U.S. Army joins rescue, aid efforts in flood-stricken Pakistan
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- The U.S. Army joined efforts Thursday to rescue and provide aid to some of the 4 million people affected by flooding that continues to cause massive devastation as it spreads across Pakistan.
U.S. helicopters -- four Chinooks and two Black Hawks -- helped evacuate 800 people who had been stranded in the northwest's Swat Valley, and the choppers' crews distributed 66,000 pounds of supplies, according to the U.S. Embassy here.
Although the relief missions are being coordinated with the Pakistani government, the presence of U.S. troops on the ground has the potential to cause controversy. U.S. motivations are widely mistrusted in Pakistan, where only a small number of American troops have been permitted in training and advisory roles. The addition of 84 service members could generate suspicion that U.S intentions go beyond providing humanitarian aid.
Still, on Thursday, the initial reaction was positive. "We appreciate any help from the world, including the U.S.," said Arbab Tahir Khan, spokesman for the ruling party in Pakistan's northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has been the hardest hit. "The devastation caused by the floods is beyond imagination, and the world is responding -- but slowly. They should speed up their response."
The United States leans heavily on Pakistan to cooperate in efforts to combat insurgents who operate along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but it has frequently criticized the Pakistani military for not doing enough to go after certain militant groups. U.S. officials have been concerned in recent days that the flooding could destabilize the government and take resources away from its counterinsurgency campaign.
Pakistan's government has been widely assailed here for failing to formulate a coherent response to the floods. Pakistani officials insist that they are doing their best with limited resources.
Even as the flooding has torn through new areas and the number of affected people has soared, President Asif Ali Zardari has been out of the country all week, visiting his counterparts in France and Britain.
Zardari's allies have defended the trip, noting that the nation's prime minister is steering the flood response. But Zardari's political opponents have been relentlessly critical, arguing that the absence of the unpopular president reflects his detachment from the problems of the people.
On Thursday, authorities began evacuating half a million residents of the southern province of Sindh, where floodwaters are expected to crest in coming days.
The floods have done the most damage in Pakistan's restive northwest, but they have been moving south and east to Sindh and Punjab provinces. Dozens of villages in Punjab were inundated Thursday, and the overall death toll in Pakistan's flooding has risen to at least 1,500.
In addition to deploying helicopters, the United States said it would provide $35 million in disaster aid -- up from the $10 million previously announced.
Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.