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Pakistan flood relief: Could it undercut Taliban influence?

The US is widely disliked in Pakistan, feeding the Taliban and terrorism there. But if the US played a major role in Pakistan flood relief, it could win many hearts and minds, some experts say.

USAID administrator Rajiv Shah (r.) accompanied by Richard Holbrooke, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington July 28. Some experts are calling on the US to ramp up aid to Pakistan as the country deals with devastating floods.

Alex Brandon/AP

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By Howard LaFranchi, Staff writer / August 3, 2010

Washington

Are Pakistan’s devastating floods the chance for Washington to turn crisis into opportunity?

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After a massive tsunami hit parts of Indonesia in December 2004, rapid and substantial US aid had the effect of boosting America’s image in an Islamic country.

Now, as the toll rises from floods in Pakistan’s remote and restive northwest, some experts are calling on the US to seize the moment and come to the region’s rescue. In addition to humanitarian aims, they argue, the aid could do as much or perhaps more than billions of dollars in programmed assistance toward winning the hearts and minds of Pakistanis.

“Given the important benefits this would have for the Pakistani people, as well as for the US-Pakistani relationship, stepping forward with critical aid right now would be a win-win for both,” says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs.

'Angels of mercy'

Ambassador Inderfurth recalls how US aid to Pakistan after an earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 changed perceptions of the US military, which delivered provisions on Chinook helicopters.

“The Chinooks became known then as ‘angels of mercy,’ ” says Inderfurth, now director of the graduate international affairs program at George Washington University in Washington. “We need to dispatch those angels again.”

Pakistani officials said Monday that their government had indeed requested Chinook helicopter assistance for the relief effort.

The US has offered $10 million in initial humanitarian aid, in addition to a dozen prefabricated steel bridges and nearly 200,000 emergency meals, according to a State Department fact sheet on US assistance. In addition, US helicopters are already working with the Pakistani Interior Ministry. So far, they have rescued more than 730 people and delivered thousands of pounds of assistance to flood victims.

But the Council on Pakistan Relations, a Washington-based US-Pakistan friendship organization, is calling on the US to do more. Damage and the death toll – which the council says has topped 1,300 – are expected to rise with continuing monsoon rains.

Helping Pakistan help itself

In a statement Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the US “will work closely with the government of Pakistan to ensure aid reaches those people who need it most.” The emphasis on cooperation with the Pakistani government seemed designed to counter widespread Pakistani perceptions that their own government is unresponsive and out of touch.

That perception is one of the factors fueling support for the country’s militants – particularly for those in the northwest, a region the government has often ignored. But it also offers other avenues for progress, some Pakistan experts add. The US should emphasize not only its cooperation with Pakistan but also the Pakistan government's accomplishments.

Inderfurth says stepped-up US assistance in ways that would be readily visible could only boost the US image in Pakistan, which is poor. A June poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Survey showed that 68 percent of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of the US.

“Those numbers clearly indicate the depth of anti-Americanism in Pakistan," says Inderfurth. "If we want to be able to pursue our common security interests, we need to undertake the kind of practical assistance than can help turn those numbers around.”

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