By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
The Obama administration said yesterday that it will provide $110 million in emergency aid for Pakistani civilians displaced by recent fighting in the Swat Valley, as a Pakistani military offensive against the radical Islamist Taliban and allied foreign fighters continues to drive people from their homes.
The aid, announced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is intended to help the Pakistani government meet the needs of nearly 1.2 million internal refugees who have fled the fighting in the past month in an exodus that U.N. officials say rivals that caused by the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis are living in tents in squalid, sweltering refugee camps. Others are staying with relatives or host families or have rented temporary lodging.
In making the announcement, Clinton praised the Pakistani government for "leading the fight against extremists that threaten the future of their country and our collective security." She said providing the aid "is not only the right thing to do, but we believe it is essential to global security and the security of the United States." Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and the prospect that the Taliban or its al-Qaeda allies could gain access to them has raised alarm in the Obama administration and abroad.
Clinton's praise yesterday stood in contrast to her statement before Congress last month that the Pakistani government "is basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists." That unusually blunt statement rankled Islamabad, and Clinton quickly throttled back. During a visit to Washington this month by President Asif Ali Zardari, she told reporters that she was "quite impressed by the actions that the Pakistani government is now taking."
Clinton said the $110 million in humanitarian aid comes on top of nearly $60 million that the United States has provided to Pakistan since fighting erupted last August. The money also is in addition to other funding for Pakistan that the administration is seeking from Congress, she said.
The U.S. assistance is aimed in part at helping the Pakistani government undercut support for the Taliban, which is fighting to hold on to territory in northwestern Pakistan. The government says its troops have killed more than 1,000 militants since the offensive began in late April.
The U.S. aid announcement came two days after the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, visited camps for displaced Pakistanis and called for urgent and massive international help for those uprooted by the fighting.
In addition to 1.17 million registered internal refugees from the current fighting, at least 555,000 Pakistanis were displaced by clashes last August, the U.N. refugee agency said. Most of the displaced are staying with relatives or friends, imposing "huge economic and social strains" on Pakistan, the agency reported.
The U.S. government plans to use new technological tools, including reaching out directly to displaced Pakistanis who have cellphones, Clinton said. At home, she said, Americans can text-message the word "Swat" to the number 20222 to make a $5 contribution that will help Guterres's agency provide tents, clothing, food and medicine.