Friday, October 28, 2005

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Putting a good foot forward in Pakistan

David Rohde had a story in the New York Times earlier this week that nicely demonstrates how U.S. disaster relief can affect local attitudes about Americans -- even in Al Qaeda country:

Asmat Ali Janbaz's explanation for the American military helicopters flying over this isolated mountain valley last Thursday afternoon was familiar.

Mr. Janbaz, who lives in the area and who describes himself as an Islamic hard-liner, contended that the Americans were not ferrying injured earthquake victims to safety; instead, they were secretly establishing an American military base in northern Pakistan to encircle China.

"This is the mission!" he declared triumphantly. "Not to help the people of Pakistan."

Yet after Mr. Janbaz departed, something extraordinary happened. Here in a mountainous corner of northern Pakistan long thought to be a center for militant training camps and religious conservatism, three men dismissed his theory and heartily praised the United States for aiding victims of the Oct. 8 earthquake, which killed more than 53,000 Pakistanis.

"People don't believe such things; people only believe in what they are seeing," said Manzur Hussain, a 36-year-old hospital worker whose brother, sister and two sons died in the earthquake. "People who give them aid, they respect them."

While it is too early to reach firm conclusions, anecdotal interviews with earthquake survivors in this picturesque mountain district, known as Mansehra, suggest that American assistance may be improving Pakistanis' perceptions of the United States - an image that has been overwhelmingly negative here since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Read the whole thing -- Al Qaeda is also mobilizing humanitarian relief, but it's tougher to gauge those efforts.

Link via America Abroad's Jim Lindsay, who observes:

This is only one story from one reporter. But something similar happened in Indonesia after the United States rushed to help victims of last December’s tsunami. People saw Americans willing to help them with their problems. Their attitudes toward the United States softened as a result.

All this is worth keeping in mind as policy makers and pundits tout the benefits of public diplomacy and “listening tours.” Good words are fine. Good deeds are even better.

posted by Dan on 10.28.05 at 10:05 AM


I posted on this over at the Chequerboard site a few days ago. Not wanting to nitpick -- because I think the American aid effort is clearly doing some good in several ways -- but we may have missed an opportunity here.

The Pakistan earthquake happened as the Nimitz carrier group was leaving the Indian Ocean (Roosevelt and its group are supporting combat operations from the Arabian Sea). Deployment of the Nimitz group to the Pakistan coast would have made a much bigger impression than helicopters from Afghanistan. In fairness the scale of the disaster did not become evident at once. But the medical facilities and airlift capability of the battle group would have been useful. And for visual images there is nothing in the world like an American aircraft carrier.

posted by: Zathras on 10.28.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

No offense, Zathras, but what good would an aircraft carrier docked in Karachi do for the image of America amidst people living in near-isolation on the other end of Pakistan?

And while I think we should do everything possible to help the recovery of natural disaster victims abroad, I am a tad cynical about the long-term good will it generates in anti-American recipients. Sending food and tents is all well and good, but a year from now survivors in the Hindu Kush will still be impoverished, they will feel neglected and put upon by their own government, and they will be ripe for a new wave of anti-Americanism brought to them courtesy of their extremist friends, whose roots in the area and ability to tap into the psyche of its residents we can't even begin to compete with.

So let's send all we can, but let's not kid ourselves that we're buying anything more than short-term good will.

posted by: Kelli on 10.28.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

That's still better than no good will at all. Nimitz has some heavy lift capability in its air wing, and along with other ships in the group has extensive medical facilities. Granted that most of its capabilities are not relevant to earthquake relief, the same was true last year of the Lincoln off Sumatra. Her deployment there was a major plus for us in Indonesia.

posted by: Zathras on 10.28.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

Such soft, Clintonian foriegn policy can't help, surely. Surely.

posted by: mac on 10.28.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

Encircle China? With how many gazillion troops? Ludicrous, but that never stops the ignorant and uneducated from falling for the BS spouted by the "hard-liners" and the imams. We like to say that truth is the first casualty of war, but we usually are talking about our own leaders. We should all put our cynicism aside for a while and understand the true nature of those who oppose us. If we can be the light of education for these people, and have them accept it, the power of the imams and "hard liners" will dissipate like a fart in the wind.

posted by: Mike on 10.28.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

Firstly, I find the description of Pakistan as "Al-Qaeda country" quite offensive, erronous and repugnant. The presence of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan isn't any bigger than it is in Britain or France- probably much less than that. Phrases such as these simply reflect on how painfully uninformed people can be.

Secondly, it is stunning how most commentators simply weigh the benefits of humanitarian relief work in terms of a quid pro quo. Kashmir is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe and is the UN's "worst logistical nightmare" according Jan Egeland, UN emergency relief chief. The death toll has now reached 100,000 and can go up to 800,000 because of lack of shelter and clothing as the fierce Himalayan winter sets in.

As for American aid for the quake affected ares, only a pittance of the pledged money has gotten here. This despite the fact that an impoverished country like Pakistan donated a million dollars in cash for Katrina victims in addition to relief goods: . Despite all this, there are those who question the wisdom of donating towards this cause. To them, I am at a loss for words to respond to.

Karachi, Pakistan

posted by: Haider on 10.28.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

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