Forgetting About Pakistan

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The death toll from the October earthquake in Pakistan now stands at 73,000. The United States has pledged some aid already, but it’s hard to think they couldn’t be doing more—and be doing it more visibly. Assistant Secretary of State Anthony Wayne recently noted that the country would need about $5 billion in “near-term” relief, but would not say how much the United States would contribute. With Congress already set to pass $70 billion in new tax cuts, spend for Katrina reconstruction, and possibly grant the Bush administration $7.1 billion to fight avian flu, it’s easy to imagine that the U.S. will be relatively stingy when it comes to Pakistan aid.

That would be a mistake. After the tsunami hit Southeast Asia last year, American aid and military support in Indonesia, besides doing a lot of humanitarian good, also brought the U.S. a considerable amount of goodwill among Indonesians. There’s no reason to think Pakistan would be any different, as a letter-writer to Anne-Marie Slaughter notes:

[H]aving just visited the region and spoken to many community leaders across the NWFP and Pakistani-held Kashmir, it is apparent that there is a tremendous strategic opportunity for the United States and its allies. For a fraction of the cost of what is spent in other arenas of the War on Terror, an extremely volatile region and country’s hearts and minds can be won over. All that is required is a very substantial, very visible US relief effort.

To date, the US has provided helicopters and commitments of up to $50 million. What is needed– for adequate relief and for this opportunity-born-of-tragedy to be capitalized upon– is not a contribution, but a massive US presence and effort. The entire country is desperate, the entire Muslim world is watching; I cannot overstate how glaring and massive the opportunity is.
My sympathies for Pakistan aside, the US can buy a great deal of affection and moral currency by responding to this emergency– it must not let this be just another cause for further alienation.

Obviously there are real challenges to just barging on in and creating a “massive US presence and effort,” (see this story, for instance) but it’s worth focusing on. For the time being, those winning “hearts and minds” in the Kashmir region—a hotbed, obviously, of terrorism and ethnic strife—are the Islamic militant groups. The Musharraf government has moved much too slowly. That the Bush administration, along with Congress, has apparently also made this a lesser priority speaks volumes about its lack of seriousness here.

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