Obama Seeks More Aid For Displaced Pakistanis
Thursday, June 4, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 3 -- President Obama has asked Congress for an additional $200 million in emergency aid for 3 million Pakistanis displaced by their government's ongoing military offensive against Taliban extremists, U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke said Wednesday.
The new funding, to be added to Obama's pending supplemental spending request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would nearly triple the amount of U.S. emergency aid for Pakistan. The administration authorized $110 million three weeks ago and is spending an additional $20 million for transportation and other purposes.
Speaking at a news conference with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari within hours of his arrival, Holbrooke said the "dramatic increase" in aid was "symbolic of our commitment and support."
Holbrooke emphasized that his hastily arranged three-day visit was "at the personal instruction of President Obama" and reflected White House concern about Pakistanis fleeing heavy fighting in the Swat Valley and surrounding regions northwest of Islamabad, the capital.
The trip also reflects U.S. concern that the Pakistani government is unable to reestablish control, services and security in the areas it says have been cleared of Taliban fighters during the offensive, which began early last month. Administration officials say they worry that the Pakistani military will repeat past patterns in which extremists are pushed out of an area but quickly return after government forces withdraw.
In a meeting with officials from about three dozen international and nongovernmental aid organizations following his session with Zardari, Holbrooke pointedly asked, "Does the government have its act together on this?"
While avoiding direct criticism of the government's effort, the aid workers described towns and cities in Swat and beyond that remain without electricity and water; severe shortages of food and medicine; and shuttered police stations. They said that many local officials have fled the fighting and that destruction in some areas is heavy.
Some residents who relied on military assurances that the Taliban had been cleared from the area have returned to find continued fighting and were forced to flee again. "They have issued statements saying the militants are not a problem anymore," a representative of Save the Children said of the military. He and others suggested that an independent verification system be established to ascertain security situations in areas the military has pronounced cleared of the Taliban.
Humanitarian workers also said that up to 40 percent of the 200,000 people who have registered for assistance in displacement camps -- and the millions who have been given refuge in the homes of friends, relatives and even strangers -- have signed up twice and even three times for benefits. The World Food Program has said it will suspend food distributions for at least several days this week to institute a new registration system.
Holbrooke plans to visit several camps south of the Swat Valley on Thursday, and the Mardan region to the north, where hundreds of thousands are living in often squalid conditions with overburdened "host" families.
When Holbrooke leaves Pakistan late Friday after a day of government meetings, he will travel to the Persian Gulf states to try to persuade them to contribute to the emergency. At the news conference and in remarks to reporters traveling aboard his aircraft en route to Pakistan, he was sharply critical of regional governments that have not responded to urgent appeals for assistance from the United Nations and the United States.
At the same time, Holbrooke is eager to ensure that U.S. assistance -- more than half of the aid Pakistan has received in the current emergency, assuming Congress approves the new funding -- contributes to lessening anti-American sentiment here.