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The win-win of U.S. relief for Pakistan

Displaced Pakistanis reach for food being distributed at a camp in Sukkar.
Displaced Pakistanis reach for food being distributed at a camp in Sukkar. (Kevin Frayer/associated Press)
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By David Ignatius
Sunday, August 29, 2010

Here's a simple proposal that would help get America past its recent traumas about Islamophobia: Let's embrace Pakistan in its hour of need after this month's devastating floods in the same way that we rushed to aid Haiti after the earthquake.

The Pakistan flooding, which has displaced an estimated 20 million people, is one of those natural disasters that can break through the usual political barriers and resentments. It reminds us of our human bond with people who are suffering on a scale that's hard to conceive. The Haiti quake produced such an outpouring of assistance, but there hasn't yet been a comparable response from Americans to the Pakistan disaster.

Where is the surge of private contributions? Where are the movie stars whose private jets were queued up in Port au Prince? Where are Anderson Cooper and the other journalists who rushed to Haiti? Where are Barack and Michelle Obama, and why can't they adopt the Pakistani people in the way Bill and Hillary Clinton did with Haiti?

"Pakistan needs help from its friends and allies," says Nadeem Kiani, the spokesman for the Pakistan Embassy in Washington. Flood waters are engulfing at least 20 percent of the country, an area equivalent in distance to that from New York to South Carolina, and destroying the crops, seeds and livestock of tens of millions of farmers. These desperate families will need government assistance for at least a year, just to survive.

The floods are Pakistan's worst natural disaster since its creation in 1947, according to U.N. data, eclipsing past earthquakes, storms and droughts. It's a crisis of "biblical proportions," as we like to say in the West, coming on top of an economic breakdown, a surge of brutal terrorism by the Taliban and a loss of faith in government leaders.

As someone who has visited Pakistan often over the past year, I worry that the country is nearing the tipping point -- a moment when the multiple pressures overwhelm the government's ability to cope and Pakistan borders on becoming a failed state. That would be a disaster for Pakistan, and for America, too.

One positive sign amid all this gloom is that the Pakistani military leadership is moving away from its traditional obsession with India and focusing on the internal dangers. The Inter-Services Intelligence directorate is said to have produced an assessment this month specifying that "the threat from within from extremists has surpassed the external threat from India," according to a Pakistani source.

The Obama administration has made a good start on flood relief. The U.S. government has contributed $90 million in disaster assistance, nearly triple the amount from the next-largest donor, according to U.N. figures. The United States also has a Marine force stationed offshore, to help with relief and military contingencies should the country veer toward chaos.

But U.S. private assistance has been modest so far. You can contribute to U.N. relief efforts with a text message (text "SWAT" to 50555), but a U.N. spokesman says this appeal has produced only about $100,000 in U.S. private donations. A similar text-contribution effort by the Red Cross has raised only $10,000 for Pakistan, compared with $32 million harvested for Haiti in a similar campaign, the Atlantic's Web site reports.

Yes, I know that Haiti is close to our shores, but even so, the disparity in aid is striking: The United Nations says that it has received $11.2 million in U.S. private aid for Pakistan, which is dwarfed by the $211 million that Americans donated to U.N. relief for Haiti. Overall donations to Haiti were a stupendous $2.5 billion, so much money that relief agencies have had difficulty spending it effectively.

The national security arguments for coming to Pakistan's rescue are strong, but there's a larger point: Helping desperate Pakistanis in this catastrophe would be good for the American soul. As the world watches the angry debate about the so-called Ground Zero mosque in Lower Manhattan, people must wonder whether America has lost its famous tolerance and generosity when it comes to Muslims.

We all know in our personal lives the paradoxical truth about charity -- that it helps the giver as much as the receiver. This would be especially true now, with a national mobilization to aid Pakistan. An America that remains closed and bitter toward the Muslim world is a nation still suffering the aftershocks of Sept. 11, 2001. An America that extends a helping hand is one that has surmounted this tragedy and regained its balance.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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