts.
Precisely what kind of message does that send? "We are not going to give much to help you stay alive, but we will make sure to continue killing you during this time of greatest need."
A 'new Pakistan'
Meanwhile, Asif Ali Zardawi, the feckless president of Pakistan, has told his compatriots: "Despondency is forbidden in our religion. We consider it as a test from Allah for us. This is a test for us and for you. We will try to meet all your wishes. We will build a new house for you. We will build a new Pakistan."
Of course, no one believes this, even in normal times.
Pakistan's landed elite has long been at the heart of the country's immense social, economic and political problems. It has never cared about "meeting all the wishes" of the mass of extremely poor Pakistanis on whose backs their wealth has long been secured.
The majority of the country's wealthy build houses only for themselves and the "new Pakistan" that has been talked about since the country's founding 60 years ago has always been little more than a chimera for the vast majority of the population.
Some members of the country's elite have worked assiduously to try to change the country's political culture and to address the rampant inequality that is the source of so much of Pakistan's problems.
But the system is so dependent on this dynamic, and the country's main patrons, the US and its allies, who need the elite to acquiesce to their wars, that it has proved impossible to rebuild the system in a more sustainable way.
Time for a truce
|Many areas are still completely cut off and have received no aid [AFP]
If the fears of the UN secretary-general and other aid officials about the scope of this disaster are born out, the Obama administration has only one option if it wants to ensure that this natural disaster does not doom its strategic goal of pacifying Pakistan and Afghanistan.
He must immediately declare a ceasefire in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, offer a truce to the Taliban, and pledge to put the full weight of the tens of thousands of soldiers currently in theatre, and the huge supply of military aircraft and equipment at their disposal, to the relief efforts in Pakistan.
There can be no better strategy for winning the other, now far smaller, 'war on terror'.
Imagine how Pakistanis would respond if, instead of competing with the Taliban or al-Qaeda via drones, missiles and IEDs, the US was clearly at the forefront of a massive relief and rebuilding effort.
Imagine if US and other coalition officials, relief specialists and personnel were able to work with the grassroots organisations - many of which are tied to conservative and potentially extremist movements - and in the process begin to build bonds of trust and solidarity with the very groups who are currently so suspicious of American intentions and goals.
How would poor Pakistanis respond when the Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters come by again looking to recruit people for jihad against the US if it was clear that the US was actually spending more money on reconstruction than on destruction?
How would they respond if, instead of handing over "crops, fertilisers, and seed" (in the secretary-general's words) to the country's corrupt landed elite, the US led the drive to work with grassroots forces to break the cycle of dependency and corruption by empowering small farmers to take control of the country's agricultural system?
Such a strategy has a chance of working where the current one of bombs and aid to the government has met with failure.
Reshaping the battlefield
|The UN secretary-general called the disaster the worst he had ever seen [AFP]
The question remains whether the Obama administration, and concerned world leaders more broadly, have the honesty, sophistication, and dedication to take on this task despite the myriad forces on all sides that would be arrayed against it.
One thing is sure though, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are not waiting around to find out. They are already reshaping the battlefield, in ways that no amount of bombs or aid might be able to counter.
In the meantime, it is up to private citizens to take the lead.
Perhaps all those multi-billionaires who just pledged half their fortunes to charity might consider now a good time to start spending their money. And the artists and aid organisations that so quickly put together the concert for Haiti would be well advised to organise something similar for Pakistan.
As much as anything today, Pakistanis need to know that the world cares and will help them get through this unprecedented situation.
If we do not step up to fill the void, it is pretty clear who will, and what that will mean for Pakistan's future and for ours.