U.S. builds goodwill with quick assistance in Pakistani flooding

At least 1,600 are dead and millions are homeless after monsoon rains bloated rivers, submerged villages and triggered landslides in Pakistan.
By Griff Witte
Thursday, August 12, 2010

In a country of 170 million people where anti-American sentiment burns brightly, the United States may have won 84 friends Wednesday by scooping them up in the belly of a Chinook helicopter and ferrying them away from this flooded mountain town.

The rescue effort represents the most visible element of a broader, $55 million U.S. assistance package following Pakistan's worst-ever natural disaster. While the ultimate impact on Pakistani public opinion is unknown, the United States has earned rare and almost universal praise here for acting quickly to speed aid to those hit hardest.

The Pakistanis rescued Wednesday were among more than 2,700 picked up over the past week by six U.S. choppers that have also delivered bags of flour and biscuits to stranded residents of the flood-ravaged Swat Valley, in the country's northwest. Nineteen larger helicopters will take over that effort, the U.S. Central Command announced Wednesday night.

"The American assistance has been considerable, it has been prompt, and it has been effective," said Tanvir Ahmad Khan, a former Pakistani foreign secretary and now chairman of the Islamabad-based Institute of Strategic Studies. "The sheer visibility of American personnel and helicopters working in the field gives a feeling of very welcome assistance from the United States."

Most analysts say that feeling is unlikely to translate into any immediate improvement in underlying Pakistani attitudes toward the United States. The two nations have been allies in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but the relationship is marked by deep mistrust and a widespread belief among Pakistanis that the United States has ulterior motives for its war in neighboring Afghanistan. The word "America" is often pronounced here as an epithet and accompanied by a litany of decades-old grievances. In a survey released by the Pew Research Center last month, nearly six in 10 Pakistanis described the United States as an enemy.

Still, the floods have presented U.S. policymakers with an unusual chance to generate goodwill while providing a much-needed humanitarian service. The floods have affected 14 million people across Pakistan, and the United Nations said Wednesday that nearly half a billion dollars is urgently needed to keep the death toll from soaring past the current 1,600. International aid has so far been inadequate, it said, at less than $100 million.

The United States is not the only player here that sees an opportunity to enhance its image. Islamic charities -- some with links to banned militant groups -- also moved quickly to plug the gap left by the Pakistani government's inability to meet flood victims' basic needs. In traffic circles across northwestern Pakistan, a charity widely believed to be a front for the outlawed group Lashkar-i-Taiba has set up tents advertising the availability of food and shelter to anyone who needs them.

The Pakistani Taliban, too, has said that it will help victims -- on the condition that the Pakistani government stop accepting assistance from the United States.

Rather than shun U.S. aid, Pakistan has asked for more, requesting dozens of additional helicopters. The 19 new heavy-lift helicopters -- 12 CH-46E Sea Knights, four CH-53E Super Stallions and three MH-53E Sea Dragons -- are aboard the USS Peleliu, part of a Marine expeditionary unit that has been positioned off the Pakistani coast to aid the effort. The new choppers will relieve four Chinooks and two Black Hawks, based in Afghanistan, that were sent here along with 90 troops on an emergency basis last week.

The U.S. military deployed dozens of helicopters after the 2005 earthquake in the Pakistani region of Kashmir, and their presence earned the United States a temporary jump in popularity. This time, the damage reaches into every corner of the country and is expanding by the hour.

"Pakistan is our friend, an ally, and in their time of need, we are committed to partnering with their government and military to support their efforts to bring relief to the millions of Pakistanis impacted by these floods," Gen. James N. Mattis, the new Centcom commander, said as he announced the additional helicopters.

The initial helicopter missions have been focused in one small area, the Swat Valley, a strategically important region that also happens to be one of the hardest hit. Just over a year ago, Swat was controlled by Taliban militants, and it took a major offensive by the Pakistani army to drive them out. The government had begun to rebuild Swat after the heavy fighting, but the floods have set back those efforts by years, officials say.

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