U.S. improves its image in Muslim nations with the response to Pakistan’s Disaster – October 21, 2005

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U.S. improves its image in Muslim nations with the response to Pakistan’s Disaster

The earthquake in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir has caused unprecedented devastation and loss of life. Entire towns and villages have been destroyed. While the international community was quick to respond with relief assistance – President Bush weighing in with a pledge of $50 million – the aftermath revealed the uncomfortable reality that the Pakistani government did not have the logistical resources to reach the victims quickly enough.

Those familiar with the forbidding terrain of the high mountains and isolated valleys of Pakistani Kashmir realized that a lack of logistics would pose the most formidable obstacle confronting the Musharraf government. Roads and bridges that existed in this remote area were largely destroyed by the earthquake. Helicopters are the only way to reach people desperate for relief goods and medical assistance.

Foreign countries including the United States contributed helicopters for the relief effort to supplement Pakistan’s meager fleet. Around 60 helicopters are flying multiple sorties round the clock to provide tents, blankets and food and to ferry injured survivors to hospitals in the larger cities. International relief workers, however, estimate that at least three times that number are required to prevent death and disease from multiplying in the earthquake-affected areas.

The U.S. response has been received favorably in Pakistan and will definitely improve America’s image in a country where U.S. ratings, like those in other major Islamic countries, were low. The gesture by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to include Pakistan, a major non- NATO ally in the U.S. “war on terror” in her itinerary while visiting Central Asia, has gone down well with the leaders of public opinion in Pakistan.

Her affirmation that the U.S. will help Pakistan in its hour of need will provide a welcome boost to U.S. public diplomacy efforts in South Asia and even beyond. A U.S. mobile field hospital is on its way to Pakistan. A contingent of American soldiers has reached the affected regions and is busy providing relief assistance to the badly shaken residents. Reports indicate that their efforts have been appreciated by residents.

The earthquake did not spare Kashmiris living on the other side of the line of control in Indian-administered Kashmir, although the casualties there are far fewer. India and Pakistan have gone to war twice over Kashmir, which both claim and which has been the major bone of contention between them. India’s offer of relief assistance was quickly accepted by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. An Indian military helicopter transporting 25 tons of relief supplies was allowed to land at Islamabad. This is the first time that either country has accepted relief aid from the other following a natural disaster. It is quite possible that this tragedy will benefit the cautious dialogue initiated two years ago between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. If this moment is seized upon by both countries, some good might emerge from this horrible human tragedy.

Observers have noted the outpouring of sympathy and solidarity that the Pakistani people have shown toward the victims of the natural disaster. Donations of relief goods are arriving in Islamabad by the truckload, compounding the logistical and administrative problems that authorities were already facing in their relief efforts. For the time being at least, this feeling of unity and solidarity has swept aside the divisions within Pakistan. Also, remarkably, there has been no major outbreak of looting or rape, which usually accompanies catastrophic events.

A major long-term effort at rebuilding the shattered lives of between 2 million to 3 million people living in northern Pakistan will be required. Musharraf has relied on the army, the most disciplined component of Pakistan’s bureaucracy, to help in the daunting task before him and his government. There has been criticism of the slowness of the government’s response, with some critics accusing authorities of not doing enough for the victims. With a harsh winter about to descend upon northern Pakistan, Musharraf faces a race against time.

If he can persuade the international community to sharply increase the supply of helicopters and winterized tents, the two most critically needed items, he may stave off the political aftereffects of the earthquake. Otherwise, he could face the same opprobrium that was heaped on President Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The next few weeks will be a testing time for him. Whatever the outcome for the Musharraf government, it will be a long time before a modicum of normalcy returns to northern Pakistan.

— S. Azmat Hassan is a former Pakistani ambassador. He is a senior faculty associate at the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.

— Copyright 2005 The Star-Ledger. All Rights Reserved. Used by NewsBank with Permission.
Record Number: sl200543592224e4

— From: The Star Ledger (Newark, NJ)

— Published On: October 21, 2005

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