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Angels of Mercy

August 5, 2010

Recent history reveals that the United States has enjoyed its best international ratings when its humanitarian efforts take center stage. Although the United States, through its primary aid agency (USAID), continues to stay actively involved in the socio-economic development in different parts of the world, such a commitment has always received increased attention during a calamity. While the relief efforts carried out by the United States after the tsunami in Indonesia helped to create a turnaround in U.S. popularity in the largest Muslim country of the world, the enhanced U.S. participation in the wake of the disastrous earthquake in Pakistan is a classic case study of ‘crisis turned into opportunity.’

The 7.6 magnitude earthquake in October 2005, which struck the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Azad Kashmir, left over 74,000 people dead, 70,000 injured and nearly three million homeless. Severe damage to the buildings and the other structures followed, resulting in the entrapment of numerous people in the debris and the failure of ground communication and transportation (roads, bridges). In turn, this amplified the difficulties to extend relief efforts to the troubled areas. In such a situation, the only option left is to extend relief support via aerial means.

Chinook helicopter carrying relief supplies via its ‘twin slings.’

While the Pakistani Army started reaching out to the people, the possible delays and the slow pace of the relief work owing to the insufficient means of air support (helicopters) worried analysts. Realizing the gravity of the situation, the U.S. response was immediate with then Commander of CENTCOM, General John Abizaid, appointing Rear Admiral Michael Lefever to head a Joint Task Force at the Disaster Assistance Center in Pakistan (DAC PAK).

The task force, working alongside the Pakistani government, presented an opportunity for the traumatized Pakistani nation to observe what can easily be termed as the largest and longest relief effort of the U.S. military history. The U.S. contingent not only delivered humanitarian aid supplies to the wrecked parts of the NWFP, set up the field hospitals, cleared roads and tackled other engineering challenges; they most importantly brought with them the symbolism of friendship. The relief operation gained remarkable attention as the U.S. helicopters facilitated the process of reaching out to the people in the troubled areas, in what initially seemed to be a slow-paced if not an impossible task to achieve. It was these helicopters that brought about a major turn-around in the post-quake relief efforts. Over the next six months, these choppers flew more than 5,200 sorties, distributed more than 14,000 tons of relief supplies and, most importantly, carried almost 17,000 passengers from the quake-stricken areas, 3,751 of whom were casualties. Such a mass-scale relief effort was likely a ‘first of its kind’ sight for most of the Pakistanis. Proof that the U.S. had won their hearts and minds duly came from both the Pakistani government and the media terming these helicopters as the ‘Angels of mercy’.

Today, Pakistan is faced with another natural catastrophe as severe torrential rains over the last two weeks have wrecked havoc in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (former NWFP) province and scattered parts of Punjab and Sind. The latest figures are startling. Around 1,500 people have lost their lives while an official UN estimate totals the number of effected people to be around 3.2 million. This tragedy could not have come at a worse time for a country fighting militancy and struggling with a fragile economy.

Pakistani soldiers shift relief goods from a traditionally decorated truck to a U.S. Chinook helicopter.

The Army has already diverted some of its resources to the aid efforts in the flood affected areas, but it will be constrained due to the on-going offensives to curb militancy in FATA and with the prediction of more rains in the Sind province. It will not be long before the public unrest starts escalating, which could lead to further turmoil in an already-devastated situation.

In this situation, Pakistan is desperately looking for much more than aid pledges made by its allies. The destruction of ground communication in the effected areas has again left aid efforts only with the option of extending relief via aerial means and Pakistanis are looking to the same ‘Angels of mercy’ for help. Such an initiative will be a welcome relief for the hundreds of thousands affected by this tragic disaster. Additionally, it will bring back the forgotten, yet positive, memories of the U.S. relief efforts from 2005-06, which will help alleviate the lingering tension between Pakistanis and the U.S. A recent survey carried out by the Pew Research Center about the public opinion in Pakistan paints a gloomy picture of U.S. popularity in the country.

However, channeling this support in the right way will lead to a turnaround in these numbers, as reckoned by the former assistant secretary of the State for South Asian Affairs, Karl Inderfurth. A change in public perception will be critically important for the U.S. as well, as it strives to define and achieve common strategic objectives in the region. Such an effort will act as a means to lessen the influence of the extremist groups who operate under the guise of welfare NGOs and are at the forefront of the relief activities. In the longer run, it will reaffirm the U.S. commitment to a stronger and deeper relationship with Pakistan and will send out a strong message to those expressing doubts about the longevity of this partnership.

-Muhammad Saad Mazhar

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Shoaib Faruqi permalink
    August 5, 2010 4:36 pm

    You couldn’t have put it better. While the Pakistan Army is fighting its war against terror, any humanitarian support from the US Government in regards to Disaster Assistance will go a very long way, in the hearts of the Pakistani nation.
    God bless us all!

  2. Asma Qadir permalink
    August 8, 2010 2:59 am

    Nicely written. I read this in the morning but didnt have time to comment. Jee tau I tend to disagree somewhat. Humantarian help does assuage feelings but only for the time being and its effect is limited only to ppl who are directly targeted. I still remember during Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan (the one before the most recent one), while she was addressing journalists and women in Islamabad, no one was buying her references to the humanitarian aid provided by the U.S. after the 2005 earthquake, inresponse to very scathing comments and questions abt the U.S. govt’s disregard for Pakistan’s compulsions as they are in this war on terror.

    At the end of the day, such aid is going to be seen as part of a deluge of aid coming Pakistan’s way in the aftermath of this disaster but if it will have a substantial effect on changing the way people think about the U.S. and its policies otherwise, Im not too sure.

  3. Saad Mazhar permalink
    August 10, 2010 9:04 pm

    The initial response is bringing positive signs:

    http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/12-us+pilots+fly+pakistan+flood+aid+to+win+hearts+and+minds–bi-07

    We need to stay hopeful and give credit to their good work!

  4. August 16, 2010 5:24 pm

    This is an excellent report on the vital importance of expanding US aid to flood-stricken Pakistan. The immediate needs are for clean water, food, and medicines to stem the rise of disease. The US military – and their Angels of Mercy helicopters – are essential in this effort as this report so vividly points out. After other stabilization efforts, there should be support for agricultural programs that can help the landless, poor farmers in rural areas acquire ownership of small, garden plots – rural prosperity plots. These small plots- up to one-quarter-acre – can spark economic development, combat the appeal of extremists, and address the widespread land-based grievances of Pakistan’s rural poor. These plots can make a huge difference in the livelihoods and status of the poor and enhance the role and status of women. Because of the devastation from the current flooding, an emergency program to allocate 1/20 – 1/10 of an acre to many families most severely affected by the flooding should be considered. Just 50,000 acres of publicly owned land could provide at least basic nutritional support (through growing vegetables) to as many as 1 million displaced and impoverished families.

  5. Muhammad Saad Mazhar permalink
    August 25, 2010 7:01 pm

    Very well analyzed, Mr. Krogh! The extent of damage is so enormous that the country will need years to recover. The economy will need an initiative like you mentioned to stand back on its feet as the current damage assessment is still unclear with the threats already looming for a fresh phase of torrential rains. The agriculture sector would also look forward to greater market access (especially in US and Europe) as the textile sector would begin to rebuild itself.

    The immediate concern, however, still hovers around extracting the people out of the areas declared under the threat of receiving more floods. According to a recent UN estimate, at least 40 additional heavy-lift helicopters, working at full capacity, are needed to reach the huge numbers of increasingly desperate people with necessary food and health kits. Any further delay in extending this immediate aid is likely to fuel the prevailing resentment against the slow pace of relief work and it’s only a matter of time before it turns into a mass-scale chaos which may well pose a serious problem for the authorities in Islamabad and the international friends who hold an interest in the stability of Pakistan.

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