Quake Aid Helps U.S. Alter Image in Pakistan

U.S. soldiers unload goods sent to help Pakistani earthquake survivors.
U.S. soldiers unload goods sent to help Pakistani earthquake survivors. (By Mian Khursheed -- Reuters)
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 22, 2005

CHAKLALA AIR BASE, Pakistan -- High in a remote valley, the U.S. Army transport helicopter settled Thursday with a bump on the dry riverbed, and the earthquake survivors came running. Jostling and shoving for space, they crowded around the rear cargo hatch as the soldiers on board began tossing out tents, blankets and biscuits until they had no more to give.

As the helicopter revved its engines for takeoff, a balding man with a beard leaned across the edge of the lowered cargo ramp and, smiling his gratitude, extended his hand toward Brandon Chasteen, a 21-year-old Army medic from Chattanooga, who gave it a hearty shake. A moment later the chopper was churning toward another landing zone to pick up a load of injured.

Two weeks after the massive Oct. 8 earthquake in northeastern Pakistan, a mushrooming U.S. aid operation is doing more than just saving lives. It also is helping to improve the dismal public image of the United States in a conservative Muslim country where anti-American feeling has been aggravated in recent years by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Television news broadcasts have been filled in recent days with images of U.S. Navy cargo ships offloading relief supplies in Karachi, olive-drab Chinook helicopters disgorging bundles of tents and blankets in isolated mountain villages, and American soldiers -- some diverted from military operations in Afghanistan -- working with their Pakistani counterparts to evacuate the injured.

President Bush's Oct. 14 visit to the Pakistani Embassy in Washington to offer condolences for earthquake victims received wide coverage in the country's media, as did pleas by some in Congress for an increase in the $50 million in earthquake relief that the Bush administration has already pledged.

Even the conservative clergy, who have long been in the vanguard of anti-U.S. feeling in Pakistan, have grudgingly praised the U.S. response.

"Obviously, this is the other side of the United States," said Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Shujabadi, a prominent religious scholar in the port city of Karachi. "For the first time in so many years I have seen the American planes dropping relief and not bombs on the Muslim population."

It is too early to say whether the aid operation will have any lasting effect on public attitudes toward the United States in this impoverished nation of 160 million people, many of whom regard Osama bin Laden and the Taliban as heroes.

The Bush administration has close relations with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism. But the United States elicits far less warmth among ordinary Pakistanis, many of whom are convinced that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reflect hostility toward their faith. A survey released in June by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found 23 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable view of the United States.

Against that backdrop, the Bush administration is eager to highlight its role in aiding victims of the massive 7.6-magnitude quake, which shattered towns and villages across a vast swath of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and adjacent parts of North-West Frontier Province. Authorities estimate that the earthquake killed 40,000 to 50,000 people in Pakistan; about 1,400 more are thought to have died in the part of Kashmir controlled by India, just across the Line of Control, the cease-fire line that separates Pakistani and Indian forces in the disputed Himalayan province.

With many survivors trapped in remote areas that will soon be blanketed in snow, U.N. officials have warned that thousands more could die if foreign governments do not contribute more to the hugely complicated relief effort.

"The United States was in at the beginning," Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, told reporters Thursday. He cited, among other things, the airlift of 1,200 tons of aid in the 12 days after the quake, the deployment of a military field hospital in Pakistani Kashmir and the imminent arrival of U.S. Navy Seabees who will work with Pakistani army engineers to open roads blocked by landslides.

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