U.S. Army joins flood relief, rescue efforts in Pakistan

At least 1,600 are dead and millions are homeless after monsoon rains bloated rivers, submerged villages and triggered landslides in Pakistan.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 5, 2010; 1:52 PM

ISLAMABAD -- The U.S. Army joined efforts Thursday to rescue and provide assistance 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 Blackhawks -- 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 in Pakistan has the potential to cause controversy. U.S. motivations are widely mistrusted in Pakistan, and the addition of 84 U.S. 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 U.S. leans heavily on Pakistan to cooperate in efforts to combat insurgents who operate along the Afghan-Pakistani border, but 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 counter-insurgency campaign.

(Pakistan crisis coverage)

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 Great Britain.

Zardari's allies have defended the trip, noting that the nation's prime minister is steering the country's flood response. But his political opponents have been relentlessly critical, arguing that the absence of the unpopular president reflects his detachment from the problems of Pakistan's people.

Pakistani authorities began evacuating half-a-million residents Thursday of the southern province of Sindh, where floodwaters are expected to crest in the coming days.

The floods have done the most damage in Pakistan's volatile northwest, but they have been making their way south and east to new areas of Sindh and Punjab provinces. Dozens of villages in Punjab were inundated Thursday, and the overall death toll has risen to at least 1,500.

"We are facing a disaster of major proportions," Manuel Bessler, the United Nations humanitarian chief in Pakistan, told reporters. "Even a week after the disaster we don't have all the details. Roads are washed away. Bridges are destroyed. Whole areas are completely isolated and only accessible by air."

Sindh and Punjab contain rich agricultural areas, and aid groups have warned that damage to crops could result in food shortages and further price hikes for a country that has already experienced substantial inflation. At least 1.3 million acres of agricultural land in Punjab have been flooded, disaster officials say.

Pakistan's government has said that it does not have the resources to help all those who lost their homes and their livelihoods in the floods and has asked for outside help. The European Union, the United Nations and the Chinese government have all announced donations for the relief effort.

In addition to deploying helicopters, the United States said Thursday that it would provide $35 million in disaster aid -- up from the $10 million that had been previously announced.

The U.S. military had conducted a much larger relief operation in Pakistan in 2005, after an earthquake that killed nearly 80,000 people. That effort resulted in a temporary spike in U.S. popularity in Pakistan, but Pakistani perceptions of the United States have grown increasingly negative in the years since.

Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report from Peshawar.

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