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 of 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.
"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.
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.
The potential for serious turmoil, 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.