Yesterday the Washington Post reported that Pakistan has requested more immediate assistance from the United States to help in the flood relief effort there. Floods have been inundating the northwest region of Pakistan, affecting more than 14 million people according to Pakistani officials. This is the same region of Pakistan that is home to many of the militants that continue to threaten American troops in Afghanistan and seek to maintain that area as a safe haven for al Qaeda. Although these floods are a tremendous humanitarian disaster, they also provide an opportunity to both assist those in need and demonstrate to the Pakistani people that the United States is a partner that they can count on.
A recent Pew poll shows that that this will be a steep hill to climb. Only 17 percent of Pakistanis had a positive view of the U.S. and 59 percent described the U.S. as an enemy. Recognizing that our efforts in Afghanistan will not succeed unless Pakistani militant safe havens are eliminated, this lack of support by the population is enormously troubling. There are a number of reasons for their negative views ranging from U.S. support for previous military dictators to the sporadic nature of U.S. engagement with the country.
The question now is, will we respond quickly enough? The Pakistani government has been unable to address this humanitarian disaster on its own. In this vacuum, militant groups have been rushing to seize this opportunity. So far the United States has sent six helicopters and pledged $55 million. Considering the task at hand and short time available to save lives, I question if this is the best effort we could muster. An important comparison case study is worth examining – the 2004 Asian tsunami.
In 2004 on the day after Christmas, the second largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph launched a massive tsunami off the coast of Indonesia. A tranquil sea was transformed into an enormous wave of water that traveled quickly to the coasts of Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The tremendous power of this wave was hidden from sight until it reached the shore. At that point, the water crested upwards and rose to a height of nearly 80 ft as it approached coastal villages in Indonesia. The destruction it unleashed was tremendous. Entire villages were wiped away. Fishermen who had been out to sea returned to find their homes completely destroyed and their family members swept away. Some estimates put the death toll in Indonesia alone at more than 200,000.
Although the destruction caused by this natural disaster was unprecedented, there also was a tremendous outpouring of support from around the world. The United States military sprang into action. The USS Abraham Lincoln carrier battle group was dispatched from Japan to the coast of Sumatra. A total of 48 navy and marine helicopters were utilized and a 1000 bed naval hospital ship was sent to the area. Ten C-130 military transport aircraft ferried relief supplies. By February 2005, then President Bush had pledged $950 million to be used for the humanitarian response and rebuilding.
The justification for this tremendous mobilization of U.S. resources was purely humanitarian, yet the impact on the U.S. reputation in the Muslim majority country of Indonesia was noteworthy. Although it is impossible to determine the true national security benefit of the dramatic change in Indonesia public opinion, it is important to remember that in the several years before the tsunami there was increasing concern about the development of terrorist cells based in Indonesia. Such cells were responsible for numerous deaths in a Bali nightclub bombing. What is clear is that the humanitarian assistance dramatically improved many Indonesians’ view of the United States that had sunk to incredible lows in the post-Iraq invasion period. In May 2003, 15 percent of Indonesians had a favorable view of the United States. By 2006, this had increased to 44 percent. 63 percent of Indonesian reported that the humanitarian assistance improved their view of the United States. Support for Osama bin Laden decreased from 58 percent to 12 percent during the same time period. Today the threat from terrorism in Indonesia has decreased.
When asked about the humanitarian effort in Pakistan, a senior U.S. military official said transfer of additional helicopters, which are in short supply in Afghanistan, would require a political decision in Washington. “Do they exist in the region? Yes,” he said. “Are they available? No.”
It seems that perhaps now is the time to be making that political decision. Such a decision was made to provide immediate humanitarian assistance in Southeast Asia – 48 helicopters and 1000 bed naval hospital ship. Granted, the U.S. has pledged more money than any other country to the flood relief effort in Pakistan. Yet, pledges of aid do little to assist a villager stranded on a rooftop. It’s also a matter of actually getting hardware and people quickly in place to save lives. In that regard, it seems that, so far, we’ve come up short. Is this disaster any less tragic than the tsunami? It’s not just the right thing to do. The tsunami example shows that it can also be a smart strategic move.